That would-be martyr John Walker–the mujahid of Marin County–has done something more than give a bad name to my favorite Scotch whiskey. He has illuminated the utter unfitness of our police and intelligence chiefs for the supreme power they now wish and propose to award themselves. And he has also accidentally exposed the stupidity and nastiness of the Patriot Act. Consider: With no resources beyond his own evidently rather feeble ones he was able to join the Taliban and become a confidant of the Al Qaeda network; an accomplishment completely beyond the wit or strength of our multibillion-dollar CIA, which possessed no human asset within a thousand miles of anywhere Osama bin Laden happened to be. For this achievement, which may not even have been illegal at the time he first performed it, he now earns the right to a trial before a properly constituted civilian court. This is because, like Wadi el Hage of the Al Qaeda East African plot, he is a US citizen. Whereas I, the father of three Americans and a twenty-year holder of a legal resident’s permit, can be arrested at any time for having, say, the wrong Palestinian friend to dinner in my home. I can then be held incommunicado, denied the right to know the evidence against me and, if things should go really swimmingly, be sentenced to death in secret by a military tribunal. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 aggression against American civil society, I thought (and wrote) that it was time for me to take out the papers of citizenship, if only as an act of solidarity. Yet now I feel I should stay with my fellow immigrants. The chance of being caught up in John Ashcroft’s New Order is just too good to miss. America can have my body, and indeed my soul. But I feel I should not be asked to sacrifice my habeas corpus.
Here is how the official police-mentality syllogism currently runs. Before September 11 we asked for infinite antiterrorism budgets and spouted continuous national security rhetoric. Meanwhile, we rolled ecstatically in the same bed as the Saudi and Pakistani secret police forces, which were the paymasters and armorers of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. As a direct result, a group of spoiled Saudi sadists and fanatics were able to rehearse the subversion of American civil aviation. They were then able to carry it out. Frantic calls from flight schools to the FBI, warning of odd characters using the jumbo-jet simulator, were coldly ignored. Several such characters, whose names were actually on the terrorist watch list, were able to buy their own airline tickets on September 11 without even using a false ID. Quite obviously, these facts allow only one conclusion. From now on, FBI agents should have untrammeled power over all civilians living in the United States, and all their private movements and communications.
Consider the following. On September 11, you could not fly and I could not fly. The national airspace was locked down. But twenty-four members of the bin Laden family, living in the United States, were gathered by private jet under the auspices of Prince Bandar Bin-Sultan, the Saudi ambassador in Washington. With what he gratefully describes as the cooperation of the FBI, the Prince mustered all the bin Ladens, who at the first opportunity were taken under FBI escort to Boston’s Logan Airport (departure point for two of the death squads) and then permitted to fly home with no questions asked. I do not think that any question of racial profiling would have been involved if members of the immediate bin Laden tribe had been inconvenienced to the extent of being asked a few questions. Boasting of this amazing coup on October 1, Prince Bandar told Larry King an affecting story about one of these privileged escapees:
But you know what hurt me? A young man said to me, "Prince Bandar, I always couldn’t understand why the American Japanese wanted a memorial. What’s the big deal?" He said: "Suddenly I realize: I’m a rich man, I’m in Harvard, and I have to leave my school, not because I was guilty, but because the emotions are high." That really touched me, Larry.
It really, really, touches me, too. In subsequent days the Saudi regime refused to supply information on the sixteen of its citizens who had committed the mass murder, declined the requests for a closure of bin Laden charities on its soil, refused to allow Tony Blair to visit and (in the person of its Interior Minister, Prince Nayef) described the liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban as a matter of "killing innocent people." On top of this, a prince appears on prime time to borrow the rhetoric of American liberals about the historic injustice inflicted by Earl Warren and FDR on the Japanese-Americans in 1942. Yet where is the outrage? The Al Qaeda murderers, in their private notes, describe how to wield knives and box-cutters to slaughter random travelers like sacrificial sheep. Were they right? Are we a bleating herd, ready to get in line and be subjected to humiliation and deprivation at the merest bark about security?
The liberal case against Ashcroft’s authoritarian proposals is generally phrased in pristine constitutional terms. This is fine only as far as it goes, which is not very far. On his recent tour of European capitals, the Attorney General was told that Al Qaeda suspects will not be extradited to the United States if they face kangaroo or banana-republic courts. The rule of law is not so swiftly abandoned by all democratic nations. Moreover, European police have succeeded in identifying and detaining some real, named suspects, which is more than Ashcroft’s vaunted anonymous dragnet can claim to have done. This means that he is not just willing to junk the Constitution but is willing positively to endanger the citizens of this country in order to do so. For him, a crude ideology comes first. (Remember also that he is still refusing to act on a report of his own department’s criminal division, which has prepared an indictment of General Pinochet for detonating a car bomb in Washington, DC, in September 1976.) Given a choice between protecting American civilians and protecting the client regimes that sponsor and coddle those who murder them, the Bush Administration has taken the second option every time. This seems to me impeachable in the profoundest sense of the term.