It is already a cliché that the attacks of September 11 "changed everything." One thing they do seem to have changed is liberals. Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, a stalwart defender of civil rights and civil liberties, has condoned the use of military tribunals and the detention of more than 1,200 people, even though not a single detainee has been charged in connection with the attacks. His colleague Alan Dershowitz has suggested that torture may sometimes be justified, as long as it is authorized by a warrant. And George Washington law professor Jeff Rosen has argued that "the real story after September 11 is that America hasn't yet come close to abandoning any immutable principles of its national identity."
I cite these scholars not to single them out for criticism–all are important and courageous liberal voices–but as illustrations of a larger trend. Even liberals these days seem reluctant to criticize the government's response to the new threat of terrorism.
But a brief overview of what we've done so far in the interest of "homeland security" makes clear that we have already abandoned several of our "immutable principles" and have already begun to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Consider first the USA Patriot Act, an omnibus law of 342 pages enacted under in terrorem threats from Attorney General John Ashcroft, who suggested that if another terrorist incident occurred before Congress passed it, the blame would rest on Congress. The nuts and bolts of the law were worked out in a couple of all-night sessions and approved by large majorities the day they were introduced, even though members could not possibly have read the bill before casting their votes.
The Patriot Act imposes guilt by association on immigrants, rendering them deportable for wholly innocent nonviolent associational activity on behalf of any organization blacklisted as terrorist by the Secretary of State. Any group of two or more that has used or threatened to use force can be designated as terrorist. This provision in effect resurrects the philosophy of McCarthyism, simply substituting "terrorist" for "communist." Perhaps not realizing the pun, the Supreme Court has condemned guilt by association as "alien to the traditions of a free society and the First Amendment itself." Yet it is now the rule for aliens in our free society.
The Patriot Act also authorizes the Attorney General to lock up aliens, potentially indefinitely, on mere suspicion, without any hearing and without any obligation to establish to a court that the detention is necessary to forestall flight or danger to the community. Moreover, most of the more than 1,200 detentions already effected have not relied upon this authority; the detainees are instead held on pretextual criminal charges, as material witnesses and under pre-Patriot Act immigration authority. The government claims that about ten to fifteen of the detained may be linked to Al Qaeda, but what about the other 1,185? We can't know the answer to that question, because the Justice Department refuses to disclose even the most basic information about most of the detainees, such as who they are, what they are being held for or where they're imprisoned. On November 27 Ashcroft reluctantly identified about fifty people in custody on federal criminal charges but refused to identify more than 500 held on immigration charges, or even to put a number on those held as material witnesses or on state charges. Never in our history has the government engaged in such a blanket practice of secret incarceration.