Camps for Citizens: Ashcroft's Hellish Vision
Attorney general shows himself as a menace to liberty.
By JONATHAN TURLEY
Jonathan Turley is a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University.
August 14 2002
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's announced desire for camps for U.S.
citizens he deems to be "enemy combatants" has moved him from merely
being a political embarrassment to being a constitutional menace.
Ashcroft's plan, disclosed last week but little publicized, would
allow him to order the indefinite incarceration of U.S. citizens and
summarily strip them of their constitutional rights and access to the
courts by declaring them enemy combatants.
The proposed camp plan should trigger immediate congressional
hearings and reconsideration of Ashcroft's fitness for this important
office. Whereas Al Qaeda is a threat to the lives of our citizens,
Ashcroft has become a clear and present threat to our liberties.
The camp plan was forged at an optimistic time for Ashcroft's small
inner circle, which has been carefully watching two test cases to see
whether this vision could become a reality. The cases of Jose Padilla
and Yaser Esam Hamdi will determine whether U.S. citizens can be held
without charges and subject to the arbitrary and unchecked authority
of the government.
Hamdi has been held without charge even though the facts of his case
are virtually identical to those in the case of John Walker Lindh.
Both Hamdi and Lindh were captured in Afghanistan as foot soldiers in
Taliban units. Yet Lindh was given a lawyer and a trial, while Hamdi
rots in a floating Navy brig in Norfolk, Va.
This week, the government refused to comply with a federal judge who
ordered that he be given the underlying evidence justifying Hamdi's
treatment. The Justice Department has insisted that the judge must
simply accept its declaration and cannot interfere with the
president's absolute authority in "a time of war."
In Padilla's case, Ashcroft initially claimed that the arrest stopped
a plan to detonate a radioactive bomb in New York or Washington, D.C.
The administration later issued an embarrassing correction that there
was no evidence Padilla was on such a mission. What is clear is that
Padilla is an American citizen and was arrested in the United
States--two facts that should trigger the full application of
Ashcroft hopes to use his self-made "enemy combatant" stamp for any
citizen whom he deems to be part of a wider terrorist conspiracy.
Perhaps because of his discredited claims of preventing radiological
terrorism, aides have indicated that a "high-level committee" will
recommend which citizens are to be stripped of their constitutional
rights and sent to Ashcroft's new camps.
Few would have imagined any attorney general seeking to reestablish
such camps for citizens. Of course, Ashcroft is not considering camps
on the order of the internment camps used to incarcerate Japanese
American citizens in World War II. But he can be credited only with
thinking smaller; we have learned from painful experience that
unchecked authority, once tasted, easily becomes insatiable.
We are only now getting a full vision of Ashcroft's America. Some of
his predecessors dreamed of creating a great society or a nation
unfettered by racism. Ashcroft seems to dream of a country secured
from itself, neatly contained and controlled by his judgment of
For more than 200 years, security and liberty have been viewed as
coexistent values. Ashcroft and his aides appear to view this
relationship as lineal, where security must precede liberty.
Since the nation will never be entirely safe from terrorism, liberty
has become a mere rhetorical justification for increased security.
Ashcroft is a catalyst for constitutional devolution, encouraging
citizens to accept autocratic rule as their only way of avoiding
massive terrorist attacks.
His greatest problem has been preserving a level of panic and fear
that would induce a free people to surrender the rights so dearly won
by their ancestors.
In "A Man for All Seasons," Sir Thomas More was confronted by a young
lawyer, Will Roper, who sought his daughter's hand. Roper proclaimed
that he would cut down every law in England to get after the devil.
More's response seems almost tailored for Ashcroft: "And when the
last law was down and the devil turned round on you, where would you
hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? ... This country's planted
thick with laws from coast to coast ... and if you cut them down--and
you are just the man to do it--do you really think you could stand
upright in the winds that would blow then?"
Every generation has had Ropers and Ashcrofts who view our laws and
traditions as mere obstructions rather than protections in times of
peril. But before we allow Ashcroft to denude our own constitutional
landscape, we must take a stand and have the courage to say, "Enough."
Every generation has its test of principle in which people of good
faith can no longer remain silent in the face of authoritarian
ambition. If we cannot join together to fight the abomination of
American camps, we have already lost what we are defending.
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