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In a blatant attempt to stifle growing criticism of recent government policy, Attorney General Ashcroft delivered testimony last week equating legitimate political dissent with something unpatriotic and un-American. We urge the Attorney General to learn from the history of American dissent — from the Civil War to the civil rights struggle — that free and robust debate is one of the main engines of social and political justice. While we feel as strongly as the rest of America that those who perpetrated the monstrous acts of September 11 must be brought to justice and our future safety ensured, we forcefully disagree with the Attorney General that domestic debate about the government response in any way harms the investigation. In fact, we believe debate only strengthens our government in this time of national crisis.
The Attorney General swore an oath to guard the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, including the First Amendment. For him to openly attack as “aiding the enemy” those who question government policy is all the more frightening in light of his constitutional duty to protect each and every American’s right to speak and think their mind. Even worse is the tone of derision used by the Attorney General to mock his detractors, declaring their concerns “phantoms” and charging that their criticism brings “comfort to the enemy.”
There is evidence that the recent steps by the Administration to hold secretive military tribunals, to allow the government to eavesdrop on confidential attorney-client conversations and to blanket interrogate and detain Arab-Americans and Muslims are problematic for liberty in America. Ashcroft should welcome a free and robust debate about the appropriateness and legality of his positions as a means of legitimizing his authority, not weakening it.
American history demonstrates clearly that the search for truth tends to become muddied in times of crisis. Since the turn of the last century, America has seen each of its military conflicts prod the government into taking steps to stifle domestic dissent. Ashcroft’s statement suggests that, if we are not careful, the tragedy of September 11 might be compounded by a repeat of this history.
While we firmly support the Administration in its efforts to prevent another September 11, we cannot abide – nor can the American commitment to liberty and democracy support – any attempt by the Administration to dictate or coerce the thoughts we think or the opinions we hold. Thinking critically about government policy is the strongest shield against government excess.
We will continue to voice our disagreement when we feel the government has stepped out of bounds and will do so with the conviction that one of the highest forms of patriotism is devotion to the Constitution and the freedoms guaranteed within, including the right to speak out in disagreement with the powers that be.
Laura Murphy is director of the ACLU’s National Office in Washington, DC.