Even President George W. Bush’s harshest critics have to admit that thus far the military operation in Afghanistan has run surprisingly smoothly. Luckily for those who still would not trust Bush as far as they could throw him, there is plenty to complain about concerning security measures taken since Sept. 11. Hints of a South American dictatorship have emerged from leaders who have gone on and on about American’s unique freedoms and rights. “Just the American way of life,” they say, “infuriates terrorists.” By that logic, shouldn’t applying established American standards to suspected terrorists really enrage our enemies? That is where Attorney General John Ashcroft decides to draw the line, at one of the most hallowed of American institutions – the court system.
First Ashcroft decided not to release the names of those detained since the attacks. He has since released a few hundred, but less than half of the list. Next, the Justice Department opted to forgo lawyer-client confidentiality in special cases, claiming that monitored conversations could prevent or divulge future attacks. Finally, the idea of special military tribunals for non-U.S. citizens sprang from an executive order saying suspected non-American terrorists can be tried by a military panel overseas. The only familiar instrument of justice present would be a judge, albeit a military one, and Bush would have the last word on punishment.
As just about every government official has said, the war on terrorism is unlike any war this country has fought in the past. Extreme measures will be necessary to seek out our enemies, but bending the rules of justice is going too far. Ashcroft is quick to cite the last conflict during which the United States used military tribunals. During World War II, eight German spies were convicted and six put to death when the government uncovered their plot to wreak havoc through sabotage and terrorism. Franklin Roosevelt may have been one of our greatest presidents, but it is naive to think everything he did was right and just. The Supreme Court that allowed the military tribunals was the same Court that approved of Japanese internment camps.
Another of Ashcroft’s central arguments is that the trial of a terrorist would spark a media circus, and that jurors would be possible targets. Would a trial conducted in some backroom shrouded in secrecy be any better? One thing is for certain: it would not be in the spirit of this country. As for jury safety, the courts would have to take special precautions. The trial would have to be conducted with strict rules, including for the media.
It is an encouraging sign that a plethora of influential politicians, including a few Republicans who usually agree with Bush, have voiced strong dissent over military tribunals. It seems some leaders have finally learned a lesson that seemed obvious from the start: an administration that thinks of itself as above the law is never a good thing. President Richard Nixon’s secrecy is the stuff of legend, and while Bush is not as devious as “Tricky Dick,” he has not exactly been a “uniter” or a “divider” so far during his term. He has been an isolationist. He has cut off his staff from the rest of the government and has hardly ever consulted the House or Senate on any of his recent proposals. In creased presidential power in a time of conflict is logical, but this is getting out of hand.
-The writer is a junior majoring in history.