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Orlando Sentinel

Our Constitution Is Being Sacrificed In War's Name

By Myriam Marquez

June 16, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

If becoming a crime victim can turn a liberal turn into a conservative, as the saying goes, then what might turn a tough law-and-order conservative into a civil libertarian?

False accusations? Improper imprisonment?

Several Republicans in Congress, including Sens. John McCain and Arlen Specter, are now voicing their concerns about President Bush's anti-terrorist strategy, much of it engineered by Attorney General John Ashcroft, to spare the nation from another atrocity. It's not just the whiny liberals or the lawyers we love to hate who are raising objections.

Americans can be detained without charges, without even a judge's perusal. Where are the checks and balances inherent in our democratic government?

Never mind that, Bush administration officials are telling us, as our constitutional rights get ignored in the name of our own protection.

The Justice Department says Jose Padilla must be held in a military prison in South Carolina as an enemy combatant. Padilla, born of Puerto Rican parents in New York, grew up in Chicago gangland, served time there and in a South Florida jail. He then changed his name to Abdullah Al Muhajir and joined al-Qaeda. He has lived in Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan, training with terrorists in a plot to detonate "dirty" radioactive bombs in the United States, Justice officials say.

The FBI arrested Padilla as a material witness when he arrived in Chicago May 8 from Zurich. But when it came time to go before a federal judge to ask that Padilla remain in federal custody in an effort to get him to testify in a grand-jury investigation into terrorism, Ashcroft apparently feared the evidence wasn't sufficient to keep holding him. Darn Constitution got in the way, huh?

What's the difference between Padilla and John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" who was captured fighting in Afghanistan and faces trial in federal court? Family money? Skin color? The availability of real evidence as required by the Constitution?

It's not that I believe that Bush is a despot or that Padilla is innocent. But by ignoring the constitution's habeas corpus requirements, Bush has set a terrible precedent, and opened the door for any bully president in the future to seek retribution against political enemies. That's what leaders in totalitarian regimes do.

That is not the American Way. Our Constitution is supposed to ensure that no one branch of government -- the executive, legislative and judicial -- becomes tyrannical.

When President Bush pushed through new rules to fight terrorism, he promised that only foreigners would be the ones subjected to wartime rules that allow government interrogations without a defense lawyer and holding terrorist suspects indefinitely without charges.

Most Americans cheered, figuring tough times call for tough rules. And, besides, the rules wouldn't apply to constitutionally protected Americans. From day one I cringed and warned of the slippery slope. "How far will we go to feel safe?" I asked in a September column, and now we know.

The Patriot Act, adopted in October, lifted certain restrictions on the use of wiretaps, search warrants and other investigative tools. Then, Ashcroft moved to give local police agencies an "inherent right" to act as INS agents -- a proposal many big-city police chiefs reject and for good reason. Now Ashcroft has gone back to a Civil War tactic to imprison Padilla as an "enemy combatant" because the government seems not to have sufficient evidence to charge the guy as a terrorist.

In this war against terrorism, there's no way to know how much of the information the government has is right. There's no way to know because, in the name of national security, the evidence against those being held -- without charges, remember -- is secret. It's secret not only to the public but often to the accused.

When those New York towers rumbled to the ground Sept. 11 killing thousands of innocents, horrified Americans would never be the same. We knew that the nation's intelligence agencies had failed to protect us. We knew we had to beef up our nation's defense. We understood that there would be sacrifices to make in our everyday lives -- delays to board airplanes, for instance, to check for weapons.

But what's happening now calls for more than personal sacrifice. It sacrifices our Constitution, and that's an abomination we ought not tolerate.

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