THE NEW INQUISITION
BY WALTER CRONKITE
President Bush's televised answer to the growing concerns of many -- including some Republicans -- about the powers granted to him in the USA Patriot Act was to ask for even stronger measures, particularly the expanded use of "nonjudicial subpoenas." That means a federal agency such as the FBI can write its own subpoenas to conduct a search -- no judges needed.
Unfortunately, security and liberty form a zero-sum equation. The inevitable trade-off: To increase security is to decrease liberty and vice versa. In the past, such trade-offs have been temporary -- for the duration of the crisis of the moment. But today, we cannot see an end to the War on Terrorism, and that forces us to decide how secure we have to be and how free we want to be.
By delivering the speech last week himself, Bush added presidential heft to the issue and took some of the heat off of his attorney general, who is seen by many as the heedless champion of security at any price.
In his two and a half years in office, Attorney General John Ashcroft has earned himself a remarkable distinction as the Torquemada of American law. Tom·s de Torquemada, you might recall, was the 15th-century Dominican friar who became the grand inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition. He was largely responsible for its methods, including torture and the burning of heretics -- Muslims in particular.
Now, of course, I am not accusing the attorney general of pulling out anyone's fingernails or burning people at the stake (at least I don't know of any such cases). But one does get the sense these days that the old Spaniard's spirit is comfortably at home in Ashcroft's Department of Justice.
The Patriot Act is much in the news as Ashcroft and his minions seek both to justify its excesses and strengthen them, thus intensifying its dangerous infringements on the Bill of Rights.
There was something almost medieval in the treatment of Muslim suspects in the aftermath of 9-11. Many were held incommunicado, without effective counsel and without ever being charged, not for days or weeks, but for months or longer, some under harsh conditions designed for the most dangerous criminals.
It was in the spirit of the Inquisition that the Justice Department announced recently that it would begin gathering data on judges who give sentences lighter than called for by legislative guidelines. Nothing so clearly evokes Torquemada's spirit as Ashcroft's penchant for overruling U.S. attorneys who have sought lesser penalties in capital cases. The attorney general has done this at least 30 times in the two and a half years he has been in office. So says the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel. In several cases, Ashcroft actually has overturned plea bargains negotiated by those government prosecutors.
The New York Times editorialized that the attorney general seems to want the death penalty used more often.
Ashcroft is not alone in this. His boss, while governor of Texas, seemed never to have met a death sentence he didn't like. The two of them represent a subdivision of the Republican Party known as the "social conservatives," who often have favored the use of government power to police moral issues they view as modern heresies, such as abortion, homosexuality and obscenity. They contrast with those Republicans who tend to resist such uses of federal power and can generally be counted on to defend individual rights.
What makes this administration's legal bloodthirstiness particularly alarming is the almost religious zeal that seems to drive it. So, what we are seeing now is a confluence of two streams of American thought. One of those streams represents those who believe security must have priority over civil rights. The other stream represents those who believe that civil rights must be preserved even as we prosecute to the hilt the war on terrorism.
Our liberty could drown in the resultant turbulence of these colliding currents.
* * *
Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at email@example.com.
(c) 2003 Walter Cronkite
Distributed by King Features Syndicate