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Liberty Again at Risk

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At the root of the concept “America” is the idea that you can go about your daily business without being monitored by the government. Indeed, every piece of literature about the horrors of totalitarianism includes secret police whose job it is to keep tabs on the people because everyone is under suspicion. This more than anything else is what gives those dystopian novels, such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, their terrifying atmosphere.

This is what Attorney-General John Ashcroft, and his boss, President Bush, now want to bring to America. Ashcroft has announced that the FBI will no longer have to abide by guidelines that prohibited agents from monitoring lawful assemblies and public places without reason to believe that illegal activities were taking place. It’s another weakening of our liberties in the name of defeating terrorism.

Perhaps we should heed presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer’s warning about being careful about what we say, because, as Ashcroft said last December, “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.”

On second thought, maybe we should speak out against this outrage, if for no other reason than so we can look at ourselves proudly in the mirror each morning. If we are to lose our liberties, better that they be taken than given away.

With every liberty-limiting intrusion proposed by the government, the implication is left that had these powers been in place, the crimes of September 11 might have been prevented. Bush and Ashcroft don’t say this openly. They just let the impression flutter in the air, encouraging the less thoughtful to acquiesce in the latest grab at power. But in fact no one has shown how the FBI’s new looser guidelines, not to mention the other new powers assumed since last fall, would have prevented the crimes in New York and Washington. Were the perpetrators talking openly about their plans in American mosques or in Internet chat rooms? If so, we haven’t heard about it. What will the FBI agents be listening for when they covertly sit in on public meetings and religious services? What words will cause their ears to perk up? What will they write down in their notebooks?

Maybe the FBI should take this idea further. It can’t have its agents everywhere, so it should enlist the help of the American people by encouraging us to report on our neighbors who act suspiciously. A special hotline could be set up to take telephone calls from watchful Americans doing their patriotic duty.

This new policy can then be combined with the administration’s rules for “enemy combatants,” under which American citizens can be held indefinitely without charge for the duration of the ever-enduring war against terrorism. Under those rules, if the president thinks someone is a “bad guy,” he can have him detained indefinitely. Is some judicial proceeding held to determine whether the person is really a bad guy? No, that’s not necessary. Bad guys don’t deserve due process. At first only noncitizens were to be denied the protections of centuries-old Anglo-American legal principles. Now that limit has gone by the wayside.

This is not what the Framers of the Constitution had in mind. The alleged plotter Jose Padilla may be a potential threat to innocent people, but so far all we know is that he might have engaged in what Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz called “loose talk” about dirty bombs. If the authorities have the goods on him, let them indict and try him. But they don’t want to do that. So the devil take the Constitution.

Here’s where it gets even more ominous. Padilla reportedly looked on the Internet for information about dirty bombs. (That’s about as far as this former street-gang member seems to have gone with his “plot” to attack America with radioactive material.) If the newly loosed FBI agents detect Americans looking up “dirty bomb” on google.com — just out of curiosity — will the Feds be visiting them?

I have no doubt we’ll will survive the terrorists. I’m not so sure we’ll survive Bush and Ashcroft.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.