Commentary

Right, Center, & Left Support Free & Open Debate in Wartime: Dissent Does Not Give Aid, Comfort to Enemy

It’s a rare day in Washington when The Washington Post and The Washington Times agree editorially. Yet in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday, Attorney General John Ashcroft brought that about.

The Washington Times tried honestly to credit Mr. Ashcroft, but in the end it was forced to conclude that, “despite Mr. Ashcroft’s best efforts, the administration has failed thus far to make the case for military tribunals and keeping detainee’s names secret.” The Post, for its part, raised similar concerns, but focused primarily on what it called “The Ashcroft Smear”—the claim that critics of certain of the administration’s policies are aiding and abetting the enemy—a smear Friday’s New York Times criticized editorially as well.

So what was it, exactly, that the attorney general said last Thursday that brought forth that confluence of opinion? It’s worth quoting his remarks in full, for the sake of accuracy and, of equal importance, to communicate their tone:

To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against non-citizens; 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. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.

The problem with those assertions—made not in response to senatorial questions, let me note, but as part of Mr. Ashcroft’s prepared remarks—is that every one is false.

Start not with the assertions but with the categories of people the attorney general purports to be addressing—his critics, presumably. We who have criticized certain of the administration’s responses to the horrific attacks of September 11 are said to be pitting Americans against immigrants and citizens against non-citizens and scaring peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty. If I’m not mistaken, it is the administration, in its executive order establishing military tribunals, that has pitted citizens against non-citizens by providing separate tribunals for the two classes of people, thereby ignoring the plain language of the Constitution that guarantees due process to all “persons.” If that is what the Constitution in fact says, then one can hardly speak of “phantoms” of lost liberty. Immigrants legally in this country have in fact lost liberty.

But how does pointing to that fact aid terrorists? By eroding our national unity, Mr. Ashcroft says, and diminishing our resolve. I see no evidence that honest criticisms have eroded our national unity or diminished our resolve in the war against terrorism, and Mr. Ashcroft has produced no such evidence. He has simply asserted what is patently false. Let us remember that the motto on America’s Great Seal—E pluribus unum, from many, one—speaks not simply to the many peoples who constitute America but to the many ideas as well. Paradoxically, it is in that great diversity that we find unity—and strength. It is a dangerous mind that confuses conformity with unity.

As for giving ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends, I dare say that it is those who would compromise our principles who do that. Indeed, it is not our power alone, or even primarily, that marks us as a great nation but our principles, from which our power flows. Compromise those principles and we play into the hands of our enemies while giving pause to our friends, as we have already seen.

Mr. Ashcroft’s charge, finally, that his critics are encouraging people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil is simply inscrutable. Nothing any serious critic has said can be so construed, even remotely. I, for one, take a back seat to no one in my wish to see the evil we are now fighting eradicated. But we must fight that evil in a manner consistent with our principles so that when this war is over those principles will still be standing, to nourish us and the world thereafter.

Roger Pilon is vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute and director of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies.