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Published: Thursday, 6/26/2003

Our sense of security must come from within

BY EILEEN FOLEY

Some rights in the Constitution are taken seriously by Attorney General John Ashcroft. One is the Second Amendment, the variously construed right to keep and bear arms. But when it comes to the First and the Fourth amendments, the man's a slacker. Full of secrets, drapes, and Mrs. Grundyisms like “what are you reading?”

The tactics he used recently to drum up support for giving the administration unquestioned power over us all brought to mind the late Sen. Joe McCarthy.

Waving an International Islamic Front for Jihad war plan was exactly in the style of McCarthy, who wanted to frighten the nation about a commie lurking under every clump of cinquefoil.

Yet worse was the suggestion implicit in his reading names of victims of the attack on the USS Cole that anyone critical of him was critical of them.

Like Mr. Ashcroft, I am against letting any American be a victim of the “ruthless fanatics who seek to murder innocent men, women, and children to achieve their twisted goals.”

But members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are beginning to think, as many Americans do, that they were patsies to succumb unquestionly to the administration's post-9/11 wishes that so undermine what America stands for.

There's no assurance that rights he wants to trim further with Patriot Act II will have the effect he claims. Most laughable is his call for the media to help him repress more.

Look, he detained 762 people for immigration violations after 9/11. And he said 19 of them had “strong links” to the 19 suicide flyers who slammed commercial jets into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Whatever those links are, or were, they were insufficient to convict, he said.

The detainees couldn't post bond. They couldn't be deported until the FBI had grilled them. They couldn't see a lawyer. And no outsiders could be at their deportation hearings.

National security? A major canard. Those who have been freed, all 500, may readily chat about what they were asked.

So far the only overstayed immigrant charged with any terrorism at all is Zacarias Moussaoui, and he was picked up before 9/11.

Basic math tells us that nothing plus nothing equals nothing. But the shroud of secrecy has, I suspect, less to do with national security and more with self-importance. It is an extension of the drapes over the naked female statue, hiding a reality that is juiceless and stone cold.

One might be more sympathetic with Mr. Ashcroft's wish to let the government hold more people incommunicado indefinitely if there were any evidence Patriot Act I, which suspended so many rights, had protected any American at all.

Mr. Ashcroft failed to level with Congress on this and other points. Why take him seriously?

Deeds count. This administration has cut back on surveillance of cargo containers arriving at American ports. It has announced cutbacks in the number of federal baggage checkers at the nation's airports. And a recent news report says our Homeland Security experts have no idea what biologicals we should most fear, and what vaccines or medicines we need to fight them. We are not as safe as we would like, nor can we be.

The 9/11 attack jolted us all. Some of us felt insecure for the first time, though the wiser always knew we can be sure of nothing, that a sense of security comes from within.

My mother always told me to treat other people as I wanted to be treated. When I was a young woman I berated her for not telling me that if I did so some people would find me a fool and take advantage of me. It was a lesson she said she, too, was slow to learn. I began a guarded existence.

Later came another insight: that each condition had its pluses and its drawbacks. So one could be as one wanted if one were prepared for emergencies and confident in one's ability to handle whatever.

Terrorism can be treated the same way. We can manage it by imprisoning ourselves and others to minimize exposure, knowing we could still be had. Or we can live confidently with its challenge.

Some of us may be picked off. Again, so what? All of life's roads are strewn with banana peels. But at least we won't have turned ourselves into the critter poet Robert Burns called a “wee, sleek, cowering, timorous beastie.” We won't have forsaken our American birthright.



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