The Magazine

That Devil Ashcroft

From the March 3, 2002 issue: John Ashcroft: civil-liberties menace?

Mar 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 24 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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No one need feel sorry for John Ashcroft personally; he doesn't seem to mind his critics all that much. Neither should anyone suppose that the mere existence of their criticism poses a consequential public policy problem in and of itself. Quite the contrary: Even in times of relative calm, how the attorney general of the United States balances considerations of public safety and individual rights in his administration of federal law is a subject of enormous importance. And any related proposal he advances should therefore warrant scrupulous public attention. The "Domestic Security Enhancement Act," should it ever formally debut, will be such a proposal. It ought to get some serious criticism.

But that's not what's happening. The criticism isn't serious; it is uniformly self-indulgent, heedless of detail, and hysterical. And especially in an age of terrorism, an insistence on the right kind of public debate should count as more than merely an aspirational nicety of goo-goo political science. Yes, civil liberties are at stake. But people's lives are, too. Executive-branch initiatives intended to help save those lives do not become "instruments of repression used by totalitarian states" (as the San Francisco Chronicle has lately suggested)--and ought not be set aside on that basis--purely by dint of the fact that they originate at staff levels of a Justice Department led by a Republican named Ashcroft. Nobody's civil liberties are advanced by lying about the government this way.

--David Tell, for the Editors