Jewish World Review Nov. 27, 2001 / 12 Kislev 5762

Clarence Page

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Friendly warning from a lover of liberty -- NEW YORK CITY | Priests, burglars and psychiatrists know the same truth about human nature: Sometimes it takes the eyes of an outsider to let us know how much we have and how easily we can lose it.

Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky offered such a valuable outsider's view Tuesday at the annual Press Freedom Awards dinner, sponsored by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Sometimes called "el perro" (the dog) for his terrierlike pursuit of corruption and other abuses of government power, Verbitsky was one of four journalists from around the world honored for practicing excellent journalism in spite of government opposition.

He thanked the gathering of major American media editors, executives, anchors and reporters on behalf of the 100 journalists who have been kidnapped, tortured and killed under Argentina's state-led terror and 30,000 other people who have "disappeared."

Then he turned the tables a bit by offering some timely and memorable advice to us, his American colleagues, now getting a first-hand taste of the terror with which he and other independent Argentine voices have lived with for years.

"After the appalling Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the United States may be tempted to erode its high standards of free expression, to restrict its own liberties and to ignore the suffering of other people," he said.

"We read in the American press that due process is at stake and even the possible use of torture is being debated. We hear your president talk of being either `for us or against us.'

"Worst of all, we see the huge popularity of this approach.

"In this context Argentine experience can be useful, in spite of our obviously different political cultures and history.

"In our country we learned that sacrificing civil liberties and human-rights standards in the name of security has devastating effects; that under every circumstance the civilized values cannot be protected by any means; that our commitment as journalists must be to the truth, not to any government; that fights between absolute good and evil, as theology teaches us, usually lead to Apocalypse."

Thank you, Horacio. Indeed, the differences between the American and Argentine experiences are "obvious" but the similarities are chilling.

Look around and you can see the similarities gathering like a storm cloud on the horizon as the executive branch of our government takes unprecedented powers of arrest and trial upon itself. Media, meanwhile, are encouraged to stand back and accept the government's informational handouts in the interest of a very narrowly defined patriotism.

You can see the similarities to our worst nightmares in the veil of silence that surrounds the Justice Department's roundup of more than 1,000 immigrants, about half of whom have been released, for questioning as being possibly connected to terrorists. At least the government has not started rounding up citizens for such suspicions. Yet.

Either way, it will be harder for Americans to criticize "preventive detention" by other countries after practicing it in our own undeclared state of emergency.

Now President Bush has authorized secret trials for terror suspects before an American military tribunal. That means there would be no media coverage or jury of one's peers. The Bush administration has been moving swiftly to gather such powers in the heat of fear and rage following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, often leaving Congress out of the mix.

And, "worst of all," as Verbitsky says, we can see the huge popularity of this approach.

Congressional leaders aren't quite buying it. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the Democratic chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, have criticized the reluctance of their former Senate colleague, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft to come before hearings to talk about his newly broadened powers. He's busy, Ashcroft's office tells them.

On the House side, conservative Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) joined a group of liberal Democrats to call for hearings as well. I wish them well. Congress and the courts provide the most effective constitutional check on executive power.

Verbitsky reminds us that power, once extended, is not easy to retract, especially when the "crisis" or "state of emergency" is as broadly defined and open-ended as a true "war against terrorism" would be.

When Thomas Jefferson said the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, he wasn't just talking about our vigilance toward outsiders. He, too, saw how power had been abused overseas. He did not want to see such abuses repeated here. Neither should we.

Should we automatically oppose every increase in executive power? Hardly. When confronted with a real enemy in a time of real crisis, some increase in executive power often is necessary.

But it should come with somebody's oversight, like that of Congress, the courts and a truly independent news media that's always ready and willing to be watchdogs, not lapdogs.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


11/21/01: The face of hunger is changing
11/15/01: Our troubled sense of trust
11/08/01: Lessons about terror from the 'hood
11/06/01: Getting used to the 'new normal'
11/02/01: Wicked ways to make them talk
10/30/01: It's not just about bin Laden
10/26/01: More than mail fell between the cracks
10/23/01: Terrorists threaten urban recovery, too
10/18/01: Sometimes, assassination warranted
10/15/01: Self-censorship rises again
10/12/01: Contradictions illustrate the complicated nature of the new terrorism
10/05/01: Look who's 'profiling' now
10/01/01: Don't trash liberty to save it
09/28/01: Life, love and cell phones during wartime
09/24/01: How to catch an elusive terrorist
09/21/01: The war I was waiting for
09/17/01: When rage turns to hate
09/13/01: Terror attack tests US, let's give right response
09/06/01: U.S. should have stayed and argued
09/04/01: Columbine killer's parents get upclose and personal
08/31/01: Virtual kids? Log me out
08/28/01: Two Africans, one black, one white, same fight
08/23/01: Sharpton for president
08/20/01: Shaking up the rules on keeping secrets
08/16/01: Bush's u-turn on racial goals
08/09/01: Outsider Bubba comes 'in' again
08/06/01: Not ready for 'color-blindness' yet
08/02/01: Immigration timing couldn't be better
07/26/01: Summer of Chandra: An international traveler's perspective
07/17/01: Overthrowing a régime is only the beginning
07/10/01: Big Brother is watching you, fining you
07/05/01: Can blacks be patriotic? Should they be?
06/19/01: Get 'real' about marriage
06/12/01: Amos, Andy and Tony Soprano
06/07/01: Getting tough with the Bush Twins
06/05/01: Bringing marriage back into fashion
05/31/01: "Ken" and "Johnnie": The odd-couple legal team
05/24/01: Sharpton's challenge to Jackson
05/22/01: Test scores equal (a) MERIT? (b) MENACE? (c) ALL OF ABOVE?
05/17/01: Anti-pot politics squeeze the ill
05/15/01: Was Babe Ruth black?
05/10/01: U.N.'s torture caucus slaps Uncle Sam
05/08/01: 'The Sopranos' a reflection of our times
05/03/01: 'Free-fire' zones, then and now
05/01/01: War on drugs misfires against students
04/26/01: Another athlete gets foot-in-mouth disease
04/23/01: 'Slave' boat mystery reveals real tragedy
04/19/01: McVeigh's execution show
04/12/01: Not this time, Jesse
04/05/01: Dubya is DEFINITELY his own man, you fools!
04/02/01: Milking MLK
03/29/01: The candidate who censored himself?
03/22/01: "Will Hispanics elbow blacks out of the way as the nation's most prominent minority group?"
03/19/01: Blacks and the SATs
03/15/01: The census: How much race still matters in the everyday life of America
03/12/01: Jesse is a victim!
03/08/01: Saving kids from becoming killers
03/01/01: Parents owe "Puffy" and Eminem our thanks

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