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