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Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2003 / 6 Shevat, 5763

Nat Hentoff

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Dick Armey's farewell address | On Dec. 6, retiring House Majority Leader Dick Armey gave his farewell address at the National Press Club in Washington. I wish it had been on prime-time television.

The conservative Republican warned us all that, in the war to preserve our freedoms against terrorism, we must guard against the "awful, dangerous seduction" of sacrificing our freedoms for safety against "this insidious threat that comes right into our neighborhoods."

Armey emphasized that "we the people, had better keep an eye on ... our government. Not out of contempt or lack of appreciation or disrespect, but out of a sense of guardianship.

"How do you use these tools we have given you to make us safe in such a manner that'll preserve our freedom? ... Freedom is no policy for the timid. And my plaintive plea to all my colleagues that remain in this government as I leave it is, for your sake, for my sake, for heaven's sake, don't give up on freedom!"

Hearing Armey's speech, I was reminded of one of the last conversations I had with the late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. He and Armey greatly disagreed on some issues, but not on certain essential sections of the Bill of Rights.

"Look, pal," Justice Brennan told me, "we've always known -- the Framers knew -- that liberty is a fragile thing."

The deepening concern about the unpredictable dangers, internal and external, of terrorism also extends to the creation by our government of what Charles Lane of The Washington Post accurately calls "a parallel legal system." That system has enlisted many conservatives to guard the Bill of Rights. I've been on some of these conservatives' radio programs to discuss the issue.

Former Republican Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia -- speaking on CNN about the massive data-collecting Total Information Awareness (TIA) system being developed in Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon -- said that "millions of Americans will have their privacy invaded in ways they will never know."

An attempt by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) to convince the Senate to stop the TIA dragnet failed. However, not only did the American Civil Liberties Union support EPIC's endeavor, but also Phyllis Schafly's Eagle Forum, the Free Congress Foundation and the American Library Association.

Armey and Barr are working with the ACLU on privacy and other civil liberties issues. Not surprisingly, some politically correct members of the ACLU are disturbed.

In a letter to the membership, Executive Director Anthony Romero reminded them that "throughout our 82-year-old history, we have aligned ourselves with people who can help us protect civil liberties regardless of their political party. ... The Civil Rights Act of 1991, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, was the result of ... unlikely allies across the Democratic and Republican parties."

Romero adds that the ACLU "has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, just permanent values." Illustrating that point is Illinois Republican Congressman Henry Hyde, who has often clashed with the ACLU. But he has worked with it to protect free speech on college campuses and to limit the right of government to seek defendants' assets in certain cases. "They are," he says of the ACLU, "a very useful and productive force in jurisprudence."

As a pro-lifer, I have had profound disagreements with the ACLU, including its failure to support the free-speech rights of the pro-lifers in the current Supreme Court case Scheidler v. the National Organization for Women. This involves the ominous use of the harsh Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) penalties, normally used to battle corruption, to quell political or social protests. If upheld, this will affect diverse demonstrators both left and right.

But -- as Armey and Barr have warned -- the continuing invasions of basic liberties in the USA Patriot Act and the subsequent insistence by the administration to set up an additional parallel legal system, affects all of our freedoms. And the ACLU has proved essential in that battle.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, ACLU membership has swelled by 50,000 people, and the total number of dues payers is 350,000. For more and more Americans, it is no longer an epithet to refer to "card-carrying members of the ACLU." And more than 50,000 Americans are joining the rapidly growing number of the Bill of Rights Defense Committees in towns and cities across the country.

As Dick Armey says: "Don't give up on freedom!"

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JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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