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Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2001 / 14 Tishrei 5762

Philip Terzian

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Meanwhile, on the home front -- THERE are two conflicting messages out there, and it's not easy to reconcile them.

As we have been told more than a few times since Sept. 11, nothing will ever be quite the same again. The United States has suffered the single worst military attack on its homeland in modern history, with the loss of some 7,000 innocent lives. We can never be certain that we are absolutely safe from harm, and war has been declared on global terrorism.

The other message is that our resolve is combined with an equal determination to carry on with business as usual. Members of the Cabinet have flown on commercial airliners to emphasize the safety of airports and flight routes. Investors are now buying instead of selling. On Broadway, people are purchasing tickets again, and the new fall television season (with some modifications) is upon us.

In some sense, of course, this mixture of signals carries a certain logic. Obviously, the United States is not only determined to punish those responsible for the suicide missions, but to build a global coalition that will prevent such threats from recurring. In the meantime, to surrender to fear is to grant the terrorists the taste of victory. Accordingly, Americans are defiant: We will do what is necessary to bring the malefactors to heel, and we will conduct our lives as we led them before -- with some adjustments, of course.

It's those adjustments that are cause for concern at the moment.

It is said that, in war, truth is the first casualty; but you could make a case that civil liberties, and to some degree civil behavior, are the first to be injured. There have been several troubling instances of violence, abuse and intimidation against Muslims, against Arab-Americans, and even against people mistaken by an ignorant few for Arabs or Muslims. The disgraceful arrest and detention in Providence of a Sikh from Leesburg, Virginia -- traveling home from a Boston business trip on the train -- is a case in point.

To their great credit, President Bush and members of his administration have gone out of their way to emphasize the dangers of such injustice. Mr. Bush has visited mosques, met with various Muslim and Arab organizations, and repeatedly reminded Americans that the vast majority of Muslims and Arab-Americans are not just fellow citizens, but people who share our values and our dismay and outrage at the events of Sept. 11. In a nation of 280 million, the number of such incidents has been relatively small, and most have been widely publicized.

Then there is the question of domestic security. Most Americans recognize that, in wartime, certain measures must be taken that are unique to the circumstances: Goods may be rationed, for example, or travel might be restricted. The trouble, however, is twofold: Measures that are taken in times of emergency have ways of becoming permanent, and the natural inclination of government -- even with the best of intentions -- is to broaden its power.

We have seen this already with the Justice Department's proposed expansion of federal wiretapping, and with the FBI's furious pursuit of "suspicious" persons. Hundreds of Americans have been taken into custody, questioned about their political beliefs, and detained without probable cause or a suitable warrant, on the basis of their surnames, personal appearance, occupation, acquaintance, or even proximity, to suspected terrorists. A very wide net has been cast, reeling in all sorts of individuals with no connection whatsoever to the events and malefactors of Sept. 11.

The bad news is that, as JWR's Nat Hentoff has usefully explained, "Americans have only the dimmest notion of what their constitutional freedoms are -- and what it took to get them .... [and] the willingness to surrender what we're supposed to be fighting for is a recurring part of our history."

Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War -- the oldest civil liberty in common law -- and imprisoned editors who criticized his policies. David McCullough's favorite Founding Father, John Adams, enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts to silence domestic dissent.

The good news is that we seem to be cognizant of the dangers. Congress, led by such redoubtable civil libertarians as Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., has made it clear that, while the nation is united in the fight against terrorism, emergency powers will be carefully scrutinized. When Attorney General John Ashcroft testified before a House committee the other day, he claimed that most Americans support some erosion of civil liberties in wartime -- which is true enough -- but hastened to add that the administration does not seek to undermine the freedoms we cherish. What we're fighting to defend, after all, is what the terrorists attacked on Sept. 11.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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