When I was a kid studying history, I never could understand the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. This wasn"t ancient history; it was my dad"s lifetime. And I couldn"t see how this country could reach that point. That was then. It makes so much more sense to me now. The last year has not been a good time for civil liberties. Even before Sept. 11, the Bush administration displayed a frightening obsession with secrecy and consolidated power. And after Sept. 11 along came J. Edgar Ashcroft and his Amazing Amendment Deletion Device, better and less accurately known as the PATRIOT Act. Among other fun and exciting expanded law enforcement powers included in this act are near-unlimited wiretapping capability, significantly limited judicial oversight, access to records on a scale that renders privacy meaningless, detainment capabilities on an epic scale, secret searches, secret courts, secret evidence and a variety of secret powers. And, more recently, the Justice Department has indicated to federal courts that it will detain whom it feels like detaining, for as long as it feels like keeping them, without issuing charges, without allowing contact with the outside world. One federal judge who challenged this was basically told to bugger off and keep out of the department"s business. Most alarming of all was Ashcroft"s bald-faced denial that the act endangers civil liberties. It"s an infamous quote, but those words always bear repeating, as they are the most frightening words spoken by a public official in our lifetimes: "To those who scare peace-loving peoples with phantoms of lost liberties, your actions only aid terrorists and provide ammunition to America"s enemies." I could go on like this all day, but I think you get the idea. Ashcroft - who, it cannot be repeated often enough, lost his Senate race to a DEAD MAN - has caused me to reach a point where I stop being surprised and just get jaded. Ashcroft announces the TIPS plan, which clearly and obviously makes informants of all citizens, and then he and the Bush spokespeople try to claim that it doesn"t make informants of all citizens and, furthermore, anyone who thinks so is a ninny and a nitwit and probably a terrorist sympathizer as well. George Orwell got one thing wrong when he came up with Newspeak: He just figured it would switch black to white and bad to good. Ashcroftspeak labels what is obviously black as white and then claims it was black all along, even as we say it"s white. All chicanery and balderdash, until you start to wonder how much of anything is true. And no wonder; once someone manages to steal a presidential election, they"ll believe they can get away with anything. With all their expanded powers, let"s note that the rough-and-tumble, law-and-order administration has thus far not yet managed to nab the guy who was using the U.S. mail as his personal anthrax introduction system. Who, by complete coincidence, was targeting well-known liberals. Or, for that matter, have Bush and Ashcroft done a convincing job of nabbing Osama bin Laden, whom I seem to recall was the Big Bad in the first place. Ashcroft did nab Jose Padilla, the so-called "dirty bomber," now under deep security in a Naval base, under guard and damn near incommunicado for plotting to detonate a dirty bomb in an American city. It"s a fine catch, except, according to numerous Justice Department officials, there was no plot, conspiracy, dirty bomb or evidence that would stand up in court. No wonder Junior and J. Edgar are so eager to run headlong with secret trials and indefinite detentions - they know none of this will go anywhere under that pesky old Constitution and those inalienable rights. Most amusingly of all, the same public commentators who are telling us to stay calm and trust everything President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft are telling us are also the people who loudly declare a distrust of big government. I"ve been told that I must not love America and love liberty if I don"t support these draconian measures. I want to know when things got screwed so completely up that speaking out in defense of the Bill of Rights translates to not loving liberty. Sometimes the right side wins, bit by bit; the PATRIOT Act has been cautiously and very, very slowly stripped of some of its absolute nastiest stuff. The most alarming bit was wording that would have labeled as a terrorist me and every other journalist who ever set foot in the Indianapolis Baptist Temple during the 2000-2001 siege. And some of the Republican leaders, such as Dick of-all-people Armey, have surprisingly stuck to their guns in their opposition to such inanities as the TIPS program. But the move is going so very slowly, and I fear for the republic.

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