September 2, 2003

The War on Ashcroft

The New York Times leads, the rest of the media follows. When the Times distorts, the distortion is amplified by other media outlets. Heather MacDonald, in City Journal says that is what has happened concerning a recent Justice Dept. report on complaints of civil rights violations related to enforcement of the Patriot Act.

This blog had some recent links and comments on the Patriot Act debate, and is sensitive to claims that there are real civil rights concerns about some of its provisions that should be hashed out. But the idea that the Justice Department is exploiting the War on Terror to pass heavy-handed legislation, or systematically violating the rights of innocent Muslims in its enforcement doesn't hold up to serious examination. That is, if one looks past the inflammatory headlines and politicized rhetoric. An excerpt from the MacDonald article:

The inspector general recounts only two complaints for which substantiating evidence has turned up. They hardly support the idea that the war on terror has corrupted the federal government into committing widespread civil-rights abuses. In the first, a prison guard has admitted to abusing a Muslim inmate verbally. The charge: that he had ordered the inmate to remove his shirt in order to use it to shine the guard’s shoes. The Justice Department hasn’t determined whether the guard actually carried out his threat. In the second complaint, the Bureau of Prisons substantiated the charge that a prison doctor had taunted an inmate. The inmate claimed that the doctor threatened: “If I was in charge, I would execute every one of you . . . because of the crimes you all did.”

Such insults, however deplorable, are irrelevant to the validity of the legal authority granted under the Patriot Act. Neither the guard nor the doctor was acting under Patriot Act powers; they were fulfilling prison duties that existed long before the act. The vast majority of post-9/11 complaints are garden-variety prison abuse cases, almost always by guards. It is sad but true that prison guards do not always behave professionally. No one argues, however, that we should therefore abolish criminal laws, trials, or prisons. To use the ugly behavior of a few rogue immigration guards (and one doctor)—obviously mad as hell about 9/11—to discredit the Bush administration’s carefully thought-out program to improve intelligence gathering against terrorists is a non sequitur. What exactly are the New York Times and its civil-libertarian satellites suggesting—that the government stop investigating terror suspects because there’s a chance that some will be taunted in jail?

Even if some of the claims have merit, MacDonald suggests we put it in the context of the task faced by Justice:

Some perspective, please: the number of complaints under investigation, even if all prove true, is a minute fraction of the thousands of contacts that the government has had with immigrants from terror-sponsoring and -breeding countries over the last two years. In the previous six months alone, the government interviewed thousands of Iraqis for intelligence and re-registered tens of thousands of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants. Thirty-four facially valid complaints of abuse and disrespect out of tens of thousands of contacts testifies to the law enforcement community’s professionalism.
Posted by dan at September 2, 2003 10:35 AM