It's Time To Speak Up

by Helen Thomas

WASHINGTON - 12.14.01 | If there ever was a time when Americans should speak up on behalf of people in this country whose rights are being abridged, that time is now.

I remember with tremendous sadness the statement of Martin Niemoller, a Lutheran minister in Berlin, after World War II as a warning of what can happen when people do not come to the defense of others whose civil liberties have been taken away.

Niemoller said, "In Germany they came first for the Communists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me -- and by that time, no one was left to speak up."

Niemoller had founded the Pastors Emergency League to Resist Hitlerism and had been confined to Nazi concentration camps for eight years before his release in 1945.

Happily, we do not have that kind of environment in the current terrorist crisis. But there is always the possibility that we could create an atmosphere where dissent and freedom of speech are not tolerated on grounds of national security.

We all know America is admired by people around the world because of its freedoms, especially those under the Bill of Rights, which protects citizens and even non-citizens. We are a nation that has been governed by laws that have endured for more than 200 years. If we lose our title of "land of the free," what have we got?

Under his authority as commander-in-chief, President Bush seems to have given his Cabinet carte blanche in pursuing suspects, detaining immigrants secretly and establishing military tribunals that could impose the death penalty by a two-thirds vote of the jury without judicial review.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, summoned last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, was masterful in showing that the best defense is a good offense.

He bluntly attacked the panel's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and other critics who had voiced concerns about lost liberties. "We need honest, reasoned debate, not fear-mongering," Ashcroft said. "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: 'Your tactics only aid terrorists -- for they erode national unity and diminish national resolve."'

Actually, the real erosion takes place when we allow the chipping away of the bulwark of the U.S. Constitution and our overall record on human rights, which have made us a beacon around the globe.

Where are the modern-day Patrick Henrys and Thomas Paines when we need them? Henry was the most celebrated orator of the American Revolution. Every schoolchild has learned his ringing call, "Give me liberty or give me death." And Paine is remembered for his pamphlets on behalf of political equality, tolerance, civil liberties and human dignity.

But Ashcroft argued that people who hope the kind of terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11 will not be repeated "were living in a dream world."

He held up a training manual for al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden's terror network, and said it showed that "terrorists are taught how to use America's freedoms as a weapon against us."

With strong support in the public opinion polls, the administration obviously feels it is free to proceed in curbing civil liberties.

In their questioning of Ashcroft many of the senators, except for Leahy and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., rolled over. After all, who wants to be called unpatriotic in these times?

Where are the profiles in courage? There are not many on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers seem to be giving up their own rights to set rules on the treatment of immigrants and others in this country who are detained or sought by the government for questioning.

To Bush, Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, I would ask this: Please remember the quote of Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee in the 1950s who said, "Democracy is great not just because the majority prevails but because it is safe to be in the minority."

The attorney general, accusing the critics of exaggerating or misstating the dangers of the government's new curbs on civil rights, insisted that the Justice Department "has sought to prevent terrorism with reason, careful balance and excruciating attention to detail."

Of course, Americans are willing to defer some of the freedoms they once had for valid security reasons. No one can dispute the need for strict enforcement of the rules at airports and in vulnerable public buildings. Arrests of foreign-born residents accused of violating immigration laws or of having knowledge of terrorists or their plans are certainly legal. But those detained should also be given due process rights and equal protection of the laws. And the long detentions of innocent persons based on little or no evidence should be stopped.

Ashcroft plans to offer immigrants help in obtaining citizenship if they snitch on their friends or acquaintances as dangers to the Republic. But such an official policy would undermine our nation's reputation for probity and decency.

What we need now are more leaders who are students of civics, democracy and especially the Constitution. For to become great Americans, we must know why the founders of our country were so outstanding.


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