- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

Poor John Ashcroft. The war on terrorism seems to have caused our attorney general to suffer a bit of battle fatigue.

Or maybe he's just plain tired. How wearying it must be to answer pesky questions you would rather not be bothered with.

You could hear it in the prepared statement with which Mr. Ashcroft opened his long-awaited appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee a week ago Thursday. After calling for "honest, reasoned debate, and not fear-mongering," he proceeded to monger fear.

"To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil."

In other words, get out of my way. You're either with us or you're with the terrorists.

What? Is there no middle ground for Americans anymore? Have we Americans already reached the sad point at which we no longer can ask questions about how the war is being waged without being accused of aiding the enemy?

In Washington parlance, Mr. Ashcroft was playing the patriotism card, or "pulling an Ollie North," a reference to the former Marine officer and current radio talk show host and syndicated columnist. Mr. North's rock-jawed defiance set a new standard during the Iran-Contra hearings for rolling over Senate inquisitors like John Wayne against the Mouseketeers.

"I feel like I am in a time warp," Rep. Bobby Rush, Illinois Democrat, told me before Mr. Ashcroft's appearance. "So much of what Bush and Ashcroft are saying sounds identical to the language the FBI used 32 years ago."

Mr. Rush was referring to the Dec. 4, 1969, killing of Illinois Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton, 20, a former NAACP youth leader, and Mark Clark, 17, of Peoria, in an after-midnight raid on their Chicago apartment by police assisted by the FBI. Mr. Rush was vice-chairman of the party. Had he been there that night, there's a good chance he wouldn't be around to be in Congress today.

The Illinois Panthers were known mostly for their black berets, free-breakfast programs, a free medical clinic and radical '60s-style rhetoric. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had a flair for grandiose media-tailored statements himself, declared the Black Panther Party to be the No. 1 threat to the nation's security.

As a young newspaper reporter who knew Panther leaders, I thought Hoover's language was as extreme about them as their paranoia was about him. As it turned out, the Panthers had not been paranoid enough.

The fatal raid turned out to be part of Hoover's "COINTELPRO" for "counterintelligence program" against the organization, whose politics Hoover did not like.

COINTELPRO quickly ventured beyond surveillance of communists to actual disruption of radical groups like the Black Panthers and moderate groups like Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, all in the name of fighting the great Red Menace, communism.

Federal, state and local law enforcement officials later settled a civil suit filed by the families of Hampton and Clark for $1.85 million. The Black Panther raid also led to a political revolt by black voters away from the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley's Democratic machine.

So, when Mr. Rush sounds like he's raising the "phantoms of lost liberties," maybe he is just being paranoid again. I hope. When hope alone is not enough, we ask questions, pesky as they might be.

For example, the Justice Department is reported to be considering loosening the guidelines on investigations of domestic political and religious organizations. Those guidelines were set up in the era after Watergate to prevent investigations of individuals as a consequence of activities otherwise protected under the First Amendment. What changes, we might ask Mr. Ashcroft, is his department contemplating?

If the administration's actions were so "crafted carefully to not only protect America but to respect the Constitution and the rights enshrined therein," as Mr. Ashcroft says, why does the Justice Department keep giving different reasons for its refusal to release the names of the more than 500 noncitizens who are being held in detention?

The FBI theorizes that the recent anthrax letters were the work of domestic terrorists, possibly American citizens. Will Mr. Ashcroft pursue such home-grown terrorists as vigorously as he's been pursuing terrorists from overseas?

And, in the long run, can we ever really know when something as abstract as a "war on terrorism" has ended? Does it ever really end? Does it not require the eternal vigilance that Thomas Jefferson called the price of liberty? When, then, might we get our old civil liberties back?

Just asking.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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