- The Washington Times - Monday, December 17, 2001

Extreme situations carry the most potent messages. Latin America, with its economic maelstroms and political turbulence of fictional proportions, is a continent of extremes. Its recent history, therefore, carries a message for the United States, as it struggles to devise a domestic counter-terrorist strategy. Hopefully, Attorney General John Ashcroft will be willing to listen.
An overwhelming and demoralizing sense of impotence weighs on Latin Americans following eruptions of trouble. In the face of of it, parties on both the left and the right have resorted to the forceful subjugation of citizens' rights in their search for quick solutions. The continent therefore demonstrates, in all its glaring ignominy, where this kind of repression ultimately leads.
Americans, on the other hand, have boldly defended their rights over time, and pioneered their application for the rest of the world to emulate. So the United States isn't poised to replicate Latin America's past, or anything resembling it, in this post-September 11 world. Still, there will be consequences to the current subverting of Americans' constitutional rights. And there is a parable in the Latin American experience for the United States to observe, which highlights the folly of problem-solving through heavy-handedness.
Consider Colombia. It is by far Latin America's most problem-plagued country, with monied and ferocious guerrillas marauding the countryside, and paramilitary groups countering these guerrillas through their own brutality. What gave rise to these guerrillas? For the most part, they were born out of a dissident movement opposed to government corruption and impunity which compromised the rights of Colombians in various ways.
Now, these guerrillas offer incoherent solutions to the country's ills which entail assaults on democratic and economic freedoms. The government has tried, unsuccessfully, to reign in the problem through military force and erosion of the judicial process. But the solution for Colombia, as academic as it may seem, is the fortification of the rule of law, through all organs of government enforcement, from police officers, to judges, to custom officials, to securities regulators, tax collectors and yes, limited military force.
In Peru, the scenario has been quite similar. The evil of the guerrilla, born of another evil, gave rise to former President Alberto Fujimori's slash- and-burn counter-guerrilla policies, which in turn created perfect conditions for impunity and a pervasive corruption that infected all democratic institutions.
And once rights are usurped, national unity disappears. No one trusts their neighbors. The lowest common denominator triumphs by fabricating allegations against perceived rivals. The repressive approaches that were supposed to deliver quick solutions have served to perpetuate Latin America's cyclical calamities. Although they certainly seem attractive in times of peril, there are always the attending, unintended consequences.
The military tribunals that the Bush administration has turned to in wake of September 11 seem lifted out of the Latin American play book. In these tribunals, which can judge U.S. residents but not citizens, a defendant isn't free to chose his lawyers, there will be no juries and a defendant can be sentenced to death in secret with only two-thirds assent of the presiding members of the military officials on the panel. These courts don't allow for appeals in any judicial process and the standard of proof is "below a reasonable doubt." These tribunals have no place in America's 21st century legacy.
But there are more than ethical considerations and national identity at stake. There are also more pragmatic concerns. Once America judges others with this short-cut approach to justice, U.S. citizens can be judged in the same manner abroad, and the White House has handicapped its ability to dispute the terms of their justice to say nothing of its ability to credibly lobby for democratic reform worldwide. And the arrest of more than 1,000 foreign individuals in Kafkaesque secret custody will further erode the government's ability to defend citizens' rights abroad.
There are elements of the terrorist bill passed by the Congress which will have a more immediate impact on Americans. For starters, the definition of a terrorist under the new law is ominously vague. Now, a terrorist is now anyone who strives to "influence the policy of government by intimidation." The concept of lawyer-client privilege has been eviscerated, since the government now has the privilege, without need of a court order, to eavesdrop on conversations between lawyers and inmates at federal prisons, including people who have been detained and have not been charged with any crime. This provision is an assault on the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Similarly, Internet use can be monitored without a user's knowledge, and Internet providers can be forced to hand over user information to law-enforcement officials without a warrant or subpoena. And the FBI and CIA can tap phones or computers around the country, without having to even demonstrate a criminal suspect uses them.
Unsurprisingly, the House passed the 175-page bill on Oct. 12 without even having had time to read it. And if policy-makers feel so comfortable with the laws' constitutionality, why limit its application to four years?
The restriction of individuals' rights tends to gain an uncontrollable momentum, as Latin America's history so painfully demonstrates. Countries in that region will continue to pay the price of resorting to myopic methods. And thanks to the counter-terrorism law, so will America. The liberties and enshrining principles early Americans fought for once seemed extravagantly idealistic, but they have proved their feasibility and durability. It's a shame to see those liberties, achieved at such sacrifice, compromised today.

Ximena Ortiz is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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