- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2003

President Bush is an ardent proponent of the Patriot Act, but it’s not clear whether his proposal for Patriot Act II is actually a plea for more ammunition for the government lawyers or a strategy for keeping dry the powder already in the magazine.

There’s growing sentiment in Congress, in both the House and the Senate and among both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, to roll back suspect provisions of the Patriot Act, and the president’s speech at the FBI Academy thrust the White House squarely in the middle of this debate.

The president has a powerful platform, as presidents always do, and he is further fortified by the fear he can call up by the mere mention of September 11, of car bombs, biological weapons, chemical arms, suicide bombers or even “Islam,” the scariest word in the language.

Demanding an even tougher Patriot Act, to give government lawyers ever more authority even if it nibbles at — nay, even if it gobbles at — the civil rights of the innocent in pursuit of evil men may be the strategy to keep intact the Patriot Act already on the books. Prosecutors will never have all the advantages they want.

Congressmen, as the president knows, are particularly vulnerable to panic. We all recall, with a mixture of disgust and amusement, congressional behavior in the Great Anthrax Scare, perfectly captured by Rod Lamkey’s photograph in this newspaper, of Dick Gephardt, Dennis Hastert and David Bonior muscling each other out of the way, fleeing the Capitol in search of a getaway car, bus, boat, bicycle, scooter, plane or train — anything to get them as far away from Washington as fast as possible, leaving the rest of us to deal with peril delivered by the postman.

“Members of the Congress agree that we need to close the loopholes,” the president told the G-men. “Not every member, but a lot of them agree with that.”

Many of the rest of us are skeptical, as good citizenship requires us to be, of giving any Justice Department, whether presided over by John Ashcroft or Janet Reno, more authority over the lives of citizens. We nevertheless take the president’s point that actual loopholes should be closed. If the law legitimately gives the government the authority to hold without speedy trial mobsters, drug traffickers and embezzlers, then this legitimate authority ought to be extended to terrorists. It’s the “if” that concerns the skeptics. We can stipulate that there’s a problem without endorsing the solution advanced by the government security mavens, who won’t be satisfied until they can close every avenue, inhibit every human activity and order every American to stay in bed, preferably alone, until the government gives the OK to get up.

The president’s demand for extending capital punishment to terrorists seems to be not so much a demand for “a law-enforcement tool” as a sop to fans of the gallows. A terrorist driven by the passion of a benighted religion is hardly likely to be deterred by the threat of a death sentence. A martyr’s death in the name of “faith” is precisely what he seeks.

If revenge is what we seek, we could return to previous practices of our ancient common law for more imaginative methods of putting evildoers to a lingering death. There are methods — boiling, frying, dragging, disemboweling alive — that would give pause even to a Wahhabi martyr. The Patriot Act may be necessary in a time of endless war on terror, but enough may already be enough. Why not, for one alternative, amend the immigration laws and enforce them? This would have kept Saudi killers out of America on September 11.

The Patriot Act, whose very name abuses language, has no power to speak to the American spirit, to the way we expect to live our lives, unhindered and uncorrupted by a government with an insatiable lust for power.

“They were all heroes,” Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday of the men and women who died at the Pentagon on September 11. “They lived their lives as free Americans.”

Just so. We’re all entitled to no less.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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