- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 4, 2004

Recently, I was asked to speak in New York before first-year graduate students from 71 countries here through the Fulbright program, established by the late Sen. J. William Fulbright to promote mutual understanding between American students going to other countries and their students coming here. In 1950, in France, I benefited from the program.

The theme of this year’s sessions, organized by the Institute of International Education and funded by the State Department, was an individual’s responsibility to society during an age when the focus is on individual rights.

I told the students that, in this constitutional democracy, it is the individual’s responsibility — especially in a war against such a ruthless, elusive and widespread enemy as we now face — to help safeguard the rights that are the very definition of the United States. But our leaders are weakening some of these individual rights.

For example, I pointed out, the president and attorney general are omnivorously expanding electronic search and surveillance — eroding our Fourth Amendment right to privacy — while insisting that their actions are within the bounds of the Constitution. Is it not a citizen’s responsibility to challenge them on their responsibility to that fundamental document?

“If this is what your government is doing,” one student asked, “how can the United States credibly preach its way of government to people in countries whose leaders have no respect for their rights?”

“Because,” I responded, “I am speaking to you in criticizing my government, and when I leave, I will not be arrested.” To emphasize my point, I cited the gathering bipartisan resistance in Congress and in cities and towns across the nation against government overreaching.

Another student said, however, that it’s necessary to restrict some liberties to disable terrorists. My response was that there is a need to improve federal law enforcement — not disable our liberties. For instance, the “new” FBI still doesn’t have enough agents who speak Arabic or translators who can read the language; and many local and state police officers maintain that the FBI remains imperious and doesn’t fully cooperate in terrorism investigations. Another example of incompetent investigatory techniques: I asked why alleged terrorist Jose Padilla was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport instead of being followed to learn the contacts he was making.

Also, instead of gaining the confidence and cooperation of those AmericanMuslims opposed to the hijacking of their religion by the jihadists, there was the post-September 11 roundup of hundreds of Muslims. Though none were tied to terrorism, some were deported for less-than-major immigration law violations, and, accordingly, other Muslims have become fearful when the FBI knocks on their doors.

It is not necessary to limit civil liberties of Americans, I said. The administration should demand more resourceful investigative leadership at the FBI and in the higher divisions of the Justice Department.

Several students criticized the Bush administration for not calling sufficient attention to some of our allies in the war on terrorism who are egregiously violating the human rights of their own people. I agreed, citing the resumption of black Sudanese slavery and gang rapes in the Darfur region by Sudan’s National Islamic Front (NIF) government. This, despite Americanofficialsspeaking confidently of an imminent peace treaty between the NIF and the main organization of black Africa rebels in the South. So far, the redemption of thousands of black Sudanese slaves in the North is still being ignored in these peace negotiations.

Other students questioned the credibility of this country as a light unto the world on human rights, as well as its internal reductions of the individual liberties of its own citizens. But, on my way out, a Palestinian student questioned the consistency of my principles. Why had I not mentioned the human rights of Palestinians?

For many years, I told him, I have written in support of an independent Palestinian state and reported on the investigations of the Israeli government by both Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups. But, I added, suicide bombers and their celebratory acceptance by many Palestinians have changed the moral equation.

The Palestinian student said he did not approve of suicide bombers, but “among the uneducated, repression by the Israelis created the conditions that created suicide bombers.” I reminded him that among these mass murderers have been Palestinian college students and teachers. I also should have noted that Yasser Arafat’s so-called “condemnation” of this form of resistance was belied by the PLO leader’s payments to organizations that recruited suicide bombers.

I couldn’t resist adding that no Israeli prime minister has been as authentically sensitive to Palestinian rights as Shimon Peres. But, as Mr. Peres said of Mr. Arafat on “Nightline” during one of Ted Koppel’s extraordinary town hall meetingsinJerusalem, “When I became prime minister, what did you do to me? Despite Oslo, you ignited violence.” Mr. Arafat helped drive Mr. Peres from office.

For this former Fulbright student, who spent most of his time in France in movie houses and jazz clubs, it was one of the most challenging mornings I’ve had. And, though I strongly criticized John Ashcroft, I was not arrested when I left.

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