Attaboy, Mr. Ashcroft!

By James L. Martin

Like most Americans, I have little patience with busybodies, whether they’re nosy neighbors, strangers conducting dinner-hour phone surveys, local police playing “gotcha” with red-light spy cams, or big brother in Washington.

Because of Washington’s awesome power — you don’t say “get lost” to the IRS or OSHA investigators when they come calling — government busybodies are the most troubling. That’s why every effort should be made to prevent government prying and spying.

That said, we should all offer a hearty “hip, hip hooray” and three cheers for Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has taken on the thankless task of protecting us from the terrorist thugs who wander among us. And if you don’t believe they’re here — attending college in Kentucky, pumping gas in Pennsylvania, driving cabs in California — you’re living in a dream world.

Our mortal enemies are here; they clearly want to harm us; and no one individual has done more to keep us safe than Ashcroft.

The attorney general didn’t invite the international terrorists to our shores. Nor did he issue them visas or provide them with money or shelter. But he has done everything within his power — and within the bounds of the Constitution — to keep them off balance and on the run.

Six weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, which provided Ashcroft and other law enforcement officials with an arsenal of new weapons with which to pursue this elusive enemy, including broadened authority to conduct surveillance on U.S. citizens and residents.

In another age this would frighten us. Today, we’d be frightened if we thought the feds weren’t aggressively on the hunt.

As USA Today noted in a recent editorial, since the passage of the USA Patriot Act more than 18,000 subpoenas and search warrants have been issues; more than 100 people have been convicted of, or have pleaded guilty to, federal crimes; and hundreds of suspected terrorists have been identified and are now on the run.

While America is engaged in a life-and-death struggle (and that’s what it is!!!) against an enemy-in-hiding, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and some of its allies are throwing a hissy-fit about the possibility that the government will abuse the Patriot Act to snoop into the private affairs of innocent U.S. citizens.

Yet as columnist Andrew Sullivan pointed out the other day, “I have yet to see a single example of government censorship in this country since 9/11.” Mr. Sullivan added pointedly, “So where are the real blacklists, the real attempts to police thought, censor opposing views and ruthlessly promote people on the basis of ideology, not merit? On campus, of course, one of the few places in America where the hard left still exercises as much control as it can.”

Yes, “snoop” the Justice Department has done. For example, last year Oregon’s Mahar “Mike” Hamas was arrested for providing material support and resources to al-Qaida. His neighbors and the civil libertarians on the left screamed that he was the target of an Ashcroft witch hunt. Why, they said good old “Mike” was just a normal guy who coached an American youth soccer team, was a bona fide U.S. citizen and has worked for several respectable American companies like Compaq and Intel, and really was just the sort of fellow you wouldn’t mind living next door to. But guess what? Good old Mike recently plead guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison! A victim of the Justice Department and Patriot Act snooping or simply an enemy of the state?

To some degree the ACLU’s concerns are well placed: the bigger the government gets, the more room there is for possible abuse. There’s no getting around it.

But somewhere along the line you’ve got to weigh competing interests and make trade offs. What is a higher priority: Protecting our families, neighbors, co-workers and communities against mass murderers who hate us and want to see us dead, or worrying about the possibility that an over-zealous federal investigator will use the Patriot Act to see what books we’ve checked out of the library or what movies (perhaps even a naughty one or two) we’ve rented from Blockbuster?.

In truth, we can guard the safety of the American people and simultaneously protect their privacy against unnecessary intrusion. And both the Patriot Act and the attorney general recognize the need to do so. Safeguards are built into the process. If the feds want to break into your home and sift through your underwear drawer, for example, they have to follow the same procedures your local police would have to follow: Go before a judge, explain why you feel this compelling need to rifle through somebody’s belongings, and get a warrant.

While some of their concerns are legitimate, they miss the point: America is at war. Attorney General John Ashcroft has demonstrated clearly that he is sensitive to our concerns. At the same time, he has done more to prevent a repeat of 9/11 than anyone else in or out of government.

# # # #

James L. Martin, a Marine Corps veteran and self-described “patriot,” is president of the 60 Plus Association, a national senior citizens organization.