Liberty: It's What We're Fighting For

If the President allows the war on terror to strip Americans of their freedoms, even destroying Osama bin Laden will be a hollow victory

For weeks, Administration officials right up to President Bush have exhorted Americans to defeat the "evildoers" by carrying on with our normal lives: shopping, traveling, investing, celebrating the holidays as always. The talk may be comforting to a nation shocked by the September 11 attacks and the subsequent anthrax scare. Just one problem: Bush is talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

The body language of the President and his Cabinet is sending a very different message: That this holiday season is far different and more dangerous than any in more than a half-century. On Nov. 20, Bush canceled an annual tradition, tours of the elaborate White House holiday decorations. Earlier in the week, the National Park Service prohibited the general public from attending the lighting of the national Christmas tree on the Ellipse. That has never happened before, even in wartime.

Meanwhile, the White House and Capitol remain shuttered to tourists. "Evil knows no holiday," Bush explained on Nov. 20. "In these extraordinary times, we're taking extraordinary measures." Such as keeping Dick Cheney at the now-famous "undisclosed location" -- yet another reason people don't think Washington is safe.


  With the President sending such clear danger signals, it's no surprise that tourism in Washington has plummeted by more than 50%. Or that millions of Americans stayed close to home over the Thanksgiving holiday to avoid potential terrorist targets such as airports and bridges and tunnels. And that's despite the reassuring words from Bush as he signed the new air-travel security bill on Nov. 19. "Americans don't believe what politicians say, they believe what politicians do," observes Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's nonvoting representative in Congress.

Even in these days of renewed trust in government, Norton has a point. Whether it's as superficially festive as lighting the national Christmas tree, or as serious as suspending civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the Bush Administration must be careful not to send mixed messages to the American people -- or the world.

Early in his war on terrorism, Bush repeatedly reassured Muslim Americans and Arab-Americans that they would not be discriminated against. "No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith," he said in his stirring, Sept. 20 address to a joint session of Congress.


  Unfortunately, the Justice Dept. seems not to have gotten the message. Case in point: Two Florida businessmen -- American citizens of Palestinian descent -- went through a Kafkaesque, 64-day ordeal after being falsely charged with carrying altered passports. Fathi Mustafa, 66, and his son Nacer, 24, were arrested at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on Sept. 14 when a federal agent decided that a second layer of lamination was on their passports.

The young Palestinian-American was jailed for two months as a "national security risk." His father was required to wear an electronic monitoring device. After two months in limbo, the men, who operate a small department store in LaBelle, Fla., were finally exonerated when a laboratory analysis found that neither passport had been altered.

The Mustafas' case seems to be just what the President had warned against -- discrimination solely on the basis of ethnicity. And while Bush can't control every bigot with a mouth or a badge, he can send a message to law-enforcement officials that civil liberties have not been put on hold until Osama bin Laden is vanquished.


  Here's another case: On Nov. 19, Bush invited diplomats from Islamic nations to the White House to celebrate breaking the daytime fast during Ramadan. But a week earlier, he had empowered military courts to try foreign terrorism suspects -- possibly in secret -- without the rights afforded to American criminal defendants.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has ordered law-enforcement officials to interrogate 5,000 foreign nationals. And the FBI has swooped into college campuses to demand confidential records of international students, primarily Middle Easterners. "I think it's important to understand that we are at war now," Ashcroft explained.

True, most Americans agree with these draconian measures and, in some cases, they may have merit. But the Administration isn't doing itself -- or Americans' Constitutional freedoms -- any favors by telling the world that America has two standards of justice: one for "us," the other for "them."


  Bush deserves praise for repeatedly condemning discrimination. His words have not given any wiggle room to the intolerant. But his actions point out how difficult it is in time of war to battle an outside enemy without sacrificing some of the precious liberties Americans cherish. In the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus rights, which protect Americans from illegal detention or imprisonment. During World War I, German Americans were held without evidence of crimes. And after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the government seized the property of Japanese Americans and herded thousands of U.S. citizens into concentration camps.

Such precedents shouldn't serve to justify new violations of civil liberties. Yes, America is united in battling a common enemy. Polls show the U.S. is, in fact, more supportive of military action now than during any war of the 20th century. The Bill of Rights is not always popular, but it has been a bulwark of American democracy.

On Sept. 20, the President told the American people that "freedom and fear are at war." At this time, with the war going well, the President needs to send a clear message that fear of the enemy abroad shouldn't trump freedom at home.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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