To recall past episodes of repression and regret is to realize that there is something different about incursions on liberty today. The war on terrorism is being waged against a hidden enemy who is not going to surrender in a ceremony aboard the U.S.S. Missouri. The fear of terrorism may well go on for the rest of our lives. We may not have breathing space to understand and regret punitive excesses. If we are to preserve constitutional values—the values of freedom—understanding and resistance must come now.
In another way, too, the war on terrorism is more threatening to civil liberty than past crises. It provides more potential justifications for secrecy. The classic formula for silencing the press in war emergencies was laid down by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes in 1931 in the case of Near v. Minnesota. The government, he said, may prevent the publication of such things as "the sailing dates of troop transports." But terrorism may strike in myriad ways: by the commandeering of civilian airliners, the smuggling of small containers of nerve gas or biological weapons and so on. Anything may be a troopship, and the government demands unencumbered power to deal with it.
The claim of executive power is the heart of the matter. There has been no more sweeping claim, in living memory, than the Bush Administration's assertion of power to hold any American in detention forever, without a trial and without access to counsel, simply by declaring him to be an enemy combatant.
From the essay by Anthony Lewis, former columnist for The New York Times
Pub date: 05/29/03
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