Camps for Citizens: Ashcroft's Hellish Vision
Attorney general shows himself as a menace to liberty.
Published in LA Times Aug 14, 2002
By JONATHAN TURLEY, Jonathan Turley is a professor of constitutional law
at George Washington University.
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's announced desire for camps for U.S. citizens
he deems to be "enemy combatants" has moved him from merely being
a political embarrassment to being a constitutional menace.
Ashcroft's plan, disclosed last week but little publicized, would allow
him to order the indefinite incarceration of U.S. citizens and summarily
strip them of their constitutional rights and access to the courts by declaring
them enemy combatants.
The proposed camp plan should trigger immediate congressional hearings
and reconsideration of Ashcroft's fitness for this important office. Whereas
Al Qaeda is a threat to the lives of our citizens, Ashcroft has become a
clear and present threat to our liberties.
The camp plan was forged at an optimistic time for Ashcroft's small inner
circle, which has been carefully watching two test cases to see whether
this vision could become a reality. The cases of Jose Padilla and Yaser
Esam Hamdi will determine whether U.S. citizens can be held without charges
and subject to the arbitrary and unchecked authority of the government.
Hamdi has been held without charge even though the facts of his case are
virtually identical to those in the case of John Walker Lindh. Both Hamdi
and Lindh were captured in Afghanistan as foot soldiers in Taliban units.
Yet Lindh was given a lawyer and a trial, while Hamdi rots in a floating
Navy brig in Norfolk, Va.
This week, the government refused to comply with a federal judge who ordered
that he be given the underlying evidence justifying Hamdi's treatment. The
Justice Department has insisted that the judge must simply accept its declaration
and cannot interfere with the president's absolute authority in "a
time of war."
In Padilla's case, Ashcroft initially claimed that the arrest stopped a
plan to detonate a radioactive bomb in New York or Washington, D.C. The
administration later issued an embarrassing correction that there was no
evidence Padilla was on such a mission. What is clear is that Padilla is
an American citizen and was arrested in the United States--two facts that
should trigger the full application of constitutional rights.
Ashcroft hopes to use his self-made "enemy combatant" stamp for
any citizen whom he deems to be part of a wider terrorist conspiracy.
Perhaps because of his discredited claims of preventing radiological terrorism,
aides have indicated that a "high-level committee" will recommend
which citizens are to be stripped of their constitutional rights and sent
to Ashcroft's new camps.
Few would have imagined any attorney general seeking to reestablish such
camps for citizens. Of course, Ashcroft is not considering camps on the
order of the internment camps used to incarcerate Japanese American citizens
in World War II. But he can be credited only with thinking smaller; we have
learned from painful experience that unchecked authority, once tasted, easily
We are only now getting a full vision of Ashcroft's America. Some of his
predecessors dreamed of creating a great society or a nation unfettered
by racism. Ashcroft seems to dream of a country secured from itself, neatly
contained and controlled by his judgment of loyalty.
For more than 200 years, security and liberty have been viewed as coexistent
values. Ashcroft and his aides appear to view this relationship as lineal,
where security must precede liberty.
Since the nation will never be entirely safe from terrorism, liberty has
become a mere rhetorical justification for increased security.
Ashcroft is a catalyst for constitutional devolution, encouraging citizens
to accept autocratic rule as their only way of avoiding massive terrorist
His greatest problem has been preserving a level of panic and fear that
would induce a free people to surrender the rights so dearly won by their
In "A Man for All Seasons," Sir Thomas More was confronted by
a young lawyer, Will Roper, who sought his daughter's hand. Roper proclaimed
that he would cut down every law in England to get after the devil.
More's response seems almost tailored for Ashcroft: "And when the
last law was down and the devil turned round on you, where would you hide,
Roper, the laws all being flat? ... This country's planted thick with laws
from coast to coast ... and if you cut them down--and you are just the man
to do it--do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that
would blow then?"
Every generation has had Ropers and Ashcrofts who view our laws and traditions
as mere obstructions rather than protections in times of peril. But before
we allow Ashcroft to denude our own constitutional landscape, we must take
a stand and have the courage to say, "Enough."
Every generation has its test of principle in which people of good faith
can no longer remain silent in the face of authoritarian ambition. If we
cannot join together to fight the abomination of American camps, we have
already lost what we are defending.