John Ashcroft’s America: Shut Up and Toe the Line!

If I’m to believe Attorney General John Ashcroft correctly, my vocal and vigorous objections to his dragnet style of justice are unpatriotic, and worse, aid terrorists in their cause. By extension, I abet terrorism, because I don’t go along in lock-step with the AG’s new interpretation of civil liberties.

This sort of crass posturing, which Ashcroft argued in defense of his policies before the Senate last week, fits into a larger Bush Administration pattern of polarizing the world into “us” versus “them,” and could erode support for the war in the long run.Americans hopefully won’t tolerate Ashcroft’s simple arguments to justify extreme uses of power that push the limits of Constitutional authority.

His answers to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week stirred up the ghosts of McCarthy and Hoover. Arguing that dissent in this “time of war” is unpatriotic is simply the time-honored tactic of muzzling critics for political expediency. In the past, exercising such power meant detentions, blacklisting, and the occasional execution. It’s wrong to stir those specters and use such a big hammer to squash debate. Heaven forbid Jay Leno crack a few jokes at Ashcroft’s expense.

These tactics fit into a larger strategy the scope of which was evolving long before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Bush play book seems to be: deflect criticism back at the source while pushing ahead with a partisan agenda. Bush handcuffed Gore on many fronts this way during the 2000 election campaign, and is now using the war effort as an excuse for everything from corporate tax cuts to arctic oil drilling to mass detentions. Disagree with us and you aren’t supporting the war. That means you must side with the terrorists. Talk about cut-throat politics at its worst, the kind Bush promised to clean up with his pledges to be a “reformer” who would bring “civility” to Washington. It’s becoming obvious that behind the Reaganesque facade is a coarse, uncompromising politician who will exploit any advantage.

No surprise: The President’s chief political strategist, Karl Rove, is from the old bare-knuckle school of politics that goes back to Lee Atwater, who apologized to those he attacked and renounced his style of politics before dying young in March 1991 of a cancerous brain tumor. Rove learned well at Atwater’s side –áso did Bush Jr. when Atwater ran George Sr.’s ’88 presidential campaign — and wrote the Bush play book with the same divisive, partisan tactics. It’s us versus them and we will try to win no matter what the cost.

Ashcroft proclaiming that dissent over his policies hinders the war effort and aids the terrorists in the long run is disingenuous considering that it’s Ashcroft’s policies that are the biggest threat to public support for the sometimes extreme measures being taken to prevent another terrorist attack. His attempt to muzzle critics and polarize the public is the sort of tactic for short-term gain that won’t wash in the long run.

He could have scored a few points and helped his cause by taking a more conciliatory tone, by admitting that his policies are harsh but the times require it. He couldve appealed to the public to hold its fire until after he can fully explain himself. He could have smiled, maybe once, during his appearance before the Senate.

But that’s not Big John’s style, or the style of the people behind him.

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