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John Ashcroft, so they say, doesn’t read newspapers much. This is bad. Partly, it’s bad because of my job. I write for a Washington, D.C.-based newspaper about law and politics. I hope that people like Ashcroft might be at least curious about what people like me have to say. It’s an audience thing. So I’ve got to admit I’m a bit crestfallen to hear that the attorney general has better things to do with his time than what you’re doing with yours. But beyond that, I find it disturbing because of what it says about Ashcroft — and the Bush administration — more generally. News, at least when it’s not tracking shark attacks, is ultimately about debate. Of course, to get there, reporters report. Executions, politically suicidal comments by Senate leaders, numbers of deported aliens swept up in post-Sept. 11 dragnets, final orders on Microsoft’s monopoly, the ease of taking maternity leave — stuff like that. But that’s not the end. The reason we welcome this avalanche of facts — and, for that matter, the First Amendment — is that it gives us the raw material to think through questions about our society and our politics. It’s an enlightened idea — thank you, James Madison (too bad he and his friends bungled slavery so badly). If we didn’t demand public deliberation as a prerequisite to decision-making, we wouldn’t be Americans. This debate is never more important than when our country is charting a new course, like now. Not everything is different since Sept. 11. But we’re definitely still trying to figure out what is and what isn’t (or, more accurately, what should be and what shouldn’t be). Do we want a separate justice system for suspected terrorists? Can we seal the borders? Should we strap video cameras to every telephone pole? Do we need a domestic spy agency? No easy questions, and no easy answers. The only way to resolve them is by reading, thinking, talking amongst ourselves, and then starting all over again. Just listen to one sage remark about our current situation: “America is a nation that guarantees political freedom, self-governance, and open, honest debate. Even when our very way of life is challenged, the means and method of our nation’s defense is an essential part of our ongoing democratic dialogue. We welcome this debate.” And consider another remark, by the same person, that hints at how we should frame the debate: “For 226 years, in peace and in war, America has cherished liberty enough to remain strong, and remained strong enough to cherish liberty.” Both comments have the stars and stripes written all over them — they’re ringing tributes to the best of America. They come from … Jimmy Carter? The head of the American Civil Liberties Union? Al Gore during one of his recent late-night gigs? How about John Ashcroft? Yup, that’s right. In an October speech to the nation’s U.S. Attorneys, our chief legal officer struck exactly the right tone about how we decide where we go from here. HIS HEAD AND HIS HEART So what’s my issue with Ashcroft? It’s what he said in the rest of his speech that makes me wish he took seriously the debates raging in every newspaper that he doesn’t read. For instance: � “[The government's] actions are firmly rooted in the Constitution, secure in historical and judicial precedent, and consistent with the laws passed by the Congress. Nevertheless, our actions have been met in some quarters with disdain and ridicule.” � “Do not become timid or shrink from your duties because of slings and arrows in the public arena.” � “Law enforcement’s new anti-terrorism tools are sometimes scorned and actively undermined. Those who believe Americans — and American liberties — had adequate protection on September 11, 2001, are seeking to roll back our defenses of the past year.” � “These actions may be advocated in the name of American liberty. But they do not, in my judgment, advance the cause of liberty.” Disdain and ridicule? Slings and arrows? Scorned and undermined? Those ain’t the words of a debatin’ man. They’re a call to arms by a fervent soul blinded by his own righteousness. And that’s the thing with Ashcroft. Somewhere in his head, he knows that democracy rests on informed debate. But somewhere in his heart, he just doesn’t want to hear it. In that October speech, Ashcroft listed the Justice Department’s accomplishments in 2002. He stressed a string of arrests, detentions, indictments, convictions, deportations, and frozen assets all made in the war on terror. “At our borders, INS tightened security,” he noted. “Over 500 aliens [were] arrested; 431 deported.” Well, OK. Immigration laws should be enforced. Many of those people may have violated visa rules. And some probably had unsavory associations and deserved prison or worse. But were all 500 arrests and 431 deportations really related to terrorism? In the post-Sept. 11 panic, up to 50 young Israelis were detained around the country. The Washington Postprinted several articles about a Catholic man from West Africa initially held as a possible terrorist who agreed to deportation, but was not allowed to leave the United States for months. Jews and Christians probably aren’t al-Qaida’s most fervent recruits. But to listen to Ashcroft, there would seem to be nothing wrong with a system that sweeps them in — and everything wrong with questioning the system that does. Those who do “actively undermine” the government’s efforts and “roll back our defenses.” If we really are in uncharted territory since Sept. 11, that would imply that we’re all finding our way, even Ashcroft. Mistakes will be made, and officials will be criticized. That’s inevitable. But it’s not inevitable that we turn a deaf ear to voices — voices wiser and more knowledgeable than my own — that point out the mistakes and the problems and the pitfalls. Those voices are everywhere, but Ashcroft usually ignores them, except to attack them. TRUST ME, OR OPPOSE ME Of course, it’s not just John Ashcroft who is guilty of this “trust me” approach to democracy. Dick Cheney refuses to release the names of the people whom he met with in designing the administration’s energy policy. Why should we think he had conflicts — isn’t this one of our dear leaders we’re talking about? Of course, disclosure of names isn’t exactly identical to debate. But it is a precondition. People can’t debate the policy without the facts, and Cheney has aggressively locked them up. Our president, too, disdains wide debate of his actions. Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected one of George W. Bush’s appeals court nominees, Charles Pickering Sr., who is a close friend of Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. The Judiciary Committee acted largely on the rationale that Pickering has been insufficiently sensitive to racial issues. A few days later, Bush offered Pickering his highest praise, anointing him a “good man.” Since then, we’ve been reminded that Lott himself has a blind spot when it comes to racial issues. That, of course, amplifies the racial questions swirling around his friend, Pickering. And what taints the “good man” reflects onto our president. Maybe if Bush had taken criticism of Pickering seriously, he would have avoided the black eye he received from the Senate and that he might receive again. Bush apparently encourages private debate among administration officials when he has not yet made up his mind. That’s not enough. Voices from outside the White House have valuable insights that might benefit the country. But they need to be heard to help. READ THIS John F. Kennedy, so legend has it, learned how to speed-read so that he could keep up with all the news he needed to know. I’ll propose a New Year’s resolution for John Ashcroft and anyone else in the administration who really wants to do good. It doesn’t even require a crash course from Evelyn Wood. All it takes is pocket change: Read the newspapers. You’ll disagree with a lot of what’s there. But you’ll see that words are not slings and arrows, or even sticks and stones meant to break your bones. They are the bedrock of what it means to live in a democracy. In the fight to defend liberty, it’s best to remember that those who debate in an open society aren’t your enemies. The ones you should really worry about are those who think they have all the answers. Evan P. Schultz is associate opinion editor atLegal Times . He can be reached at [email protected].

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