Liberty at Risk

Guest Commentary

Volume CI, No. 11November, 2001

Rep. John Conyers, Jr.

The following commentary by Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, appeared in The Washington Post on Sept. 19. Since it was written, committees in both the House and Senate have modified the anti-terrorism legislation referred to in this article. The final shape of the bill will not be decided until after this issue of Allegro goes to press. However, the general principles Rep. Conyers outlined in his article provide a crucial frame of reference for our nation and its lawmakers, in considering what our response should be to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We appreciate the opportunity to reprint it in Allegro.

Like every U.S. citizen, I was shocked and revolted beyond comprehension by the attack on our nation last week. We need to do everything within our power to find the responsible persons and parties, bring them to justice and end the blight of terrorism.

At the same time, we must all remember that just as this horrendous act can destroy us from without, it can also destroy us from within. Historically, it has been at times of inflamed passions and national anger that our civil liberties proved to be at greatest risk, and the unpopular group of the moment was subject to prejudice and deprivation of liberty. In 1798, Congress enacted the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts, making it a federal crime to criticize the government. In 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, citing the need to repress “an insurrection against the laws of the United States.” Ulysses S. Grant sought to expel Jews from Southern states. World War II brought about the shameful internment of Japanese Americans, which even the Supreme Court failed to overturn.

Unfortunately, our response in 1996 to the Oklahoma City bombing and to the first bombing of the World Trade Center does not portend well for today’s discussions. Legislation that began in good faith as an effort to fine-tune our anti-terrorism laws turned into a legislative race to the bottom. It contained sweeping new limitations on habeas corpus for death-row and other inmates. The legislation also severely narrowed the ability of persons fleeing for their lives from dangerous regimes to seek asylum. I sat through the hearings on this legislation and did not hear a single shred of evidence that proved that a single terrorist act could be prevented by limiting the ability of persons convicted in state court to obtain relief from unconstitutional convictions or by denying immigrants their due process rights.

Meanwhile, many laudable provisions were dropped from the 1996 legislation at the behest of the gun lobby. We tried to include a provision allowing for broader roving wiretaps, as has been recommended by Attorney General John Ashcroft, but the conservatives could not stomach this expansion of government power. An exasperated Henry Hyde, who as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee had worked to keep some of the better provisions, was quoted as saying that many in his party “trust Hamas more than their own government.”

We also failed in our efforts to ban dangerous “cop-killer” bullets and to require that “taggants” (tracer elements) be attached to explosive materials and that unregulated explosive material (such as the fertilizer bomb used in Oklahoma City) be rendered inert. Instead, we were forced to settle for an ineffective study of these issues.

Certainly, we must update our counter-terrorism laws so that they reflect 21st century reality. But new expansion of government authority should be limited to properly defined terrorist activity or threats of terrorism. And with increased federal power, we must ensure accountability and oversight. We also need to drastically improve airport security by increasing the training and wages of airport personnel. That will mean increasing the role of the federal government and allocating more federal dollars to these needs.

I urge the attorney general to take a fresh look at expanding the federal law to cover hate crimes. Recent days have seen a spate of hate crimes against Muslims, Arab Americans and South Asian Americans. Two persons believed to be of “Middle Eastern” descent were killed in likely hate crimes over the weekend. If we are going to expand law enforcement’s ability to pursue terrorists, we must not neglect the government’s role in protecting Americans from vigilante violence. We are a nation of immigrants, and we are all in this together.

The keys to success in developing anti-terrorism legislation will be balance and prudence. History has taught us that we should not use the threat of violence as an excuse to suppress legitimate constitutional rights and liberties. As Benjamin Franklin stated, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” We must ensure that these acts of terror do not accomplish in a “slow burn” what the fires of the World Trade Center and Pentagon could not – subversively destroying the foundation of our democracy.