Ignorant Bliss

In the locker room, two women are discussing the war
against terrorism. They agree that Attorney General John Ashcroft is right not to
reveal information about the 1,000-plus people detained since September 11. The
trouble is, "we're too soft" on the detainees, one opines.

"No, the trouble is that a lot of people detained are innocent," I interject
unwisely, explaining that only a small number of people summarily imprisoned are
reported to have any connection to terrorism. The women here are unimpressed. One
suggests that being imprisoned for a few months is not so terrible, even if
you're innocent. Immigrants should expect as much in times like these, says the
other, stressing that she's not anti-immigrant. Her own family came to the United
States from Ireland, a few generations ago.

I don't imagine that either of these women would march off to prison in a
spurt of misplaced patriotism if the attorney general came breaking down their
door. But they're clearly willing to sacrifice others' right not to be unfairly
and unnecessarily detained. Think about the "widows," one said, with more passion
than logic. When I asked how the widows might be helped by imprisoning innocent
people or people guilty only of minor offenses who pose no threat to society, she
scowled and left the room.

Conversations like these obviously reflect prevailing anger and fear, but
public disdain for other people's liberties is neither a new phenomenon nor one
associated primarily with wartime. A survey of Americans conducted in the early
1980s found only minority support for free speech: Seventy-one percent of people
surveyed said that they would deny atheists the right to air their views in a
public auditorium; nearly 60 percent would deny the same right to gay-rights
activists and people intent on denouncing the government. A mere plurality, 41
percent, believed that people advocating "unpopular causes" should have the right
to conduct mass protests.

So civil libertarians should not have been surprised by recent evidence of
overwhelming public support for a repressive domestic war against terrorism.
According to an NPR-Kaiser-Kennedy School poll conducted in early November, more
than 60 percent of Americans surveyed support the use of military tribunals for
noncitizens suspected of terrorism, and 68 percent favor government eavesdropping
on conversations between terrorist suspects and their lawyers. Concern about
abuse of new law-enforcement powers is strong but abstract--and confused:
Sixty-five percent of respondents believe that broad new powers of law enforcement
would be used against the innocent, and 58 percent expect to give up some of
their own rights in order to fight terrorism; but only 32 percent feel threatened
by new antiterrorism legislation.

The rights of citizens suspected of nothing worse than disagreeing with their
government also are regarded with hostility: More than 60 percent of those
surveyed agree that someone who attributes terrorist activity to American
behavior abroad should not be allowed to work in the government or teach in the
public schools. (Can loyalty oaths be far behind?) Forty percent favor censorship
of news reports about antiwar protests. (If the war is wrongly conceived or badly
conducted, they apparently don't want to know about it.) More than a third favor
censorship of stories criticizing the president's conduct of the war. (Editors at
The Weekly Standard had better watch what they say.)

In part, responses like these reflect understandable public
ignorance about administration policies. I doubt that many people realize that in
assuming unilateral power to monitor conversations between prisoners and their
lawyers, the attorney general is usurping power previously exercised by the
courts. Before September 11, federal agents could eavesdrop on prisoner-attorney
conversations if they obtained a court order to do so. I also doubt that many
people comprehend the broad scope of the president's executive order establishing
military tribunals, especially since the administration has been extremely
disingenuous in describing it. As Anthony Lewis observed in The New York
the president's counsel, Alberto Gonzales, wrongly suggested that the
order allows for civilian review of tribunal proceedings, that only active
members and supporters of terrorist groups could be subjected to the tribunals,
and that they would operate like courts-martial, under the Uniform Code of
Military Justice. (In fact, courts-martial afford more rights to the accused.)

But the NPR-Kaiser-Kennedy School poll also indicates the public's
willingness to embrace ignorance. The desire to repress criticism of the
president, the war effort, and American policies abroad reflects people's impulse
to hear only what they need to believe. "Why do they hate us?" we asked after
September 11; but it's clear that there are some answers the majority simply
isn't willing to hear. There are some illusions of presidential infallibility
that many can't bear to see shattered.

Unfortunately, presidents and their appointees do make mistakes, which we
ignore at our peril: Some former FBI officials have expressed concern that the
administration's detention policies are hampering intelligence efforts, leaving
us more vulnerable to future attacks. Presidents and attorneys general need
desperately to be second-guessed, as conservative critics of the Clinton
administration might agree. After all, if political leaders were always
honorable, responsible, highly competent, and right, we would have had better
airport security, better intelligence, and a better public-health system long
before September 11 exposed our weaknesses. So you don't have to care about civil
liberties to worry about suppression of unpopular views during an extremely
complicated, volatile, and unpredictable war. You only have to care about
security and success in the fight against terrorism.