Tuesday, June 22, 2004

A twofer
There are at least two posts that any leftie blogger should be able to write in his or her sleep. One is the "Paul Krugamn had a good column" post. We may as well have a little plug-in program for our blogging software that every Tuesday and Friday writes "Paul Krugamn had a good column," inserts the correct link, and posts it on our site before we even get out of bed. The second generic post is the "Ashcroft thinks white, Christian conservatives can't be terrorists" post. Most of us have pointed this out at one time or another (none more consistently or in as much depth as my old friend David Neiwert, whose second book on the subject of hate groups is coming out in about a week). What could be better than Krugman dedicating his column to writing about how Ashcroft thinks white, Christian conservatives can't be terrorists? Answer: Krugman writing a longer column about how Ashcroft thinks white, Christian conservatives can't be terrorists. We'll have to wait for that; today we got a normal sized column on Ashcroft.

Krugman has been bashing Ashcroft pretty hard lately, but ,in my opinion, it's not possible to bash Ashcroft too hard. The man is one of the most dangerous people on the Bush team. His direct abuses are bad enough--holding people without trial, stirring up panic, and misdirecting resources--but these can be reversed fairly quickly once he is gone. The real measure of his harm will be those more insidious actions of creating precedents for unconstitutional action, skewing the institutional culture of law enforcement, and lowering the prestige of American jurisprudence. These will take years to reverse and might cause some damages that we will never undo.

Krugman’s column today, hits on one of Ashcroft’s institutional corruptions, his blinkered view of what constitutes “terrorism.” When the Ashcroft Justice Department mentions terrorism, ninety percent of the time they mean foreign terrorism, easily caricatured as swarthy, non-Christian men who hate our freedoms. If the Ashcroft Justice Department was merely focusing on foreign terrorism to the neglect of domestic terrorism, it would be bad, but understandable. What most corrosive is that they do admit to domestic terrorism, but they define it in such a way that they create a false impression of the danger. For Ashcroft, militias, anti-abortion extremists, and white supremacists are not terrorists; ecological and animal rights extremists are. This is despite the fact that the former target people and have killed about a hundred in the last dozen years while the latter target property and, to my knowledge, haven’t killed anybody. John Ashcroft’s political constituency is made up of white, Christian conservatives and they are therefore not capable of terror. Misguided individuals might commit crimes, even horrible ones, but these never rise to the organizational level of terror. This point of view has completely penetrated our law enforcement and news media. Look how easily the term “ecoterrorist” rolls out to describe an individual who sets fire to some lumber and how well publicized the crime is. Yet how much attention did a group armed to the teeth and building poison gas bombs get? And where was the T word?

Krugman's last Ashcroft bash called him the worst Attorney General ever. My old history geek instinct was to see if I could name a worse one. Sadly, I can't name that many AGs at all. Krugman mentions Nixon's co-conspirator John Mitchell, but Mitchell was run-of-the-mill corrupt. He didn't come near Ashcroft's fanatic danger. I can name one AG who, if not worse, is at least in the same class as Ashcroft, A. Mitchell Palmer.

Palmer was a Democrat, with good progressive credentials and presidential ambitions, who was made AG by Woodrow Wilson just before his stroke. In office, reports of the excesses of the revolutions in Europe and a failed assassination attempt against his person, turned Palmer into a completely different man. Palmer recruited J. Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and launched an aggressive campaign against radicals and leftists in general. In a series of raids on the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution he had over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists arrested. Two months later he had another 6000 arrested. Many were held for months without charges or trial. Eventually 250 were deported to Russia (including Emma Goldman) and the rest released without charge. He came down particularly hard on labor organizations like the IWW. Palmer issued several warnings of incipient Red revolutions. The first warnings created near panic, but eventually people got tired of his hysteria and civil rights abuses. Is this starting to sound familiar?

Palmer was gone after a year and a half, but his legacy lived on in the person of J. Edgar Hoover and the institutional culture of Hoover's office, the Bureau of Investigation. The first Red Scare made it easier to have the second one, because people had become accustomed to seeing the world in Palmer's way. The IWW and the American Socialist Party may have been doomed even without Palmer and Hoover, but their help hastened their demise. Ashcroft has created the same sort of corrosive legacy. Will it take us another half century to undo his damage?

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