Are We Giving Up Our Liberties to Preserve Our Freedom?

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STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP

US Attorney General John Ashcroft briefs the press at the Department of Justice

Question of the moment for us all: Is it okay to refuse a federal request during a time of war? Is it acceptable to subject fellow citizens to a necessarily accusatory line of questioning based solely on their country of origin?

The Justice Department spent Wednesday defending its role in the administrationís war on terror when Assistant Attorney General Mike Chertoff appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about the department's extended detentions of suspects and targeted interrogations of certain ethnic groups.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Chertoffís inquisitors had a lot of material: Tuesday, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the U.S. government is currently detaining 603 people as part of its ongoing terrorism investigation. One hundred and four of them have been charged with federal crimes, according to the Justice Department — which leaves 499 people being held on relatively minor charges, including immigration violations. The detentions are necessary, the Attorney General insists, in light of the countryís battle against lingering "sleeper" terror cells and networks.

Ashcroft refused to reveal the identities of the detainees, citing privacy concerns and a fear of creating what he called a "blacklist." Furthermore, Ashcroft added, "I am not interested in providing a list to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network a list of the people we have detained that might make it easier their effort to kill Americans."

That decision drew fire from Capitol Hill, where Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin retorted, "I continue to be deeply troubled by the Justice Departmentís refusal to provide a full accounting of everyone who have been detained and why." Criticism has seeped in from within the intelligence community as well; the Washington Post interviewed several former FBI officials who revealed the government is reverting back to maneuvers rejected in the 1970s as useless against terrorism — and a threat to civil liberties.

Meanwhile, as academics and politicians debate the merits and morality of the latest homeland security measures, Arab-American residents of eastern Michigan, Florida and the Dallas area are already facing the grim realities of wartime. Across the country, some 5,000 young men who are residents of and recent immigrants from Middle Eastern countries will receive either a letter or a personal visit from officials "asking" for any information on the al-Qaeda network or Osama bin Laden. In eastern Michigan, where as many as 560 men will be questioned, a string of legal challenges from local Arab community leaders and the ACLU leaves local police officers somewhat defanged. If respondents do not wish to be interviewed, one police chief acknowledged, the department will not insist.

Law enforcement officers in at least one U.S. city have taken a stand against what they consider a breach of the state constitution. The Portland, Ore. police department told federal agents last week its agents will not participate in a systematic inquisition of local residents or visitors of Arab descent, although the state attorney general has announced that state police officers are not barred from taking part in the interviews.

It remains to be seen whether refusing to take part in the questioning of Middle Eastern Americans will become the modern day equivalent of claming up at the McCarthy hearings, but the passion surrounding the issues of terrorism, domestic security and civil liberties all but ensures a moral line will be drawn in the sand.

Perhaps it already has been: "The question has to be asked," Ashcroft told reporters this week. "Are people going to accept their responsibility to help us prevent additional terrorist attacks or not? And I believe that's everyone's responsibility."