Hats Off to Feingold
October 19, 2001
If truth is the first casualty of war, civil liberties are the second. Throughout U.S. history, dating back to the days of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Presidents have seized upon conflicts abroad to justify repressive acts at home.
Right now, as the country is in war fever, Attorney General John Ashcroft is pushing through Congress one of the most repressive pieces of legislation in years.
Congressional leaders have just ironed out the small differences between the bills that passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and the House, and the final bill could become law next week.
The law would allow the Justice Department to detain undocumented immigrants for up to seven days without a hearing.
It would greatly expand the government's wiretapping powers and would broaden them to include snooping on people's e-mail and web travels.
And, most seriously of all, it would take a sledgehammer to every American's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. Under the new law, police wouldn't need to notify you when they were about to search your home. Instead, as long as they had a warrant and as long as they claimed that notifying you would obstruct their investigation, they could go in and search your place and tell you about it later.
This is a new "sneak and peek" privilege that would put a smile on the faces of old KGB officers.
The Senate version of this legislation passed on October 11 by a vote of 96-to-1. The sole dissenter was Russ Feingold, the maverick Democratic Senator from the state of Wisconsin.
"We can and we will give the FBI new and better tools," Feingold said on the Senate floor that day. "But we must also make sure that the new tools don't become instruments of abuse."
He reminded his colleagues that our Founding Fathers "wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to protect individual liberties in times of war as well as in times of peace." And he pointed out that "they did not live in comfortable and easy times of hypothetical enemies."
Feingold was quite clear about the stakes involved: "There is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists. . . . But that wouldn't be a country in which we would want to live, and it wouldn't be a country for which we could, in good conscience, ask our young people to fight and die. In short, that country wouldn't be America."
His final warning could not have been clearer: "Preserving our freedom is the reason we are now engaged in this new war on terrorism. We will lose that war without a shot being fired if we sacrifice the liberties of the American people in the belief that by doing so we will stop the terrorists."
In his solitary and eloquent dissent, Senator Feingold brings to mind the courage of one of his heroes: Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin.
In June of 1917, during another war fever, La Follette warned that "the most sacred constitutional rights guaranteed to every American citizen are violated in the name of democracy."
We need more La Follettes, and more Feingolds--and fewer Aschrofts--in the days ahead.