Second to None
John Ashcroft has demonstrated that he takes an absolutist stance on the Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, the right to bear arms. But his stance is far from absolute when it comes to several other Amendments, including those that are fundamental to fairness and justice in our legal and penal systems. To his mind, the Second Amendment stands sine qua non.
During his nomination hearings, John Ashcroft promised to uphold the gun laws already encoded in law, even though he personally disagreed with them. As Attorney General, however, he allowed Ted Olson, the Solicitor General, to submit an amicus curiae brief in a Supreme Court case to support an individual's constitutional right to arms. Since 1939, the Supreme Court has ruled, and no Attorney General has challenged, that the Second Amendment provides a constitutional right for arms for militias, not individuals. (The amendment in whole reads "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.") He has gone even further by ordering the FBI to destroy records of gun purchasers after only 24 hours, despite that gun records could be very useful for tracking down criminals who use guns.
Why Ashcroft feels so strongly about the need for guns is a mystery in and of itself. Current laws have hardly prevented many Americans from arming themselves. The number of guns in America is not far removed from the number of residents, yet fewer than one-third of households own a single gun. Clearly, guns are congregating in bunches. More mysterious is Ashcroft's penchant for the Second Amendment at the expense of other amendments that historically have been far less controversial in their scope. At Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, the armed forces hold hundreds of suspected terrorists in outdoor cells. John Ashcroft and the other leaders of the Bush administration maintain that these men are neither prisoners of war subject to the Geneva Convention, nor criminals subject to the protections of the Constitution. Instead, they are "illegal combatants' subject only to legal Purgatory. Jose Padilla, an American citizen who was arrested in the United States on suspicion of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts, is held incommunicado, without legal counsel, without any hope for a criminal or civil trial, without any rights at all.
There are a number of amendments that John Ashcroft could be holding dear to his heart, along with his beloved Second.
Ashcroft and the Bush Administration have flouted centuries of civil liberties ensconced in the Bill of Rights and have done little to justify their takings. There is, alas, precedent for the federal government gto trample the Bill of Rights. John Adams tried to squelch dissent with the Alien and Sedition Acts. Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus during the American Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt moved thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent into prison camps. None of these actions was moral, proper, or even, I maintain, useful. They only served to justify bad acts by future adminsitrations.
The enormity of the Al-Qaeda actions on 11 September 2001 did not make Al-Qaeda anything more than a successful band of criminals. Our legal system successfully and legally brought to justice some of the masterminds of an earlier plot against the World Trade Center. In 2001 and 2002, John Ashcroft threw part of the Constitution out the window, yet failed utterly to bring the perpetrators of the 11 September hijackings to justice. The truth is that Ashcroft picks and chooses the parts of the Constitution that he likes, and his choices have often been unwise.
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