WASHINGTON -- The news photos of President Bush signing the latest anti-terrorist measure show a line up of dignitaries whose unsmiling countenances were properly grim for witnessing the execution of the American notion of justice.
Obviously some in the gathering, like Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Vice President Cheney, don't see it that way. For them the potential shredding of civil liberties is necessary to save the nation from the terrorist hordes waiting to destroy us. One doesn't smile in triumph when the president is saving the lives of millions of Americans.
Despite the violence it does to our constitutional principles, without this latest authorization to conduct questionable interrogations, strip detainees of their right to examine the evidence against them, exclude evidence gained through coercion and challenge their incarceration, another Sept. 11, 2001, could be just around the corner. Or so we are led to believe.
"It is a rare occasion when a president can sign a bill he knows will save American lives," Bush said. "I have that privilege this morning."
But one would hope that the somberness of some of those in attendance, like Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., may have stemmed from an uncomfortable realization that their earlier fight against passage of a bill they considered dangerously excessive was in the end futile and unrewarding. There was little compromise when all was said and done, a fact certified by the noticeable absence of the third member of the initial Senate opposition, John McCain, who skipped the signing ostensibly to campaign in Wisconsin for a GOP House candidate.
McCain, a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, is one of the few members of Congress who truly understands the need to protect the rights of even one's enemies lest it happen to you. His long and brutal incarceration by the North Vietnamese has left him with an appreciation of the value of constitutional safeguards for all. His decision to skip this important ceremony for "campaign" reasons speaks volumes about how he truly feels about this act whether he admits it or not.
How long this law will stay in place is the subject of much speculation. Civil libertarians already are talking about a new challenge in the federal courts on constitutional grounds because it strips suspects of habeas corpus rights. The Democrats who strenuously opposed it may want to challenge it next January if the November election gives them control of one or both houses of Congress as the signs now indicate.
The bill is the result of a Supreme Court ruling outlawing the system of military commissions the president had set up to try suspected terrorists. The court said the system was invalid without congressional authorization. In their ruling the justices also required suspects to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions' prohibition against inhumane treatment, including "outrages upon personal dignity." Bush then acknowledged the existence of secret prisons, transferred 14 top al Qaeda suspects to Guantanamo and asked Congress to approve the military commissions and provisions to permit the CIA to continue its interrogations of terrorists.
The president's action was seen by longtime observers as an attempt to turn the nation's focus away from Iraq and toward terrorism in advance of next month's important midterm elections. For a time it seemed to work but gains in the president's approval ratings during that time have since slipped back.
No one expects those clearly identified as hardnosed terrorists to be treated with kid gloves. But denying even the worst of them the justice Americans cherish, it seems to me, is doing the terrorists' job for them. The end never justifies the means in these cases and while the president may believe he is saving lives, in the long run he may be paying a price far more damaging. In many ways, this scary action erodes the basics of our system about as badly as anything the terrorists are plotting.
Of course we must guard ourselves from the maniacs and that requires strong medicine. But should we torch the Constitution and international agreements to do so? Who shall guard against the guardians? Plato's question is never more relevant than now.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.