Imagine that you had a chance encounter with one of the terrorists of Sept. 11. Maybe you inquired about training at the same flight school they went to or lived near one of them. Your connection with the mass murderers might even have been so small as that you once stood in the same line at the DMV to renew your license. Now imagine that, because of this tenuous connection to a criminal, you are hauled into the police station. Hard, threatening men lots of them grill you relentlessly, about your religion, your ethnicity, your relatives, your political beliefs. You're thrown into a cell sometimes the reason given is a minor visa violation, sometimes no reason is stated at all. After a judge awards bail, the government appeals the ruling to keep you locked up. And you sit and you wait, cooped up in a jail cell, having never been convicted of any crime, not even having a criminal record, for months.

That is exactly what has happened to 1,200 people since Sept.11. Normal rules of judicial procedure have been thrown out the window in the paranoid frenzy of post-attack America. Hidden in the reams of "anti-terrorism" legislation, rushed through Congress after the attacks, are many small clauses with huge impact. These expansions of Bush's and Attorney General Ashcroft's powers come as a bit of a surprise to many Americans. The rush to respond to the terrorism in America was of such urgency that the bills were voted on before our representatives even had a chance to read the full text of the proposed legislation. The threat posed to our freedom by these "stealth" provisions may make us all wish our legislators had done a little more of their homework.

One such minor clause gives Ashcroft huge powers to detain persons who have not been convicted, or even charged, with committing a crime. Under these new laws, the government can detain any non-citizen when it believes there are "reasonable grounds to believe is engaged in any activity that endangers the national security of the United States." To overuse a well-known cliché, Ashcroft could drive a truck through that clause and in recent weeks he has indeed trucked over the traditional respect for due process. Over 1,000 persons have been detained since the attacks. The administration admits that less than two dozen of those are suspected to have concrete ties to the al-Qaeda network, Osama bin Laden's organization of terrorists and criminals. Detained individuals have ranged from Middle Easterners asking about flight training to Israeli teenagers earning some money in a part-time job.

Some of those detained have technically committed an offense for example, the Israeli youths detained were committing a minor violation of their visa conditions. But in previous times, such innocuous and clearly non-threatening violations would be given a mild slap on the wrist, if any penalty at all. Yet now many innocent men and women are virtually entombed in the red tape of American government. A particular case, profiled by the New York Times, is about a man who was free to get out of jail on condition of returning to his home country but the FBI refuses to release his passport. Thus, he's trapped in prison indefinitely, stuck begging official after official to please send him his paperwork. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice has refused numerous requests for information regarding hundreds of the detainees. Despite the right to access under the Freedom of Information Act, no explanations have been forthcoming, even to such mundane requests as under what offense or suspicion a person is being held.

Anyone can understand the occasional need for secrecy. But the need must be occasional, unless the entire judicial system is reduced to a sham. No breakthroughs in any investigations have resulted from these mass detainments no attacks have been prevented, no information of significance has been gathered. The administration has been absolutely silent on what benefits are produced by holding hundreds indefinitely. This is no way to conduct a campaign against "terrorism." The wholesale abandonment of our normal investigative and judicial process over the past two months is profoundly unsettling. Our system was not perfect before. But now the racial profiling of African-Americans (being pulled over more often for traffic stops), has mushroomed into Muslims being held in jail cells for months at a time.

It has been said before, but it's worth repeating: if the terrorist attacks cause us to abandon principles previously held dear, our enemies have won they have destroyed a fundamental part of what it means to be American. The government must stop the indefinite imprisonment of potential witnesses. Some degree of transparency must be introduced into the investigative process. We have already lost the trust of many nations across the world for example, Spain will not extradite men with terrorist connections because of our refusal to guarantee a fair investigation. Our government will soon face the loss of trust of millions of Americans as well.

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