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The ghosts of the Adams family

John Ashcroft’s motorcade had just departed. And Nancy Cribari, a well-dressed, middle-aged woman from Rowley who’d taken time off from work to protest the USA Patriot Act, was outraged that the attorney general had trampled on one of Boston’s leading symbols of freedom to push his repressive agenda.

"I think it’s an obscenity that he spoke in Faneuil Hall," she told me.

Yet the atmospherics actually worked out perfectly Tuesday morning, only in a far different way from what Ashcroft had intended — or even, no doubt, understood.

Inside, as Ashcroft spoke to several hundred invited guests — mainly law-enforcement officers — about the glories of the Patriot Act, the fabled marble bust of John Adams glowered insistently at his backside. No doubt Adams, the president who foisted the anti-democratic Alien and Sedition Acts on his restive fellow Americans, would have approved of Ashcroft’s heavy-handed response to post-9/11 terrorism.

Outside, a crowd of protesters that may have numbered more than 1000 carried signs and shouted slogans near a statue of Adams’s cousin, Samuel Adams, the original Son of Liberty.

Thus, just as they were two centuries ago, John Adams was with the powerful, and Sam Adams was with the people.

Ashcroft spoke for about a half-hour, following a rousing welcome from US Attorney Michael Sullivan and Governor Mitt Romney. (Mayor Tom Menino, to his credit, was nowhere to be seen, although his outgoing police commissioner, Paul Evans, was among those seated on the stage behind Ashcroft.)

The attorney general, in that gravelly, insistent way of his — emphasizing his main points like a football coach trying to rally his team at halftime — managed a trifecta of offensiveness, seeking to imbue the Patriot Act with the aura of 1) Thomas Jefferson, 2) the Gettysburg Address, and 3) the "hallowed ground" on which the victims of 9/11 lost their lives.

"For us they’re a warning, a reminder of our responsibility to preserve the lives and liberties of the American people," Ashcroft said, calling the government’s anti-terrorism campaign "our final tribute to the dead of September 11th."

For the past several weeks Ashcroft has been barnstorming the country, trying to whip up enthusiasm for the Patriot Act, a massive, complicated law that greatly increases the power of the federal government to snoop on what we read, see, hear, and say, and to arrest, detain, and — in the case of foreign nationals — deport those suspected of having some tie to terrorism.

Repressapalooza has gotten mixed reviews. Since his audiences have all been hand-picked (with no questions from the floor, thank you very much), he is reaching out to skeptics solely through the media. And he’s only granting interviews to television — quickie Q&As that allow him to run through a few talking points without getting bogged down in the details.

The Department of Justice recently created a new Web site,, to counteract what it calls the "myths" about the Patriot Act. It is a deeply cynical exercise. At Faneuil Hall, government drones distributed printouts from the Web site called "USA Patriot Act Summary and Overview." The message: the Patriot Act merely builds on existing laws aimed at drug dealers and other criminals by applying them to acts of terrorism.

The most entertaining stuff comes near the end, where it states that the Patriot Act "[p]unishes terrorist acts on mass transit systems" and "[p]unishes bioterrorists." Granted, this is included under a general heading about how the Patriot Act "increased the penalties for those who commit terrorist crimes." But the impression given is that no one had thought to outlaw subway and anthrax attacks until George W. Bush and John Ashcroft came along. Damn liberals.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the Patriot Act is Section 215, which allows the FBI to subpoena records pertaining to what books you’ve been borrowing and buying, what videos you’ve been renting, what medical problems you’re being treated for, and the like — all without your knowing about it.

Here, too, the official word is that not much has changed. Before Ashcroft’s speech Michael Ricciuti, an anti-terrorism coordinator with the US Attorney’s Office in Boston, told another reporter and me that the provision merely extended to terrorism cases powers that the government already had in investigating other crimes.

Yet according to an analysis in Slate this week, that’s not even close to accurate: "The government sees this as an incremental change in the law, but the lack of meaningful judicial oversight and expanded scope of possible suspects is pretty dramatic." No wonder bookstore owners and librarians have been speaking out against 215.

Also pretty dramatic was an example Ashcroft offered of how Section 215 could save lives. What if government investigators suspected that a terrorist had hidden a bomb and set it to go off "at a major public event in a city like Boston"? Shouldn’t law enforcement be allowed to track down the terrorist and disable the device without having to tip him off ahead of time?

It was an outrageous and cowardly attack on common sense — an extreme example designed specifically to divide Americans into "us" and "them" and to identify his critics as "them," as people too weak and foolish and obsessed with constitutional niceties to save the rest of us from getting blown to bits.

As his boss likes to say, you’re either with us or against us. Unfortunately, it appears that Ashcroft is against us.

Issue Date: September 12 - 18, 2003
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