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Closing Down Debate: Ashcroft's Attack on Dissent

By Bryan Keefer (bryan@spinsanity.org)
December 10, 2001

In his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday, Attorney General John Ashcroft argued that critics of the Bush administration's domestic anti-terrorism measures "only aid terrorists." The next day, Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker told journalists that they had mischaracterized Ashcroft's statements and, in doing so, "became a part of the exact problem he was describing." Such statements by a leading public official and a prominent spokesperson for the administration constitute an attempt to shut down rational debate over the administration's policies by associating almost all dissent with terrorism. Coming from high-ranking officials in the executive branch, these pronouncements are especially troubling.

Ashcroft's testimony

In his testimony last Thursday, Ashcroft made these widely publicized and much-criticized comments in his opening statement:

We need honest, reasoned debate; not fearmongering. To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against non-citizens; to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists - for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.

The "to those who" formulation explicitly equates critics of administration actions with terrorists. In addition, as Jacob Weisberg argues in Slate, Ashcroft's comments makes unfair and inflammatory insinuations about the motives of critics: "To describe genuine concern about the loss of liberties as a scare 'tactic' imputes ill motivation without any evidence to Ashcroft's legitimate critics on both the left and the right."

Justice spokeswoman slams the media

Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker followed up on Ashcroft's statement Friday with a similar attack:

Ashcroft was very clear that he wanted public debate about the actions of the Justice Department. What he does not think is helpful to the country is misstatements and the spread of misinformation about the actions of the Justice Department.
Anyone who reported this morning that he criticized anyone who opposed him was absolutely wrong and in doing so became a part of the exact problem he was describing.

Examined closely, Tucker is doing two things with this statement: claiming Ashcroft was treated unfairly, then using that assertion to attack those who criticized him. On the first count, Tucker is attempting to spin a half-truth into a full defense. It is true that Ashcroft did note that he wants "honest, reasoned debate" - yet in his very next sentence he attempted to shut down that debate by equating critics with terrorists.

Next, Tucker tells us that Ashcroft did not criticize "anyone who opposed him." Yet, Ashcroft's condemnation of "those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty" can be reasonably read to condemn virtually all critics of the aministration's domestic anti-terrorism policies. Tucker later told the Washington Post that Ashcroft's statement was in fact a reference only to specific "misstatements of fact" regarding Justice Department policies, but its implications are clearly far broader. Finally, by asserting that criticism of Ashcroft's testimony validated Ashcroft's claims, Tucker is attempting to shut down debate over both that testimony and recent actions by the Justice Department.

Reinforcing a trend?

Ashcroft, Tucker and their supporters are employing a common strategy to pre-empt criticism. Since September 11, a number of pundits have equated criticism of the war with support for terrorism in an effort to pre-empt debate. For instance, Michael Kelly claimed in September that pacifists, by opposing military action in Afghanistan, are "objectively pro-terrorist", while Andrew Sullivan suggested that anti-war dissent somehow constitutes a "fifth column" and Ann Coulter accused liberals of "[t]wenty years of treason." Ashcroft's testimony echoed these charges and his endorsement thus threatens to give rise to a resurgence of such rhetoric.

Happily, while several pundits cheered Ashcroft's testimony, far more have condemned it. One supporter is the Wall Street Journal, which editorialized that "[Ashcroft] rightly noted that the over-the-top, hysterical charges of many ('shredding the Constitution') 'only aids terrorists ...'" Thankfully, however, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and a number of pundits condemned the Attorney General in resounding terms, suggesting that such rhetoric will come under increased scrutiny going forward.


Since September 11, we have seen several serious attacks on anti-war dissent and critics of the administration, but until last week, such attacks were limited to media pundits. But with Ashcroft and Tucker joining the fray, the danger of further harm to our dialogue over how to best combat terrorism is substantial. Such high-ranking officials have a responsibility to refrain from attempts to shut down debate on government policies. Let's therefore hope that this effort continues to be met with the ringing criticism it deserves.

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Related links:
-"Patriotism" and "Treason": A New Trend in Irresponsible Wartime Rhetoric (Ben Fritz, 10/29)
-Criticizing American Policy: Picking and Choosing What is Legitimate (Bryan Keefer, 10/01)
-If you're not with Michael Kelly, you're pro-terrorist (Bryan Keefer, 9/27)
-Suppressing Dissent at Home, Fighting for Freedom Abroad? (Brendan Nyhan, 9/24)

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