In national crises, civil liberties suffer


Sometimes a body just has to challenge conventional wisdom.

So there I sat, on the set of Kweisi Mfume's talk show "The Bottom Line," the only panelist who suggested that in the face of rising terrorism, the government might have to suspend civil liberties.

The other seven panelists all went the traditional route, insisting that the current level of terrorism does not justify giving up our precious rights and freedoms. That nasty bombing in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people was a mere isolated incident. Nothing to be alarmed about. The real danger was the threat to our liberties.

But the country has suspended civil liberties before in times of war or national emergency. We've survived it before. We will again. To cite a few examples:

During the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and slapped several Maryland legislators in jail to prevent them from voting for secession. His alternative was to cling fastidiously to the principle of civil liberties, let Maryland secede and have the nation's capital surrounded by insurrectionists. Thank God he was a strong leader who did what had to be done and not one of these hand-wringing, smarmy types who cling to civil liberties at all costs.

During World War II, Japanese-Americans were rounded up based solely on their ethnicity and placed in relocation camps. Most Americans didn't complain about this massive violation of civil liberties. The fact is, most supported it.

Anyone old enough to remember the 1968 riot here in Baltimore will recall that Gov. Spiro Agnew called out the National Guard and put the city under martial law and a curfew. Black residents in the riot area -- most of whom didn't participate in the looting and burning -- had to have their butts off the streets by 7 p.m. No one complained about that violation of civil liberties either, not even our friends in the ACLU.

A few years ago, a wire story appeared that purported to explain how the FBI was finally able to nab 21 suspects in the 1964 Mississippi murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. Civil liberties took a hike. The story goes that the FBI hired some mob guy who took into a room a man suspected of knowing who committed the murders. The mob guy put a gun in the man's mouth and demanded information. The man gave up names, where the bodies were and probably a mess of information he didn't know he knew.

Way back in 1806, James Wilkinson, the top general in the Army, put New Orleans under martial law to thwart the supposed treasonous activities of former Vice President Aaron Burr. Wilkinson arrested and deported Burr's friends, jailed a newspaper editor who protested that habeas corpus had been suspended and did the same to a lawyer who applied for writs of habeas corpus. Supporting Wilkinson's every transgression was Mr. Declaration of Independence himself: President Thomas Jefferson. The third president wrote of Wilkinson's actions:

"The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the ends to the means."

It should be noted that some historians consider Wilkinson a viper who was in fact the real traitor and that he committed such a great violation of civil liberties to protect his own worthless hide. But the entire episode proves that if the country can survive a James Wilkinson with a Bill of Rights and civil liberties still intact, it can survive anything.

Even, I contend, a wave of domestic terrorism that is sure to descend on us if those militia groups committed to a racist and anti-Semitic agenda are serious about their intentions. Let the bombs hit weekly or daily instead of sporadically. You'd be amazed how quickly most Americans will pucker up and kiss civil liberties goodbye until the crisis is over.

My sister Barbara Noland died back in January. Today would have been her 48th birthday. I want to give a very belated thank you to all those readers who sent in sympathy cards after reading my column on what my oldest sister meant to me. Believe me, those expressions of sympathy helped more than you'll ever know.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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