Comrade John

"THE SOVIET OF Washington"—that was the nickname used sarcastically by Postmaster General James Farley in 1940 to belittle our state's sometimes astonishingly liberal tendencies. But these days, it's taking on a newer, more ominous meaning.

It was bad enough that Attorney General John Ashcroft announced last week from Moscow—honestly!--that the Bush administration will imprison U.S. citizens indefinitely—without charges, access to defense lawyers, or trial.

I am not making this up.

That came only a few days after our own state's Constitution-thrashing announcement: The Washington State Patrol has resumed its post-Sept. 11 random searches of cars boarding state ferries, as though a niggling little problem called the Fourth Amendment and the Bill of Rights did not exist (prohibiting government from, um, unreasonable searches and seizures). Apparently, that amendment, and the document it's part of, no longer count. We're at war, we're told.

A case in point: Jose Padilla was arrested over a month ago and accused of assisting Al Qaeda in its efforts to detonate a low-grade nuclear bomb in the United States. Ashcroft must have been waiting for just the right symbolic moment to announce that he, and presumably his employer, have decided to officially suspend the U.S. Constitution. All those now-underemployed former Communist Party bosses, their dreams of the perfect totalitarian state shattered for the last dozen years, could take "Johnovich" Ashcroft out to dinner after his press conference.

And hey, if Padilla's been in custody since May 8, and we're just being told about it, who else is being held? The one thing Padilla's arrest does tell us about terrorism is that, like Richard Reid (the Brit with C-4 in his shoe) and John Walker Lindh before him, Padilla isn't obviously Arabic or Central Asian—in other words, that racially profiling terror suspects is discriminatory at best, counterproductive at worst.

That raises the question of who the State Patrol is targeting with ferry searches; they won't say. The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU) has asked the agency this and a number of other pointed questions: For example, how can such a policy possibly be legal? Or effective? Gerry Sheehan, the state ACLU legislative director, notes that even noncommercial passengers are allowed to carry 50 gallons of propane plus gasoline on the ferry—and guns and fireworks. So what's being prevented?

Passengers who refuse searches, the State Patrol says, can always drive a different route. News flash: The Tacoma Narrows Bridge won't get you to Vashon or the San Juans. The ferry system is an integral and taxpayer-funded part of our transportation system.

Allowing ferry captains to refuse passengers who refuse supposedly random searches is, um, well, it's something you'd expect in a country where the police are now allowed to investigate or monitor anyone for any reason—such as their politics or religion—with no suspicion of a crime. That was an Ashcroft nugget, too. Any alarms yet? Such as, that the FBI now has every single power the KGB had for decades?

Remember, we're told, we're at war. But unlike World War II—the purported model for much of this—we don't even know how victory can be defined, let alone what it will look like, and the same people have told us that this war will last at least 50 years. In other words, Ashcroft and Dubya plan to unilaterally suspend our Constitution for a longer period of time than most of this world's countries have had their constitutions.

For the paranoid: Just because John Ashcroft has now announced that U.S. citizens accused of aiding terrorists will be imprisoned indefinitely without charges, access to defense attorneys, or trial, and just because the same man has also explicitly accused critics of his policies as having abetted terrorists, I don't think it follows that he will start indefinitely imprisoning critics of his policies. But then, I never thought it'd come this far, either.

Before John Ashcroft starts accusing anyone of treason, he should look in the mirror. And have another shot of vodka.

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