Ashcroft's in the House

The Little Man Behind the Curtain of Fascism


By Michael I. Niman ArtVoice 9/11/03


John Ashcroft invokes the Bible obsessively, but his actions speak only of hypocrisy.  It’s this blasphemous invocation of scripture on the part of both Ashcroft and the Bush administration in general that seems to have stripped words like “evil” of their meaning.  In this new moronic lexicon that often passes in the media for a national discourse, all enemies of the Bush administration are “the evil doers,” evil as they may or may not be.  In this rhetorical environment, words like “evil” lose their meaning, and writers are under pressure to abandon using them. 

“Evil doers” and “evil ones” aside, however, I’m not quite ready to abandon powerful words, stripped of any coherent meaning as they may temporarily be.  This all brings me back to John Ashcroft. “Evil” seems to be the first word that comes to mind when I think of Ashcroft.  It means “morally bad or wrong, harmful, injurious, causing misfortune, suffering or difficulty.” “Dangerous” is the second word that comes to mind.  Last week I set out to write a quick 800 word summing up Ashcroft’s frightening political record.  That piece quickly grew to 2,600 words while barely scratching the surface.

Wizard of Missouri

I don’t really know why, but it’s precisely this iniquitous aura, and a morbid sense of curiosity that brought me out to hear John Ashcroft speak in Buffalo on Monday.  I expected an awesome power, but in a scene reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz, all I saw was a mean little man who has caused a lot of innocent Americans a great deal of pain.

I knew Ashcroft wouldn’t be saying anything I haven’t already heard or read.  And the Ask No Questions, We Talk – You Listen script left little room for surprise.  Ashcroft’s Buffalo speech was not open to the public.  It was a strictly invitation only affair for regional police chiefs, law enforcement brass and prosecutors.  The media were allowed in as observers, but we were clearly second class citizens at this affair even though the whole charade was ultimately fabricated for our audiences.  We were allowed to listen, and to act as stenographers, ultimately bringing Ashcroft’s message to the public.  But we couldn’t ask questions.  Questions are the kryptonite this administrations fears the most – and they’ll avoid exposure to them at all costs, even with a compliant national press corps that seldom asks them.

Ashcroft spoke for only about a minute before invoking the mantra of the Bush administration – that being 9/11.  By minute three, with all the charisma of the grim reaper, he broke into a rendition of terror, terrorism, terrorist – exterminating any hope of a meaningful discussion about civil liberties.  Ashcroft was here to sell a new, more ominous Patriot Act dubbed Patriot Act II.  But he never actually mentioned it. Instead he read a script that could have been written by George Orwell.  The Patriot Act, according to Ashcroft, provides special protections for those exercising their constitutional rights – though in reality the point of a right is that it should require no special protection.  It’s a right. Get it?  And in reality the Act provides no such protections.  To the contrary, it strips them away.  he Patriot Act, Ashcroft went on to explain,  protects our liberties by protecting us from those who would deny us our liberties, meaning the amorphous terrorists, wherever they may lurk – but Ashcroft never explained that the Patriot Act “protects our liberties” by denying our civil liberties in order to “protect us from those who would deny us our liberties.”   Ya follow?

Black Cats and Holy Oil

Ashcroft is occasionally unpredictable, sometimes breaking into impromptu rants about  black cats being linked to the devil, or how he’s anointed with holy oil every time he gets sworn into office.  Spectators at an Ashcroft speech might even be treated to the spectacle of the Attorney General theatrically dropping to his knees in prayer – making a mockery of the separation of church and state while diverting debate to more ethereal and less pragmatic issues.  But none of this happened in Buffalo .  We were treated to a rather mundane canned robotic speech – ready to play anywhere and specific to nowhere.  Ashcroft seems to save his invocations of the deity for his Bible-belt audiences.  Here in Union territory (THE Union , as in Civil War), literally speaking before rows of Blue uniforms, Ashcroft invoked the one name he’d never utter back home – Lincoln .  Playing to his northeastern audience, he cited the Gettysburg Address and its reference to honoring the dead with actions.  The dead in this case are the victims of the September 11th terror attacks.  Readers of this column, however, are fully aware that Ashcroft brings no honor to their memory as he pimps our national tragedy in his struggle to dismantle the cornerstone of American democracy – the Bill of Rights.

Most of Ashcroft’s monolog was rather monotonous, focusing on the less onerous aspects of the Patriot Act and the new political culture it ushered in, while ignoring it’s more draconian provisions.  Hence, he talked about the creation of task forces while ignoring indefinite detention and secret tribunals.  He talked about how searches conducted under the auspices of the Patriot Act require judicial authorization, but neglected to mention that under Patriot II, search warrants would no longer be necessary for many investigations. And like everyone else in America , he promoted his website.

He credited The Patriot Act with providing the tools needed to arrest terrorists, citing the Lackawanna Eight as an example.  In reality, however, it wasn’t The Patriot Act, but instead a tip from concerned Lackawanna Muslims, that brought about those arrests.  And the facts indicate that the Eight were more likely a bunch of naïve wannabe players on a bizarre ill-fated road trip, then bona fide terrorists.  Suspect number nine, also an American citizen, was summarily executed without the benefit of trial by an American missile in Yemen – a fact no one in the Justice Department, most of all John Ashcroft, wants to talk about.

Ashcroft’s tour is a staged political event.  It’s all about massaging public opinion regarding The Patriot Act, in an effort to soften us up for Patriot Act II.  Democrats and civil libertarians are crying foul as Ashcroft pressures Justice Department employees to lobby elected officials while working on the government clock.  Similarly, he’s now pressuring law enforcement officials to do the same.  The reception in Buffalo , however, was luke warm at best.  With Ashcroft’s Justice Department a major source of grant funding for police agencies, attendance was sort of compulsory. Police chiefs politely applauded when the nation’s top law enforcement official entered the room, repeating their applause when he finished talking.  Absent, however, was the hooting frat-boy atmosphere now common in Congress.  Police officers are sworn to uphold the constitution, not lobby to have it denuded.  And like myself, I think many of them finally saw Ashcroft as just a little man and not a wizard. 

Outside of the Hyatt, one of the largest crowds yet to confront Ashcroft on his current tour was amassing.  Spanning the political spectrum and representing a political and cultural cross section of America , they came out to defend the constitution.  I saw clergy, students, grandmothers, union workers, librarians, anarchists, Republicans and at least one retired police officer among the crowd. Inside the Hyatt, Ashcroft led the crowd of law enforcement officers in a subdued singing of our National Anthem.  Moments later, the crowd outside crowd belted out a more invigorated version of My Country Tis Of Thee.  In a surreal karaoke moment, “Bombs Bursting in Air” competed with “Sweet Land of Liberty,” with the two groups of singers invisible to each other. 

Buffalo Patriot Act Stories

The new post 9/11 political culture is rearing its ugly head in Buffalo .  According to the ACLU, life in Buffalo is changing since the passage of the Patriot Act.  They cite a few examples, including that of three friends who drove too hard of a bargain at a local furniture store, angering the salesman, who blew them in to the Joint Terrorism Task Force for “being dark skinned,” supposedly suspicious, and “speaking Arabic.”  The “dark skinned man,” an Italian American, and his friends, were questioned repeatedly by what seemed to be a task force in search of a task.  In another instance, two drunks argued in a South Buffalo bar, causing one to call the Secret Service and claim the other threatened the president.  The latter was detained and questioned for what was certainly an unpleasant three hours for all involved. 

The stories go on.  A retired UB professor received a letter from his son in Europe , only to find a photo copy of the letter, bearing an internal Treasury Department marking (Ooops).  An American born Williamsville resident of Pakistani decent was stopped by an Amherst Police Officer who told the Williamsville resident’s Canadian passenger that “we can never be too careful with these people.”  After the officer, in an illegal (at least for the moment) search, found a crayon drawing done by the Williamsville resident’s son, which contained Arabic writing, the resident was questioned for an hour and warned that “we’ll be watching you.”  A disabled World War II veteran was detained and interrogated for two hours because he carried credit cards belonging to his wife and daughter, an act which profiled him as a potential terrorist. 

All of this adds up to a picture of a country that should be alien to native born Americans.  Yet this is Buffalo .  This is what our back yard looks like during these early days of the Patriot Act and the desecration of our civil liberties. And it could look a lot worse if Patriot II is enacted.  This is why Ashcroft is a ghoul – because he represents the death of American values.  And this is why patriotic Americans confront him with protests wherever he goes.


Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous columns are archived at

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