I make semi-regular visits to the local federal prison (Cumberland, Maryland) to see a friend who is incarcerated there. As the other visitors and I wait in the prison camp lobby, we are greeted by pictures of President George Bush, the head of federal prisons, and U.S. Attorney John Ashcroft. The picture is airbrushed (or at least has hidden the prominent moles on Ashcroft’s face), which is a fitting thing, I believe, as it also serves as a metaphor for describing the current state of federal government justice: airbrushed on the outside, but the inside is thoroughly rotten and hideous to see in the full light of real justice.
Because I teach at a state university, it is not difficult to find critics of Ashcroft among my colleagues. In fact, it would be rare to find a defender of Ashcroft on this campus, as hatred for him is lumped with the virulent hatred that faculty members here (and at most other colleges and universities) have for President Bush. None of this is surprising.
The source of the hatred is less clear. Yes, they are familiar with the Patriot Act, although I doubt many of my colleagues could clearly state their reasons that they are against the law, except for citing something about "library investigations." In fact, they seem genuinely surprised when I tell them that much of the Patriot Act was written by Janet Reno’s DOJ, although Congress blocked the more draconian parts of the law — until 9/11 came along and U.S. lawmakers wanted to be seen as "doing something" to stop terrorism.
Thus, I think that the hatred they have for Ashcroft is more generic than the Patriot Act. After all, he and Bush are Republicans, and that is enough for most of my colleagues. (In the same vein, I think that much of the vitriol directed by Republicans against Bill Clinton was because he was a Democrat.)
However, I do not operate in just one set of circles. My family and I attend a Presbyterian Church in a conservative denomination, and many of my friends from church circles are supporters of Bush, Ashcroft, and the war in Iraq. Thus, during the week I hear one set of opinions, while hearing another set on Sundays.
Ashcroft’s strongest support seems to be from evangelical Christians. Two years ago, the evangelical news magazine World (in the past, I did some writing for that publication) gave Ashcroft its "Daniel of the Year" award. The namesake of the award, the Old Testament prophet Daniel, was true to God and his faith and even went to the lion’s den, although the Biblical account of the story notes that God kept the lions from harming Daniel. Therefore, the editors of World believed Ashcroft to be a man of Godly principles, someone who does right even in the face of pressures to do otherwise.
I disagree wholeheartedly, and that is the point of this article. In the past, I have strongly criticized Ashcroft for his support of our modern "injustice" system. Nor do I flinch from what I have written in the past; if anything, my anti-Ashcroft stance is even stronger than it was more than a year ago when I wrote those articles.
In one way, I can understand the evangelicals’ infatuation with Ashcroft; he is One of Us. Throughout my life, I can recall being excited to know that a famous person also confessed Christianity, and that is the case across evangelical circles. Thus, Christianity Today in 1975 could run an article speculating that President Gerald Ford was a Christian; Christians in general were supportive of Jimmy Carter’s bid for the presidency, although many politically conservative Christians soured on him once he was elected to office.
This excitement does not come from a vacuum. Evangelicals are a minority in this country, and a despised minority at that. Having a Really Famous Person in our camp is bound to bring excitement, the "Hey, we have a place, too!" syndrome.
Moreover, when Democrats bloodied Ashcroft during his confirmation hearings in 2001, they zeroed in on his religious beliefs, and even I felt threatened by their questions. It is clear that Democrats despise conservative Christians and are increasingly applying an unconstitutional "religious test" to government appointments. Thus, I found myself supporting Ashcroft’s bid to become Attorney General (with reservations), and since he had criticized Reno on many occasions, I even thought he might be an improvement, especially since Reno had proven to be corrupt and dishonest.
Prior to the 9/11 attacks, Ashcroft performed to my expectations. He vigorously prosecuted the War on Drugs, which is abominable, I believe, but his performance was not much different there than what we had seen from Reno. Furthermore, in the face of strong criticism, he did weigh in on the side of individual gun owners in his interpretation of the Second Amendment, as opposed to the nonsensical "collective right" that the U.S. Supreme Court has used when applying the principles of that particular amendment.
Since 9/11, however, it seems that Ashcroft has forgotten that this country has a Constitution and his actions have convinced me that he and I have entirely different interpretations of law. I like to think that I stand with the historic "Rights of Englishmen" as expounded by the Christian jurist William Blackstone, who declared that law must be a "shield" to protect the innocent from the guilty, and to protect individuals from predatory government.
Ashcroft, on the other hand, seems to view law simply as a tool to be manipulated in order to gain criminal convictions. For one, the Martha Stewart case demonstrates that Ashcroft and his minions are not afraid to use the law as nothing more than a tripwire. Furthermore, there can be no doubt that Ashcroft is serving as "the man behind the curtain" in this case, as the U.S. attorney who brought the case, James Comey, recently was appointed the number two man at the DOJ.
Ashcroft’s DOJ is not confining itself to pressing spurious charges against a wealthy female Democrat, however. The linked article by Ellen S. Podgor and Paul Rosenzweig describes legal action currently being pursued by Ashcroft’s DOJ, which speaks volumes as to his view of law and justice.
I would disagree with Podger and Rosenzweig on one important point, however. This is not a case of prosecutors simply losing their way. Instead, it describes the current state of federal criminal law in which nearly everyone can be indicted and convicted for something, should federal prosecutors choose to pursue them.
Another case, this one involving peaceful protesters at Bush’s appearances, demands further condemnation of Ashcroft and the federal criminal system. Because some federal officials did not approve of a sign held by Brett Bursey at a Bush rally in Columbia, South Carolina, he was being tried on a rarely-enforced statute for “entering a restricted area around the president of the United States.” (At this writing, the federal magistrate has not rendered a verdict. If found guilty, Bursey could go to federal prison for up to six months.)
Although the USA imprisons more people than any other nation on the planet (2.1 million of the world’s eight million prisoners languish in U.S. jails and prisons), Ashcroft apparently believes that even more people here should be behind bars. The DOJ is actively taking down information on judges that engage in "downward departures" of sentences, which is little more than naked intimidation of individuals who are trying to modify the harshness of federal sentencing guidelines.
While Ashcroft and his underlings have spun this as a measure to make sure that dangerous felons are kept off the streets, the reality of federal crimes and sentences is much different than what the government tells us. Far from being dangerous people, about 84% of federal inmates are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. While one may disagree on whether or not drug prohibition is a proper policy for the U.S. Government to follow, the draconian sentences that accompany U.S. drug laws are a disgrace.
So far, however, Ashcroft in his defense might say that he is following the law. In the case of Jose Padilla and a number of young Muslim males arrested and detained following 9/11, however, it is clear that Ashcroft believes his DOJ is a law unto itself. The Padilla case is especially poignant.
Arrested more than a year ago on suspicions that he was trying to make a "dirty bomb" (an explosive device that would spread heavy doses of nuclear radiation in a populated area), Padilla is currently held in the federal brig at Charleston, South Carolina, but has not been charged with anything. Keep in mind that Padilla is an American citizen, and the law explicitly states that a U.S. citizen cannot be held incommunicado as Ashcroft is doing to Padilla.
Almost every Christian is familiar with two incidents involving St. Paul, who had Roman citizenship. When in the city of Philippi, he and a companion, Silas, were beaten and thrown into jail without trial. After Paul informed the local authorities afterwards of his citizenship, the authorities were frightened, as they realized they could be severely punished for their transgressions. Elsewhere, just before he was to be beaten by authorities, Paul asked the jailer of he had the authority to beat a Roman citizen before he could be convicted at trial. Again, the authorities backed down.
I write this because I believe Ashcroft knows these stories well. No doubt, he believes as I do that the trial and execution of Jesus Christ were illegal and miscarriages of justice. Yet, when it comes to doing likewise, Ashcroft suddenly forgets his Christianity and acts more like the lawless tyrant Pontius Pilate.
(The FBI manual, which Ashcroft uses on a regular basis, declares that people being investigated or questioned by the feds “have forfeited their rights to the truth.” To put it another way, Ashcroft’s DOJ has an official policy of lying, which breaks the Ninth Commandment, another example of Ashcroft’s trashing of the Christian faith.)
Over the past year, I along with a regular co-author, Candice E. Jackson, have written a number of articles describing the injustice of the federal criminal system. In our research, we have found not only bad laws, but have seen where authorities have lied, committed felonies, and suborned perjury. These are not the exceptions to the system; they are the rule.
When John Ashcroft was asked during his confirmation whether or not his Christian faith would keep him from obeying and enforcing U.S. laws, he answered that it would not. At the time, none of us knew just how true those words would become.
January 7, 2004