states' rights wronged

I have been reading a lot lately about the Portland police's refusing to cooperate with the federal government's attempt to question 5000 immigrants in the United States.

It's rather hard to avoid - not only has the front page mentioned it for the past several days, but the letters to the editor section is full of irate, scared people and a handful of civil libertarians. (The Oregonian's XML processing leaves something to be desired, so some of these letters to the editor are formatted poorly. Yay local media!)

These letters don't differ very much in content. Most of them attempt to express disgust at the whole city of Portland for the actions of a very few. This intrigues me. As if I or anyone else who read the letter could do much now about the legal opinion of the city attorney, or the Oregon law he based his decision upon.

But apparently laying blame on those who are responsible is not dramatic enough. It makes me wonder if these same letter writers express disgust at the United States of America every time a federal official does something morally or legally wrong. Not that that ever happens. Heavens, no.

Of course, very few people seem to mention the whole legal side to this issue. It's apparently not very important. After all, these times are about standing united in a fight against terrorism, so never mind what the law says. So goes the subtext of most of the letters.

But what frightens me most is that these letters often demand a lack of intellectual thought. This is especially obvious in letters that state that Portland's attitude would be different had there been terrorist attacks nearby. Apparently, Portland's disdain for The American Way (not, mind you, "our" legal interpretations of existing laws) stems from our feeling safe on this side of the continent.

The not-so-subtle suggestion here is that the only people who are capable of thinking correctly in these times are those who are currently suffering the physical and emotional trauma caused by the terrorist attacks. That people whose thinking is calm and not influenced by fear are, in fact, thinking too much.

While I certainly grieve for the impact these attacks had on our country, I do not think that they are a license to let those wracked by fear and anger to do what they want to because they were wronged.

That is tantamount to vigilante justice. Should we also ask a woman who has been raped if her attacker deserves a fair trial by his peers, with all the ensuing legal protections afforded him? Or should we ask a man who has lost a son to a drunk driver if his attacker deserves to die, regardless of what the verdict or sentence that results in his trial is? Should we get rid of our courts and simply ask the victims what they think should happen to their accused attackers?

Thankfully, our country's legal system is not built on such thinking. Though we may hate them, criminals are afforded the protection of a system that assumes they are innocent until proven guilty. At least in theory.

So I do not think that the attitude of people in Portland is to be ignored because our city was not attacked. Nor do I think that the voices of people who have experienced directly the effects of terrorism should be silenced. Thankfully, in this representative democracy, everyone's opinion, from the cold liberal intellectual to the bleeding-heart right-winger, is welcome and necessary.

But our voices and opinions are not the law. And the law seems to be something we're more than willing to overlook right now, because we as Americans are scared. And suddenly, one lawyer's opinion that an Oregon state law prevents unhindered questioning of people who are not suspected of a crime (other than being immigrants) is now un-American.

Never mind that the people of Oregon passed that law to stop the random questioning of migrant farm workers by the police. Never mind that the Constitution allows states to grant their citizens more rights than those granted by the government. Never mind that the federal government has (or is supposed to have) checks and balances on it to prevent it from acting singlemindedly. No, we're scared and we want something done about it now, so forget the law.

Does no one realize the inherent dangers in this thinking? This is the thought process of armed insurgents and even terrorists, who find the law inconvenient or contrary to what they want, so they get it through intimidation. It is the thought process of those who jailed American citizens of Japanese descent in World War II. It is the thought process of the McCarthy era. These things are nearly universally reviled by modern Americans. Why, then, do we now choose this path?

For that matter, has anybody bothered to question the effectiveness of interrogating these 5000 immigrants? Is it assumed that because Ashcroft is a federal official, he can do no wrong? For all the lambasting Portland has received for not participating, you'd think that this process was sure to rid the country of all terrorist threats.

So if I understand it correctly, any terrorists or friends of terrorists will simply tell us what they were planning to do and turn themselves in, then? They won't lie, because this is a federal investigation, and clearly the terrorists respect and fear our laws? I mean, I'm not saying such questioning would turn up nothing, but this isn't Murder, She Wrote. Simply asking a person about wrongdoing will not cause them to 'fess up in a revealing flashback. Is it possible that we Americans are clutching at straws in an attempt to feel that something is being done to protect us?

And why is it that it's the Republicans who are attempting to ignore Oregon's voter-approved state rights (in this case and elsewhere)? Isn't the GOP supposed to be the party of the small federal government, in favor of states' rights and all that? Didn't Bush say that "while... there's a role for the federal government, it's not to impose its will on states and local communities"? Was that all just a bunch of hooey?

Not that both sides aren't playing politics, mind you. I'm fairly certain that Leahy is just grandstanding to make the Democrats look like our close friends again. But sometimes the best thing the government does is accuse the other half of the government of doing something wrong.

I have one final thought on all this. In the 1970's, Oregon governor Tom McCall became famous for saying "Come and visit us again and again. ... But, for heaven's sake, don't come here to live." This statement was received by those outside the state (especially to our south) as arrogant. After all, Oregon is mostly populated by immigrants, as is this country.

I find it odd, then, that the federal government, with its new power to detain immigrants and listen in on their conversations with their attorneys, its attempt to question immigrants solely because they are immigrants, and its general disdain for the rights of immigrants, would find itself at odds with a state that also seems to discourage its visitors to stay.

Oh, but don't you worry about it all if you're a citizen here. You're safe. The federal government would never come after you. After all, that would be unconstitutional.

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