Legislation passed in the heat of anger rarely ends up being well-reasoned, effective or in the public's best interest. With that in mind, Congress needs to step back and take a few deep breaths before launching into an anti-terrorism frenzy in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.
Rushing headlong into a battle royal against a variety of enemies - some known, some unknown - almost certainly will result in many innocent people getting hurt.Unfortunately, however, many lawmakers appear too eager to abandon restraint. Barely one day after the devastating blast, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., said he plans to toughen an anti-terrorism bill recently proposed by President Clinton.
That bill came in an overreaction to the World Trade Center bombing. In its present form, it is unconstitutional. One shudders to think what lawmakers would do to make it even tougher.
Among other things, the bill calls for the formation of a special deportation court that would be empowered to use secret evidence obtained from confidential sources against foreigners facing deportation. The accused would not have the right to examine the evidence or its source. In some cases, they wouldn't even be told what the evidence was.
Bombings such as those at the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City Federal Building are tragic, senseless crimes. But it would be equally senseless to trash the Constitution in a panicked response to these atrocities.
The bill would extract a hefty price from the nation's justice system. It would violate the Sixth Amendment's guarantee that all defendants have the right to face witnesses and to be informed of the nature and cause of accusations against them.
Other parts of the bill also are offensive. Among other things, it would grant the president broad power to declare a group to be terrorist in nature, thereby making it illegal for anyone in the United States to donate money or other forms of support to them, even if that support was for purposes other than terrorism. Those groups would have no clear avenue of appeal
Of course, U.S. citizens wouldn't be affected by this bill, but that is hardly relevant. Courts traditionally have held that constitutional guarantees apply to everyone within U.S. borders, whether citizens or not.
That is a concept often ignored by the general citizenry during times of war or other crises believed to be foreign in origin. The Clinton bill, versions of which are pending in both the House and Senate, would serve to inflame prejudices already too prevalent against people of Middle-Eastern descent.
These same prejudices led to early assumptions that Middle-Eastern terrorists were behind the Oklahoma bombing. To the contrary, however, the suspects arrested in connection with that crime are Americans believed to be affiliated with a home-grown paramilitary organization. Had it been in effect, the bill would have been powerless to prevent the tragedy.
The Constitution was designed to protect basic human rights from all types of government abuse. If the United States weakens or abandons those guarantees in the fight against terrorism, it has already lost the war.