clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


IF, AS THE OLD saw goes, hard cases make bad law, so do tragedy and panic.

The very human impulse to do something, anything, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing is stampeding Congress and President Clinton into rushed lawmaking that is virtually certain to come to grief in the long run.The president is pushing an anti-terrorist bill he had proposed well before the explosion, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich talks of having additional, instant legislation ready within days.

Far better to hold back, draft legislation carefully and conduct detailed congressional hearings, rather than to hurry ill-formed impulses into law.

We've gone through panics like this before, and each time have lived to regret our actions. By now we should understand that even the most righteous anger can be a slyly malicious inspiration.

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, enacted in the mistaken belief that war with France was imminent, harassed immigrants and undermined rights to assembly and a free press.

Trying to get at suspected Southern sympathizers during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, indulged by Congress, suspended habeas corpus, our basic guarantee against unlawful detention.

Anti-subversive raids after the Soviet revolution - and Oklahoma City-like, after some Wall Street bombings - imprisoned thousands of socialists, anarchists and syndicalists. (Remember the syndicalist menace?) The attorney general used the 1917 Espionage Act as cover, and Congress approved the Immigration Act of 1920 to excuse his arbitrary deportations.

World War II incited the panicky detention of loyal Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, and the Smith Act of 1940, passed to outlaw groups said to be acting to overthrow the government, became the device for McCarthyism's wretched postwar political witch-hunts.

And, of course, the FBI was forced out of the domestic infiltration game after hearings in the mid-1970s exposed a whole nasty landfill of toxic practices.

The bureau had wiretapped and otherwise spied on journalists and had subverted anti-Vietnam War groups, includ- ing ones that weren't merely non-violent but were outright pacifist. It had harried civil rights organizations, even trying to drive Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide.

The current and serious terrorism challenge probably can be met most effectively by good intelligence. We can't harden every site. Perhaps, under narrow and closely monitored guidelines, the FBI can safely and usefully be allowed back into some preventive activities.

But the proposals suddenly in play all have severe civil liberty flaws. Care is no less called for than action is. We need not be immobilized by our past excesses, but surely we must be informed and cautioned by them.