HIRTY-FIVE years ago my father was assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel hours after winning the California primary. Two months earlier he had spoken to students in Scottsbluff, Neb., outlining his vision of justice in America. He quoted John Adams, who called the founding of America part of a ''divine plan for the liberation of the slavish part of mankind all over the globe.'' Adams's faith, my father said, grew ''from confidence that the example set by our nation - the example of individual liberty fused with common effort - would spark liberty around the planet.''
Remarkably, 35 years after his death, people continue to invoke my father's name, words, and legacy, though often to advance strikingly different points of view. One of those people is Attorney General John Ashcroft. At a ceremony in Washington 18 months ago in which the main Justice Department building was named after my father, Ashcroft said, ''We are not merely relabeling this building in the memory of Robert Kennedy, we are rededicating the Department of Justice to the causes he served.''
In a speech to the US Conference of Mayors a month earlier, Ashcroft likened his own efforts leading the ''war against terrorism'' to my father's campaign against organized crime. He said ''Attorney General Kennedy made no apologies for using all of the available resources of the law to disrupt and dismantle organized crime networks.'' He observed that ''Robert Kennedy's Justice Department, it is said, would arrest mobsters for `spitting on the sidewalk' if it would help the battle against organized crime.''
Ashcroft has cast aside my father's passionate commitment to human rights and individual liberties. If he were alive today, my father would be an outspoken critic of the assault on civil liberties that has been carried out in the last 20 months in the name of fighting terrorism. He would have opposed, as I do, the Patriot Act, which gives the federal government unprecedented powers to detain immigrants and to intrude on personal privacy. He would have been appalled by the efforts by this administration to designate US citizens as enemy combatants, denying them the right to legal counsel or a substantive review of their cases in court. And he would have agreed with the assessment of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights that ''core US values are being undermined by aggressive executive branch actions that are usurping the constitutional powers of the federal courts and Congress.''
At the same time, my father would have applauded the moral courage and patriotism of Glenn Fine, the inspector general of the Justice Department, who last week issued a highly critical report of the Justice Department's round-up and preventive detention of hundreds of immigrants in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Fine concluded that these arrests and detentions had ''significant problems'' and that federal officials ''made little attempt to distinguish'' between immigrants with possible ties to terrorism and those simply swept up randomly in the investigation.
The report also documents the Justice Department's failure to charge detainees and inform them of the charges against them. Congress debated this issue when it considered the Patriot Act in the fall of 2001. The final version of that law requires the attorney general to designate detainees it deems dangerous as ''suspected terrorists'' and then to charge them or release them within seven days of their arrest.
Remarkably, the Justice Department has sidestepped even these watered-down protections time after time. As the inspector general's report spells out, in the fall of 2001 the Justice Department promulgated new ''custody procedure regulations,'' which permit the detention of any alien - regardless of whether he or she has been designated as a ''suspected terrorist'' - without charge for a ''reasonable period'' in the event of an ''emergency'' or other ''extraordinary circumstances.'' Using this sweeping executive authority, the Justice Department has avoided the constraints of the Patriot Act, detaining hundreds of immigrants for prolonged periods without charge or trial. As the inspector general points out, these regulations define neither what would constitute ''extraordinary circumstances'' nor what constitutes a ''reasonable period of time'' for detaining such individuals.
As we remember my father and his vision of liberty and justice, let us renew our determination not to be silent in the face of official actions that erode basic human rights protections in this country. Perhaps we should start by calling on Congress to demand that the attorney general withdraw these custody procedure regulations.
Kerry Kennedy Cuomo is the author of ''Speak Truth to Power'' and a board member of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
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