In the days following 9/11, George W. Bush provided exemplary leadership. He was calm yet resolute. He was patient when most people wanted him to go hit someone, anyone. He warned Americans not to ascribe collective guilt to Arabs or Muslims for the actions of 19 terrorists.
"Unfortunately, the government's actions over the past 20 months are in sharp contrast to its words," says Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The war on terror quickly turned into a war on immigrants."
A report last week by the Justice department's own internal watchdog skewered the government's harsh treatment of 762 illegal immigrants as part of its post-9/11 "absconder initiative." But the Bush administration is doing more than selectively rounding up Muslims violating immigration rules.
It is routinely ignoring due process, in violation of the Fifth Amendment that applies to all residents of the U.S. It is jailing asylum seekers, against international norms. It is fingerprinting and questioning legal residents.
To see the full scope of Attorney-General John Ashcroft's trashing of democratic traditions, you have to wade through his many initiatives, details of which are shrouded in a veil of secrecy:
Registering Muslim men
The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System affects two sets of people.
1) Non-citizens and non-green card holders from 25 nations. This was a general cattle call, with no individual notification to the hundreds of thousands on student, business or visitor visas. Yet non-compliance could make one "permanently inadmissible."
About 83,000 people responded, including many illegals hoping to win leniency. They didn't. About 13,000 have been marked for deportation. Rather than risk arrest, thousands of others fled. About 15,000 Pakistanis alone returned home or sought refuge in Europe or Canada, with 2,600 coming here.
The program caused particular havoc in Brooklyn's Pakistani community of 120,000, which has been nearly halved.
"These people were not terrorists," says Romero. "They came to the United States for the same reason previous generations of immigrants did ... grateful to be in a country where they could achieve a better life and live in freedom."
2) Also fingerprinted and questioned were those arriving from, or associated with, Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq and Sudan.
"You may not even have visited those places," says Marshall Fitz of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, from Washington, D.C.
"Inspectors at ports of entry have wide latitude" in deciding whom to haul in. About 47,000 people are thought to have been detained.
Between the two programs, how many terrorists have been unearthed?
Eleven people were suspected of possible terrorist links. Yet none was charged, or even detained.
Change of address
Millions of non-citizens, including legal permanent residents, were ordered to notify the INS of any change of address.
When hundreds of thousands did, the Immigration and Naturalization Service could not cope.
One office alone has 200,000 unprocessed forms.
"Each one of those 200,000 law-abiding immigrants is at risk of deportation because of sloppy INS record-keeping and a draconian enforcement mindset," says Romero.
Worse, says Fitz, the INS is yet to match address forms to immigration records.
Many can thus be charged for not complying with the new law when, in fact, they may have.
A security sweep of sensitive workplaces, including airports — an eminently justifiable measure — was extended to private firms supplying goods and services to airports and airlines.
"People who had never set foot near an airport were dragged in," says Fitz.
How many terrorists were found in the mass arrests? None.
In "highly coercive" encounters, says Romero, people are asked about bank accounts, mosque attendance and opinion about the U.S., in violation of their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion.
Initially, 5,000 people between 18 and 33 were identified by the FBI for questioning. In March last year, another 3,000 were called up.
Fewer than 20 were arrested. How many terrorists? None.
Mandatory detention of asylum seekers
Operation Liberty Shield was designed to protect America from terrorists during the war on Iraq.
It authorized detention of anyone seeking asylum from 33 unnamed nations.
The program has since morphed into a new one. Anyone arriving from Haiti, and not necessarily just from there, is being jailed.
Ashcroft's argument is not that they pose a danger but that such arrests send a signal to would-be asylum seekers not to come, thus freeing the Coast Guard for terrorist interdiction work.
To sum up: Ayatollah Ashcroft, a Christian evangelist with anti-Islamic views on record, is waging war on American Muslims, rather than engaging in an effective battle against terrorism.
Fritz: "It's not as if the government has made us any safer. Instead of targeting terrorists, they are targeting immigrants. And they are making the pile so big it's making it that much more difficult to find a terrorist in that huge haystack."
Dalia Hashad of the American Civil Liberties Union: "Selective law enforcement, religious, ethnic and racial profiling, holding people incommunicado and conducting closed hearings should never happen in the U.S."
Haroon Siddiqui is the Star's editorial page editor emeritus.
Copyright 1996-2003. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.