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Ashcan politics

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The only thing missing from John Ashcroft’s dog-and-pony show is the pony. There’s a sweet-looking black Labrador in the corner, but no frisky Shetland. The pooch’s taciturnity is reassuring.

It’s Aug. 21, and the conference room at Cobo Center is crammed with cops. The crowd is predominantly white, overwhelmingly male. Testosterone wafts like Aqua Velva, mixing ominously with the smell of fear.

The AG is doing damage control. Detroit is the third stop on what will be a 12-city effort to resuscitate the Patriot Act. Seems that the post-9/11-sky-is-falling environment that paved the way for the act has given way to introspection. Not everyone is certain that the unfettered expansion of police powers is really in the interest of this quaint thing called democracy. Even conservatives in Congress are rethinking the blank checks they signed over to Ashcroft et al. The House has already voted to repeal the act’s so-called “sneak and peek” provision, which allows authorities to search your house without telling you. Additional legislation would roll back other aspects of the act’s sweeping assault on individual rights. Lawsuits are stacking up.

For true patriots, the fact that Ashcroft feels the need to hit the hustings is good news. He’s taken a page from his boss, George W. Bush, whose “public” appearances are carefully choreographed pep rallies, peopled exclusively by rapturous faces.

His staff carefully calibrates the screens of the TelePrompTer minutes before his security detail marches in and Ashcroft enters the room. His unfortunate haircut lends an air of an effete but malignant hall monitor. He stiffly climbs the stairs of the dais, like a man wearing body armor, as are many of the officers arrayed around him. His graceless trudge betrays his faux avuncularity.

Ashcroft glows beatifically as Karen Young, an employee of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit, belts out the National Anthem. The man who speaks in tongues piously bobs his head and lip-synchs the closing lines.

Surprisingly, there is no projectile vomiting when Jeffrey Collins, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, invokes the name of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. while vouching for Ashcroft’s “strength of character.” Collins conveniently fails to mention that Ashcroft’s character has compelled him to fight court-ordered school desegregation and to lead a vicious, demagogical campaign to keep black Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White off the federal bench.

In his speech, Ashcroft strives mightily to inspire the kind of anxiety that allowed him to get the Patriot Act passed within six weeks of the 9/11 attacks. There’s brimstone, but no fire. Ashcroft doesn’t understand that his war on terror has also become a war on secular America. Americans have come to recognize that the intelligence failures that preceded 9/11 had little to do with police powers, and much to do with interagency incompetence and dysfunction. Ashcroft’s attempt this year to turbo-power the Patriot Act with new, more draconian police powers has met a chilly reception on Capitol Hill.

Americans are fully aware that we have determined foes, religious fanatics bent on robbing us of our liberty, our way of life. Some patriots, however, are beginning to wonder whether fanatics within our own government are as dangerous as those abroad. That would explain why John Ashcroft’s Patriot Tour 2003 bears a patina of desperation. With all this horseshit, there’s got to be a pony nearby.

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