Minneapolis should follow Portland’s lead with FBI

Years after he earned his reputation as “untouchable” for battling the mob and corrupt Chicago officials, a frustrated and defeated Eliot Ness ordered the mass roundup of every vagrant in Cleveland’s Kingsbury Run and had the shantytown burned to the ground in a desperate attempt to capture the infamous “Mad Butcher of Cleveland.” The public’s outraged reaction marked the beginning of a disgraceful end for the celebrated lawman’s career.

Failing to learn from that example, Attorney General John Ashcroft, under pressure to capture the accomplices of the Sept. 11 terrorists, has thrown out his own dragnet and is asking local police to help him question some 5,000 young Middle Eastern men in hopes of finding an ill-defined clue to what terrorists might be planning next.

The Portland, Ore., police department’s refusal to cooperate with this nationwide interrogation campaign has become a national rallying point against the scope of Ashcroft’s domestic anti-terrorism program.

Acting Portland police Chief Andrew Kirkland cited a state law prohibiting local police from questioning immigrants not suspected of a crime when he announced Nov. 20 that his department would not interview any of the 200 men on the list provided by the FBI.

In doing so, Kirkland affirmed an important principle: Laws do not disappear simply because they are inconvenient, and the public’s desire for heads on a platter does not give an attorney general the right throw out the principles he has sworn an oath to uphold.

While the Justice Department has been tight-lipped about the purpose of the interviews, its representatives have said the interviews target recent immigrants from countries where the U.S. government believes terrorists are organizing future attacks. This “rounding-up-the-usual-suspects” approach wastes resources the local police could use to fight crimes happening now, and it also flies in the face of the Constitution’s attempt to protect the innocent from government harassment.

Although the interviews are officially voluntary, Minnesota Civil Liberties Union executive director Chuck Samuelson correctly points out that recent immigrants, unfamiliar with the American legal system – and perhaps barely speaking the language – would see an “implied threat” if they did not cooperate. This implied threat has particular currency as Ashcroft repeats his mantra that non-citizens are not entitled to the Constitution’s protections.

But rights do not originate in the Constitution; they are, as the Declaration of Independence says, inalienable and self-evident. Government exists to zealously protect these rights, not selectively dispense them.

So far, Twin Cities police departments have not been asked to help the FBI conduct its interrogations. When they are, they should join Portland and remind John Ashcroft that rounding up the innocent does not stop mad terrorists any more than it could catch a Mad Butcher.