Irrational prejudice is used against suspects of terrorismIt would be cause for concern if you noticed in this newspaper that people with Scandinavian surnames were being systematically arrested at a far greater pace than those whose families started off in England or Germany.
Such a circumstance would generate citizen calls to the newspaper and authorities, seeking the underlying reasons for the disparity in arrests. There might be legitimate reasons. Maybe there simply are more Scandinavian residents, and thus more Scandinavian lawbreakers. Or maybe someone is running a smuggling ring for Finn and Swede migrant laborers.
But maybe the newspaper could find no legitimate reason for the excess arrests. Perhaps we'd find the sheriff holds an irrational prejudice against Scandinavians after having his socks knocked off in a long-ago high school basketball game.
It is the newspaper's access to routine law enforcement documents, such as arrest logs, that reveals such patterns and opens the door to correcting possible abuses of official power. If arrests or other legal proceedings are kept secret, there's no way for the press and the public to objectively determine if authorities are acting in accordance with the law and the U.S. Constitution.
This isn't some far-fetched hypothetical situation. Around the nation, these kinds of issues crop up, everywhere from rural backwaters to the wards of Chicago. Thanks to the basic transparency of our legal system, sooner or later illegitimate and illegal arrest patterns are revealed and corrected.
That transparency, and with it our well-founded belief that injustices will eventually be righted, suffered a grievous blow this month when the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear a case calling for the government to reveal details about the nearly 1,000 suspects arrested after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Bush administration eventually disclosed the names of 129 who were charged with crimes, but it still refuses to say anything about the vast majority.
Many were deported for alleged immigration violations, but we may never be able to objectively assess whether these individuals were hapless bystanders, government critics or potential terrorists here because of slipshod immigration practices.
The court's quiet acquiescence in the administration's arrogance places each and every one of us at increased risk that someday we will be the ones held in secret detention, without access to an attorney or any other avenue to tell the community of our plight.
The Supreme Court, sadly diminished by its overt alliance with the sitting administration and its ultraright-wing agenda, will have a couple opportunities later this session to partially redeem itself in other cases related to Sept. 11.
We can only hope that the court majority's decisions in these cases will be molded by some residual sense of pride in American traditions and the established balance of power between the branches of government.