August 6, 2003


MONTPELIER — Gov. Howard Dean’s call for a “re-evaluation” of some of America’s civil liberties following this week’s terrorist attacks was criticised Thursday by a Vermont Law School professor.

“Good God,” Vermont Law School Professor Michael Mello said when read the remarks Dean made at a Wednesday news conference. “It’s terribly irresponsible for the leader of our state to be saying stuff like that right now.”

Benson Scotch, the head of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it was simply too soon after the attacks to engage in the sort of debates Dean called for.

Dean said Wednesday he believed that the attacks and their aftermath would “require a re-evaluation of the importance of some of our specific civil liberties. I think there are going to be debates about what can be said where, what can be printed where, what kind of freedom of movement people have and whether it’s OK for a policeman to ask for your ID just because you’re walking down the street.”

To be fair, the story is dated September 14, 2001, a time when a lot of people were saying stupid things about civil liberties. The refrain from too many of the talking heads was that we’d have to put away our freedoms, like the childish things they were, and put our fate in the hands of Big Brother. (Of course, Dean should have been reading this column.)

And he does waffle a bit in the piece, saying that he hasn’t made up his mind. But perhaps some reporters should ask him if he has made up his mind on these subjects in the intervening years.

UPDATE: Reader Tom Nord emails:

That post on Dean’s remarks — a mere three days after 9/11 — is a pretty thinly veiled piece of agitprop. Everyone was acting a little freaked out that week.

Well, I said that.

He was not the only person to suggest we might need to sacrifice some civil liberties.

I said that, too.

As I recall, it was Ari Fleischer who put it so succinctly, “People need to watch what they say.” If you are going to start dredging up stuff like Dean’s remarks, why not create a whole gallery of embarrassing things said by politicos — from both sides of the aisle — during those awful days?

Sounds like Ari was right. But, sure, people were freaked out, and I blasted ’em then. But Dean’s running for President. Surely it’s not too much to ask that a President’s first instinct not be anti-civil liberties, and that a President be able to avoid saying dumb things in the midst of tragedy. Dean’s no worse than a lot of people who were on TV then. But he’s running for President, while David McCullough, for example, isn’t.

If anyone else running for President said similar stuff, by all means send me the links.

ANOTHER UPDATE: C.D. Harris thinks I’m giving Dean the benefit of the doubt when he doesn’t deserve it: “my experience has been that, generally speaking, people’s gut reactions are pretty reliable indicators of their mindset about things. Apparently, Dean’s is pure authoritarianism.”

Well, I don’t know. But someone should at least, you know, ask him about this.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Hesiod emails that I’m being intellectually dishonest for linking to the above and not linking to this statement by Dean in a interview:

Too many in my party voted for the Patriot Act. They believed that it was more important to show bipartisan support for President Bush during a moment of crisis than to stand up for the basic values of our constitution. They trusted this President, knowing full well that John Ashcroft was the Attorney General. Only one senator had the courage to vote against the Patriot Act— Senator Russ Feingold, and he deserves credit for doing so. We need more Democrats like Senator Feingold—Democrats who are willing to stand up for what is right, and stand against this President’s reckless disregard for our civil liberties. We don’t need John Ashcroft—or any other Attorney General—rifling through our library records. As Americans, we need to stand up—all of us—and ensure that our laws reflect our values. As President, I will repeal those parts of the Patriot Act that undermine our constitutional rights, and will stand against any further attempts to expand the government’s reach at the expense of our civil liberties.

Hesiod is somewhat overwrought here. I’m happy to hear that Dean opposes the Patriot Act, a bill that I also opposed. But it’s not a complete answer. Perhaps the language that Dean “will stand against any further attempts to expand the government’s reach at the expense of our civil liberties” is — except that I wonder if Dean really means it. Any further attempts? If he does mean it, I’m impressed.

MORE: Mitch Berg says I’m cutting Dean too much slack and adds: “Of course, had a Governor George (or Jeb) Bush said any such thing on 9/14/01, we’d be hearing about it.” From Hesiod!

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