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It can happen here

In fact, it is

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Here are two recent episodes that should scare the hell out of Americans as we try to measure the craters in our national soul left by the explosions of Sept. 11.

First, on Nov. 20, U.S. Rep. Saxby Chambliss told cops in Valdosta that officials should "just turn [the sheriff] loose and have him arrest every Muslim that crosses the state line."

He justified this obscenity -- racist on its face, not to mention illegal, immoral and anathema to America's concepts of freedom and justice -- as a way to bolster domestic security.

Chambliss (R-Dumbasarock), who wants to move his bigotry to the U.S. Senate, didn't realize that Bill Roberts, a reporter from the Valdosta Daily Times, was tape recording his remarks.

When it became apparent he had been busted, Chambliss did what any reptilian politician would do -- he turned bully and tried to have the sheriff lean on the newspaper's publisher to have the story killed. "Saxby later claimed he didn't do that," Roberts told me. "That simply isn't true."

Was Georgia outraged? Hardly. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution yawned about it in a half-dozen minor stories and columns. Jim Wooten, the rightwing bullhorn of the AJC, did his damnedest to salvage Chambliss' image by writing off the remarks as "lame attempts at humor." Ha, ha.

Compare that to the dozens of strident columns and stories bashing U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney for urging that New York take a $10 million donation from a Saudi sheik. McKinney opined that America should be more even-handed in dealing with the Middle East (a position, polls show, that holds widespread support). Demagogues, such as U.S. Sen. Zell Miller (D-Kill 'em All), mendaciously sought to twist McKinney's reasonable position into an assertion that America's foreign policy was at fault for the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The difference," says Roberts, the Valdosta reporter, "is that if you're a white and male politician in Georgia, you can get away with the most racist statements. Race and gender mean everything."

What's scary about the Chambliss brouhaha? Only that moronic yahoos such as the congressman and Miller are actually making policy for this country during a time of great crisis.

Here's the second event that shows this nation is really in trouble. A few days after Chambliss' bout with his own mouth, and across that state line he mentioned, federal agents, in their best jackboot style, were doing just what the congressman had urged.

On Nov. 24, a mild, pleasant Muslim academic named Mazen Al-Najjar was collared by the feds while leaving his Tampa apartment. He is now being held in solitary in a high security lockup, unable to talk to his wife and three young daughters. Although never charged with as much as a traffic ticket, his jailing is extremely harsh and punitive. He is in a 23-hour lock down and under 24-hour observation. He is strip searched twice daily. He has no access to the library, TV or newspapers.

Al-Najjar has been a forced guest of the state before. Eleven months ago, he was released after spending 1,307 days in jail, based on the legal abomination called "secret evidence." The Tampa Tribune had stirred a witch hunt in 1995, claiming Al-Najjar and others associated with a university think tank had "ties to terrorists." Those stories were disproved and discredited by other papers, including The Miami Herald, the St. Petersburg Times and by articles by me in CL's sister paper in Tampa, the Weekly Planet.

The only incriminating event was that one man who had once worked with Al-Najjar assumed command of one of the Palestinian terrorist groups months after leaving Tampa. But, among thousands of documents, hundreds of videotapes, megabytes of computer files and scores of interrogations, the feds never produced any evidence that anyone knew a terrorist was in their midst -- or that anyone was doing anything at all illegal. In 1998, Bob Blitzer, the then-head of the FBI's counterterrorism group told me, without reservation, that "no federal laws were broken" by Al-Najjar and his colleagues.

Moreover, Al-Najjar picked up many important supporters who have plenty of access to government intelligence -- Georgia Republican Congressman Bob Barr and House Democratic Whip David Bonoir, among others.

Prior to the Tribune's reports, the feds were blissfully unaware of any terrorists in Tampa (in fact, the only proven act of terrorism related to the Middle East that took place in Tampa was committed by a radical supporter of Israel). But prodded by the newspaper's slanted and alarmist stories, agents spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours trying to nail Al-Najjar and his colleagues.

Despite the total lack of evidence, it took three years before Al-Najjar could get in front of a federal judge in Miami. That judge decreed Al-Najjar's constitutional rights had been violated, and the case was referred to an immigration judge.

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