Barr Exam

Why I'll miss the "worst drug warrior in Congress"


The Libertarian Party is celebrating the defeat of U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, whom it calls the "worst Drug Warrior in Congress." Although I spend much of my time criticizing the war on drugs, I do not share the L.P.'s enthusiasm.

There's no question that Barr, who recently lost his bid for the Republican nomination to represent Georgia's newly redrawn 7th District, is an enthusiastic prohibitionist. The four-term congressman has bucked public opinion by doggedly opposing the medical use of marijuana. He even supports a ban on hemp products because they sometimes contain trace amounts of THC–too little to get anyone high, but enough to offend Barr's sensibilities.

Yet Barr is also, paradoxically, a vocal champion of privacy and civil liberties. The tragedy of his career is that he does not recognize how the war on drugs undermines those values.

Despite his reputation as a rabid right-winger (based mainly on his early support for impeaching President Clinton), Barr is probably a more consistent defender of individual rights than the typical ACLU member. For one thing, unlike many self-proclaimed civil libertarians, he takes the Second Amendment seriously.

As a freshman, Barr led the fight to repeal the federal ban on so-called assault weapons, an arbitrary abridgment of the right to keep and bear arms that targets guns based on their militaristic appearance. He also introduced an amendment limiting the scope of the Gun-Free School Zones Act to conduct that was already illegal under state or local law.

Such efforts did not have broad support from the general public or Barr's fellow Republicans. His battles with gun controllers reflected his readiness to criticize the government for overstepping its proper bounds, even when party leaders might have preferred that he keep his mouth shut.

Barr, a former federal prosecutor, likewise has not hesitated to challenge law enforcement agencies. He emerged as a relentless inquisitor during the 1995 congressional investigation of the federal government's disastrous confrontation with the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas.

Barr has repeatedly defended the Fourth Amendment against encroachments by law enforcement officials seeking broader powers. He has tried to rein in the Justice Department's monitoring of Internet traffic and spoken out against the spread of police surveillance cameras.

"Where will the line be drawn?" Barr asked in July 2001. "Can it be drawn? Has government gained so much power to snoop that we have already lost the ability to fight it?"

Barr has also shown a commitment to due process. Last year he said the use of secret evidence in immigration proceedings "violates basic principles of fundamental fairness" and is "blatantly unconstitutional," noting that "a cornerstone of our judicial system is the right of individuals to view and respond to evidence against them."

Refreshing as such views were prior to September 11, Barr's continued defense of civil liberties since then has set him apart from all but a few of his colleagues in Congress. "Let us not rush into a vast expansion of government power in a misguided attempt to protect freedom," he warned less than a week after the attacks. "In doing so, we will inevitably erode the very freedoms we seek to protect."

Barr continues to oppose a national ID card, which he sees as part of "a concerted effort by government to dig deeper and deeper into the lives of lawful Americans." He expressed reservations about President Bush's order authorizing military tribunals for accused terrorists, although he decided, once the details were revealed, that the administration had struck "an appropriate balance between constitutional safeguards and national security."

Similarly, Barr ultimately voted for the anti-terrorism package known as the USA PATRIOT Act, saying "we were able to eliminate or severely limit the most egregious violations of Americans' civil liberties that were contained in the original proposal." Later he seemed to regret the vote, lamenting that "power taken by the government is rarely returned."

Although Barr will never admit it, that observation applies to the war on drugs as well as the war on terrorism. During the last few decades the leading threat to the Fourth Amendment has been the effort to separate illegal intoxicants from people who want them.

In one drug case after another, the Supreme Court has whittled away at protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. By continuing to support the crusade against unauthorized mental states even while proclaiming his commitment to privacy, Bob Barr has been his own worst enemy.