Appalling Moments in Newtspeak


Since Newt Gingrich, currently the leading candidate for anti-Romney, comes across pretty well in my column this week (which quotes his comments on immigration), now may be a good time to remember some of the appalling positions he has taken over the years. Here I focus on civil liberties. 

Freedom of speech: At a 2006 awards dinner dedicated to the First Amendment, Gingrich said freedom of speech must be curtailed to win the War on Terror: "This is a serious, long-term war. Either before we lose a city or, if we are truly stupid, after we lose a city, we will adopt rules of engagement that use every technology we can find to break up their capacity to use the Internet, to break up their capacity to use free speech, and to go after people who want to kill us to stop them from recruiting people." He admitted this strategy might provoke "a serious debate about the First Amendment."

Freedom of religion: During the 2010 debate over plans to build a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center, Gingrich's jingoistic demagoguery made Sarah Palin seem calm and nuanced. In contrast with Palin, who urged supporters of the Park 51 project not to build the mosque but conceded they had a constitutional right to do so, Gingrich demanded government action to stop them, saying "we should not tolerate" what the First Amendment requires us to tolerate. He insisted "there should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." In response to those who noted that interfering with the project because of its Muslim character would violate the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom, he said "Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington." To understand what drove Gingrich's vehement opposition to Park 51, it might help to know he worries that in half a century the United States will be "a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists." 

Drug policy: As speaker of the House in 1995, Gingrich backed the death penalty for drug smugglers, saying, "You import commercial quantities of drugs in the United States for the purpose of destroying our children, we will kill you." In 1998, a decade after Congress created mandatory minimum sentences that were widely condemned as senselessly severe (including the crack penalties it voted almost unanimously to reduce last year), Gingrich still wanted to "increase penalties for selling illegal drugs" and "impose mandatory jail sentences for selling illegal drugs." Asked recently whether he still believed in executing drug dealers, he hedged a bit, referring to murderous cartel leaders who are already subject to the death penalty. But he expressed admiration for Singapore's drug policy, which includes forcibly testing anyone suspected of drug use (including tourists), long prison sentences for possession, and mandatory execution of anyone caught with more than a specified amount of drugs (18 ounces of marijuana, for example). "They've been very draconian," Gingrich said, and he meant that as a compliment.

Judicial review: Gingrich thinks Congress should abolish the courts of judges who reach decisions it does not like. Alternatively, he says, it can simply declare its acts exempt from judicial review.

Privacy: Gingrich says he would not change a thing about the PATRIOT Act. In 2007 he called the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance of communications between people in the U.S. and people in other countries "clearly justifiable." He added, "I would argue that that even inside the U.S., the Congress should adopt a law that says when you're in doubt on terrorism [as opposed to ordinary criminal cases], go ahead and wiretap and file the report with the judge, but don't slow down; don't wait for the lawyers…I am not at all cautious about chasing terrorists very, very aggressively."

Due process: Gingrich argues, in essence, that due process can be suspended by crying "national security." Under criminal law, he said at the November 22 Republican presidential debate, "the government should be frankly on defense and you're innocent until proven guilty. National security, the government should have many more tools in order to save our lives." Like Romney, Gingrich believes the president has the authority to order the summary execution of people he identifies as enemies in the War on Terror. "If you engage in war against the United States," he said at the November 13 Republican presidential debate, "you have none of the civil liberties of the United States"—leaving unresolved the question of how to determine who is at war with the United States in an ill-defined, worldwide, never-ending conflict against a scattered, amorphous enemy. 

I'm sure there is more. I welcome readers' suggestions.