It’s a helluva war our government has gotten us into. A clever, determined enemy that uses the civilian population as a cover. It could go on for years, we’re told. There’s no end in sight.
I’m not talking about the war against terrorist networks in Afghanistan and beyond. I’m referring to another troubling conflict the crusade against civil liberties on the domestic front, the jihad against dissent that’s taking shape in Anthrackistan, our anxious homeland.
This nervous nation used to be called the United States of America (aka “America the Beautiful”). That was before the World Trade Center towers came crashing down and “everything changed” on Nine-Eleven. We actually had a Constitution with ten original amendments, which were meant to protect our freedom in times of war, as well as in times of peace.
Then a strange powder appeared on the Bill of Rights and our leaders, spooked by germ warfare, decided to scrap it. Turned out to be a hoax, but one can never be too careful in Anthrackastan.
Anthrax isn’t contagious, but the spores of fear are everywhere. Inflamed by calamity and dread, our patriotic paranoia is running rampant. We’re all on edge about what al-Qaida might do next. A commercial jet crashes in Queens and we immediately get the willies: was it also a terrorist attack? We don’t know where or when, but another September 11th seems inevitable.
Desperate to stop terrorists from striking again, the Central Intelligence Agency has pulled out all the stops even hiring psychics to join the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. Now that Kabul has fallen, CIA strategists are eager to dust off the 87-year-old Afghan king, Zahir Shah, who has lived in exile for the past three decades, and install him as the figurehead chief of a post-Taliban government.
Ah, the wish for kings . . . I feel it stirring among us, a deep-rooted authoritarian impulse that throbs during times of crisis, the age-old hankering for an almighty power to issue decrees and set matters straight. Maybe that’s our problem in Anthrackistan we don’t have a king. We only have a president, and a lousy one at that.
Personally, I think Bush would make a better monarch. He has always been a titular kind of guy, a front man for oil and ordnance. So let’s proclaim him “King George.” It’s a fitting appellation for a sovereign who rules by capricious whim and exercises power without judicial scrutiny or statutory authorization. That’s how things work these days in Anthrackistan, where people are subject to arbitrary commands from on high and most folks are willing to accept significant abridgements of freedom because they are afraid.
One of the main reasons that North American renegades fought a revolutionary struggle more than two hundred years ago was to keep the government from having too much power. The enemy back then was King George of England. Today another pretender to the throne named George is intent on usurping many of our hard-won constitutional rights.
Sir John Ashcroft, leading emissary of the royal court, tightened his Richelieu-like grip on the homeland last month when King George the latest affixed his seal of approval to the USA Patriot Act of 2001, which gives the government sweeping new powers to conduct secret searches without a warrant, tap telephones and computers, and detain suspects indefinitely in the name of fighting terrorism.
The USA Police State Act of 2001 would have been a more appropriate title for the bill that zoomed through Congress “without deliberation or debate,” as Russ Feingold (D-WI) noted. Feingold, the only Senator who opposed the draconian legislation, accused the Justice Department of exploiting “the emergency situation to get some things they’ve wanted for a long time.”
The new rules permit law enforcement agencies to compel the disclosure of anyone’s financial, medical or educational records. The federal government also has carte blanche license to monitor Web and email traffic transmitted by any Internet Service Provider. Civil liberties groups warn that this extraordinary expansion of government power to snoop and search could be used against U.S. citizens in routine criminal investigations unrelated to terrorism.
“It’s overkill,” says David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “The new legislation gives federal authorities too much power. The potential for abuse is enormous.” Sobel worries that it could lead to large-scale investigations, which violate the rights of innocent people by utilizing loopholes in intelligence law to bypass probable cause requirements in criminal cases.
Another new rule imposed by Attorney General Ashcroft allows the government to eavesdrop on conversations and intercept correspondence between prison inmates and their lawyers in effect, nullifying the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel. And last week King George signed a decree that the government can try people accused of terrorism behind closed doors in a special military tribunal, rather than in a civilian court.
Meanwhile, the government still holds more than a thousand “aliens” who were rounded up and taken into custody after Sept. 11th. Under the new regime, a foreigner visiting Disneyland could be arrested, jailed without a hearing, and incarcerated in perpetuity without ever being charged for a crime. Some detainees cleared of any link to terrorism have been held in harsh conditions for prolonged periods, and denied a chance to notify relatives of their whereabouts.
There’s even talk about using torture to make people divulge information about terrorism an idea supported by forty-five percent of Americans, according to a recent CNN poll. “U.S. investigators are considering resorting to harsher interrogation techniques, including torture,” reports the Times of London, adding: “The public pressure for results in the war on terrorism might also persuade the FBI to encourage the countries of suspects to seek their extradition, in the knowledge that they could be given a much rougher reception in jails back home.”
Subcontracting foreign police organizations that torture prisoners might afford novel opportunities for the FBI, but it’s an old routine for the CIA, which has been given more leeway to engage in domestic spying in the wake of Nine-Eleven. CIA operatives continue to run amok, while court jesters on Capitol Hill fulminate about unshackling our spies, blithely ignoring the fact that they had never been shackled to begin with. There was never any law that prohibited the CIA from enlisting narco-traffickers, death squad dons, neofascists and other malefactors as sources and espionage assets, only a proviso that such unwholesome machinations be cleared with a superior officer. According to CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, the agency “never turned down a field request to recruit an asset in a terrorist organization.”
It was precisely this type of covert activity whereby unsavory characters were recruited to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives that set the stage for the tragic events on September 11th. Islamic extremists, who had been trained and financed by the CIA to battle the Red Army in Afghanistan during the 1980s, subsequently turned their psychotic wrath against their erstwhile patron. But instead of reprimanding the reckless U.S. spymasters who ran the Afghan operation, our officials have rewarded the CIA with billions of additional dollars to combat “terrorism,” a term that is vaguely defined by the Patriot Act.
A “federal terrorist offense” is distinguished by “the intent to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct,” explains Democratic Congresswoman Patsy Mink, who adds: “This broad, unclear definition may include groups such as Greenpeace, along with the terrorists.” Ditto for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which “could be investigated as a terrorist group because one of its members hits the Secretary of Agriculture with a pie,” says Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington office.
The Patriot Act includes provisions for the suppression of dissent under the pretext of combating the new crime of “domestic terrorism.” Dozens of federal and state crimes are now considered terrorist acts if a political motive is involved. Henceforth, anyone who hacks into a computer network or throws a rock at a political demonstration could be treated as a terrorist. Attending an anti-globalization protest, blocking traffic or teaching civil disobedience tactics to others could be construed as support for terrorism.
In recent weeks, student demonstrators, civil libertarians, global justice workers, peace and animal rights activists have all been pegged as terrorist sympathizers. No less a royal authority than Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan has dubbed globalization “the antithesis of terrorism,” implying that those who condemn disparities in the global economic order are supporters of terrorism. The assault on the World Trade Center, according to King George himself, was above all an attack on free markets.
A few months prior to Sept. 11, FBI director Robert Mueller had named a couple of harmless guerrilla theater-type groups ‘Reclaim the Streets’ and ‘Carnival Against Capitalism’ during Senate testimony on the terrorist threat. The FBI continues to probe other organizations it claims are linked to terrorism, including the U.S. chapter of ‘Women in Black,’ a pacifist cadre that holds peace vigils to protest violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. “If the FBI cannot or will not distinguish between groups who collude in hatred and terrorism and peace activists who struggle in the full light of day against all forms of terrorism, then we are in serious trouble,” remarked one Women in Black member.
Unfortunately, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies often seem oblivious to such nuances. Throughout American history, federal investigators have targeted and harassed political dissidents. During the 1960s, the FBI mounted a full-fledged vendetta against Dr. Martin Luther King, while spying on numerous civil rights and anti-Vietnam war activists. By the mid-1970s, the Bureau had accumulated dossiers on more than one million Americans, but only a few individuals were actually charged with committing crimes. In the 1980s, government sleuths kept tabs on the sanctuary movement, which provided asylum in the United States for families fleeing Central American deaths quads.
Today, a big chill is upon us and many are peevish toward anything that smacks of dissent. If you question official policies, you run the risk of being labeled an apologist for terrorism. Lampoon our leaders and you’ll be banished from the airwaves, while major media grovel for Pentagon handouts and military analysts strut their stuff on television. Film industry executives admit they have been under pressure to take an “American stance” on issues, giving rise to concerns that the upsurge of jingoism could result in an anti-dissident “blacklist” much like Hollywood was muzzled during the McCarthy era.
Even two ostensibly liberal organizations, the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council, censored themselves and withdrew ads that chided Bush for his woeful environmental record. Such is the mood in Anthrackistan, where criticism of the king is frowned upon and newspaper columnists are fired for expressing patriotically incorrect views. “People have to watch what they say and what they do,” admonished White House press secretary Ari Fleisher.
A group of prominent intellectuals including Edward Said of Columbia University and philosopher Anatole Anton at San Francisco State University recently signed a letter asserting that they have been threatened and attacked for speaking out against U.S. foreign policy. Shortly thereafter, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a right-wing academic group founded by Lynne Cheney (the Veep’s wife), released a report accusing forty college professors of not showing enough patriotism since September 11th.
In what may be a harbinger of things to come, Nancy Oden, a Green Party USA coordinating committee member, was grabbed by armed guards and detained at Bangor International Airport in Maine on November 1st, as she attempted to board an American Airlines flight to Chicago. Prevented from flying, Oden was unable to attend a Green Party meeting in the Midwest the next day. “An official told me that my name had been flagged in the computer,” Oden recounted. “I was told that the airport was closed to me until further notice and that my ticket would not be refunded.”
An organic farmer with no prior arrest record, Oden believes she was targeted because of her outspoken political views. But an airport spokesperson claims that Oden caused the confrontation by refusing to cooperate with airport security a charge she denies. Whatever the case, it’s doubtful that this incident would have occurred before September 11th.
Perhaps if they spent less time spying on law-abiding citizens and non-violent social activists, our law enforcement agencies would be more successful in thwarting terrorist networks that are plotting mass murder.
Martin A. Lee is the author of Acid Dreams (Grove, 1986) and The Beast Reawakens (Little Brown, 1997).