Attack on Democracy

by Susan J. Abulhawa

Dissident Voice

November 18 2001


Just when it seemed the "anti-terror" measures had gone too far against civil liberties, the President signed a directive for military tribunals that bypass a pillar of democracy-the process of judicial review.


As things stand, 1,000 people linger in our jails without charge or trial and 5,000 more are on the list for "questioning." Charges of terrorism will be decided upon by the President himself and the suspect will be tried before a tribunal appointed by, you guessed it, the President himself. If the person is convicted (and the "if" here is rhetorical), he or she could face execution with no possibility for an appeal. If that isn't bad enough, the public, and perhaps the accused himself, may not be privy to the evidence against him or her.


The crowning outrage of this Presidential order is that the accusation of terrorism comes with no legal definition. In plain English, a man or a woman can be accused of a crime which has no legal definition, convicted on evidence he or say may or may not know, and executed in total secrecy in the United States of America and it is perfectly legal.


Defining terrorism would lend itself to analysis and scrutiny. Rather than deal with that, the President gave himself the very awesome power to subjectively decide who will stand accused, which could result in execution.


According to Webster, terrorism is "systematic use of violence, terror and intimidation to achieve an end." Terror is defined as "violence promoted by a group to achieve or maintain supremacy." Using these English language definitions, we would need to apprehend the Israeli government along with our "friendly" Arab governments. I think we could even find a few hundred thousand Iraqi civilians who could accuse and prove that charge against us.


Amazingly, there is little public outrage except, of course, from truly patriotic Americans in the Civil Liberties Union, committed to upholding our precious Constitution, the moral and legal high ground at the foundation of American values. In fact, popular response seems quite the opposite. The President is enjoying a 90% approval rating. Most Americans surveyed ( would like to see more such measures, like locking Arabs and Muslim immigrants out of our borders. Some even consider internment camps as an acceptable avenue.


Although few among us would disagree that the perpetrators of the New York massacre were terrorists, what about heavilyarmed soldiers who open fire on unarmed children? According to Chris Hedges, veteran foreign correspondent, in his report from Gaza ("A Gaza Diary," Harper's Magazine, October 2001), he watched Israeli soldiers "entice [Palestinian] children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport." The same was confirmed later in an Associated Press article. How does our government respond to this kind of terrorism? We send a little criticism wrapped in the Senate's recent approval of a $2.7 billion dollar gift to the State of Israel.


Who is or isn't a terrorist is subjective and always has been. The British probably considered George Washington a terrorist. Americans of course, thought him a freedom fighter. The British certainly considered Menachem Begin, Israel's former Prime Minister, a terrorist and even had his picture on wanted posters. Jewish immigrants in Palestine, however, considered him a freedom fighter. Similarly Palestinian freedom fighters are considered terrorists by Israel. Let us also remember how Reagan pointed to ferocious Afghani Mujahideen (Taliban precursors) as the equivalents of our founding fathers even though they were as brutal and merciless then as they are now.


Not long after September 11th, a Greyhound bus crash killed twelve people after a passenger slit the throat of the driver. Television, radio and print journalists actually said they weren't sure if it was an act of terrorism! When confirmation came that the perpetrator was Croatian (as opposed to Middle Eastern), it was decided that killing or terrorizing a whole bus-load of people was not an act of terrorism. In essence, it appears that the ethnicity of the criminal determined whether or not it was an act of terrorism.


It is not difficult to figure out which minority in this country will be victimized by the absolute power the President just bestowed upon himself and the military. Americans might not care too much, though. The laws that were enacted during the "war on drugs" in effect, criminalized being a poor black man. Few, besides African Americans, cared. The laws being enacted in this war on terrorism will, in practice, criminalize Middle Eastern ethnicity. Again, few, besides Arabs and Muslims, seem to care.


It is difficult for me to understand how willingly Americans will carve away at the Constitution, yet are indignant, even hostile, at the idea of reexamining our foreign policy, which, despite the dishonest discourse of the talking heads, has more to do with September 11th that do our precious civil rights.


President Bush would like us to believe that the 9/11 massacre was an attack on our way of life, our freedom and democracy. That is cynical dishonesty taking advantage of public confusion and fear. The truth is that Middle Easterners would like a little of the freedom we have. Palestinians would rather not live under a brutal occupation supported by our tax dollars. Saudis and Egyptians too would like to have freedoms denied by our friendly Arab dictators.


The terrorists of September didn't attack our freedom or our democracy. They were heartless murderers who wanted to punish us, not for our way of life, but our way of treating them. No one wants to hear this and we're content to stick our heads in the sand, send our bombs to crush the haters and give Congress and our President the green light to attack our rights and democratic processes.


One cannot ignore the words of a truly great American, Benjamin Franklin, who said: "those who will sell their liberties for security deserve neither."


Susan J. Abulhawa is a Palestinian who resides in Pennsylvania. She is the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, a non-profit organization dedicated to building playgrounds and recreation areas for Palestinian children living under military occupation. To find out more about this vital project, visit: Susan can be contacted at:




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