Only in America?
by Barbara Sumner Burstyn
October 6, 2003
It's a strange feeling to wake up one average, middle-class North American morning and realize your beliefs could get you killed. Not in a random, drive-by, developing-world, terrorist-bombing kind of way. But in an officially sanctioned, totally legal, death by lethal injection way.
At least, if President Bush's call on Congress on the eve of the second anniversary of September 11 to extend the death penalty is anything to go by.
It began in June when Attorney-General John Ashcroft told lawmakers that the death penalty needed to be expanded to cover "material supporters" of terrorist organizations. On the surface it seems fair enough. If you give money to al Qaeda then you have to expect a harsh penalty.
But there's a catch. They've changed the definition of terrorist.
In fact the Patriot II Act redefines terrorism so vaguely and broadly it's not a great leap to envisage the definition including political activists or just about anyone who belongs to an organization that disagrees with the Administration.
Greenpeace for example. It stands for non-violent, creative confrontation to expose global environmental problems and their causes. While Greenpeace is adamant it does not endorse sabotage it's really only a matter of definition, especially since the organization has simulated sabotaging safety at nuclear facilities.
And given that Bush specifically stated that the death penalty should be used in certain cases of sabotage against military and nuclear facilities, it's not difficult to see how Greenpeace could be ruled a terrorist organization, transforming your membership into material support.
A little extreme perhaps? Not if you consider the FBI arrest of peaceful protesters exposing an illegal shipment of mahogany. Or the dubbing of acts of vandalism by the Earth Liberation Front (they spray-painted slogans such as "greed and sloth" on SUVs) as domestic terrorism. Or the ability under Patriot II to conduct all manner of surveillance without warrants; authorize secret arrests, detentions, and grand jury subpoenas; create DNA databases of those suspected of association with terrorism or terrorist groups; and to enable the Government to remove citizenship from persons who belong to or support disfavored political groups.
But it’s not only your organization membership that brings you under the Patriot II umbrella. Hiding behind that new broad catch-all phrase, domestic terrorism, the act is shaping up to become a crime-fighting tool par excellence.
US Justice Dept official Mark Corallo was reported in the New York Times as saying they “have an obligation to do everything to protect the lives and liberties of Americans from attack, whether it's from terrorists or garden-variety criminals.”
And there, right before your eyes, you see how far the ground has shifted. Under Patriot II all other criminal legislation can be short-circuited, the laws and standards of evidence lowered, the usual legal checks and balances of a democratic society superseded. And instead of a judiciary-led legal system you begin to understand it's the FBI that is in charge, with a Government agenda.
Under imminent terrorist attack those shortcuts make perfect sense, but when used against local drug dealers, car thieves, internet fraudsters et al, they begin to look suspiciously like the early tentacles of a totalitarian society.
Section 127 of Patriot II allows the Federal Government to supersede all local statutes governing autopsies. So imagine yourself caught up in an investigation following, say, your attendance at an anti-war rally. Remember, under this act you can't call a lawyer or even a family member. Essentially, once you've slipped into the wide cracks of the over-broad definition of a terrorist, you have no rights at all.
And if perhaps you died while under interrogation, the autopsy results could show a suicide or some other finding favorable to the Government.
Perhaps this all sounds far-fetched. Especially, if, like me, you were bought up with the golden rule: if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to worry about. But when your Greenpeace bumper sticker, or your church attendance or the size of your family become red flags that can trigger the opening of an FBI file in your name, you know things have changed.
And it's the little things that signal that change. Like the growing sense that it's not wise to express your concerns openly. Or when you pick up any suburban US newspaper and discover the two defining characteristics: the dearth of international coverage and the voluminous column space given to crime, all of it ugly, all of it adding to the climate of fear that increasingly pervades the country. In that masterfully created environment, US Justice Department official Corallo's comments sound not only imminently sensible, they sound like a lifesaver.
Unless of course you really do have something to hide; like your Greenpeace membership, your internet browsing and perhaps that book on activism you bought from Canada. That could just about be enough to get you killed. Only in America. Oh, and North Korea and Communist China and Stalinist Russia and Zimbabwe and Iraq, pre and post Saddam.
Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website to read more of her work: http://www.sumnerburstyn.com/.