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The New Inquisition
by Lydia Howell
February 17, 2005

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Some questions are haunting me more and more these days.

How many more of our civil liberties are Americans willing to lose as long as they're told it's to “prevent terrorism”? How many thousands of people (mostly Iraqi and Afghani people, but also Canadian and American citizens) can be put under “preventive detention” for “national security” before we become horrified? Call this by an accurate rather than Orwellian name: thousands are in prisons, without charges, without trials, without conviction for any crime. Few have access to lawyers or human rights monitors.

Feel safe yet?

How can the outrage about Abu Ghraib torture have faded from the public consciousness so quickly? The torture continues as our attention is elsewhere and when mentioned at all is only minimized or justified.

Feel safe yet?

Now, your right to a strong legal defense by a lawyer has taken a huge hit.

Last week, New York City civil liberties attorney and National Lawyers Guild member Lynne Stewart faced a guilty verdict on the vaguest of charges: conspiracy. It's a prosecutor’s favorite charge because so little actual evidence is required. What does Stewart now face up to 35 years in prison for? The charges read: “conspiracy to prepare to assist terrorists” and “conspiracy to give material aid to terrorists.”

What did Stewart actually do? Her job.

Stewart represented the imprisoned Omar Abdel-Ramen, also known as “the blind sheik,” convicted for the first WTC attack in 1993. Stewart believes he was convicted on fabricated evidence. Stewart broke a prison regulation -- but BROKE NO LAW -- that banned press communication from Abdel-Ramen. Ms. Stewart put out one press release three years ago, which has been termed “a call for terrorism.” No violence of any kind ever resulted. Such a call for censorship of prisoners is as much what is critical about this case as is the attack on everyone's right to a “vigorous defense” -- which seems to be Stewart's other “crime”.

As a long time activist, working on police brutality and death penalty abolition, I cannot emphasize strongly enough that access to the press is a crucial part of fighting such fights. People falsely charged must have the chance to tell their side of the story and have strong, fearless lawyers defending them if they are to have any hope of justice. The verdict against Lynne Stewart aims to make some people “unworthy” of defense and to censor them from public view in the media.

All these actions by Bush Administration are throwing us backwards to medieval practices that our Bill of Rights was created to protect us from.

It seems increasingly that many Americans -- especially white, middle-class Americans are willing to accept all this, from torture to censorship. I've concluded this because most white, middle-class Americans cannot imagine that THEY (or anyone they know) could be subjected to this new Inquisition. They're wrong.

Remember Sara Jane Olson? She's the St. Paul, Minnesota social justice activist and white “soccer mom” married to a doctor who was arrested, tried and convicted of “conspiracy to commit terrorism” almost 25 years ago. There was no evidence against Olson, only “guilt by association”: her best friend in college had joined the Symbolese Liberation Army (SLA) in the mid-1970s, and participated in the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. In May 1975, a police shootout killed Olson's friend and four others. Sara Jane Olson's only “crime” was a speech she made at a rally expressing outraged grief over the killing of her friend. Over 25 years later, she was arrested on the conspiracy charge and faces another 4 or 5 years in a California prison cell. That's how the conspiracy charge works and it’s especially effective when linked to fears of terrorism.

Of course, the conspiracy charge has had a successful “trial run” in the ongoing, failed “war on drugs” where half of the 2 million incarcerated Americans (most of them African-American and Chicano/a) are there on drug charges. Many of those are “conspiracy to traffic in drugs” where no actual drugs were ever found. Since mostly poor, inner city people of color were caught in this net, most white people had no concern about the civil liberties implications.

Now, Green Party members and non-violent peace activist have discovered they're on “no fly” lists. Over a thousand protestors were swept up in a “pre-emptive” roundup and held for two days to keep them from protesting the Republican National Convention in NYC. The conviction against Lynne Stewart is a dire warning that those marked “terrorist” should not have any rights to defense, should not be heard in the press.  This means anyone who does not support government policies can be targeted as a “terrorist”. “Guilt by association” can mean just knowing Muslim or Arab people makes you vulnerable. The label “terrorist” (and those who “conspire to aid” them) is today's “witchcraft” charge. As during the Inquisition, the mere accusation is virtually proof of guilt.

If we don't support Lynne Stewart and win, all of us should be very very afraid. None of us will be able to feel safe from abuses by our own government.

Lydia Howell is a longtime activist, independent print journalist and producer/host of “Catalyst: Politics & Culture” which originally broadcast this commentary. The program airs Tuesdays at 11am on KFAI Radio. All shows archived for two weeks after broadcast (