Sacrificing freedom for 'security'


It's a Free Country: Personal Freedom in America after September 11
Edited by Danny Goldberg, Victor Goldberg and Robert Greenwald
RDV Books, 2002
362 pages, $39.95 (hb)


One month after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, 60-year-old retiree Barry Reingold was working out at his San Francisco gym. He was overheard saying that the US war against Afghanistan had more to do with the oil industry and its wealthy beneficiaries, like the Bush family, than any “war on terror”. Shortly afterwards, he was visited by two FBI agents and interrogated.

Reingold was not alone. Urged on by the US government, almost 500,000 people in the US have been dobbed in to the FBI to be investigated for suspected “terrorist” links.

Unlike Reingold, the vast majority of the 8000 Americans eventually interviewed by the FBI, as were the 2000 arrested and held in indefinite detention, were Muslim or Arab men. Like all of them, however, Reingold was innocent of any crime, let alone any connection to terrorism.

It's a Free Country: Personal Freedom in America after September 11, a book sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), analyses the abuses of civil liberties that have occurred following 9/11, Contributors include lawyers, artists, academics and others critical of the Bush government's drive to trade-off civil rights for “increased security”.

Attacks on civil liberties, racial discrimination and suppression of dissent, under the cover of super-patriotism, have a long ancestry in the US. In 1787, President John Adams fanned the fear of war with France and made French refugees in America subject to arbitrary deportation and incarceration, whilst criminalising criticism of these policies as unpatriotic.

In response to a widespread protest movement against Washington's entry into World War I in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson's administration prosecuted 2000 and jailed 1000 (mostly Italian, German and Russian immigrants, but also ministers of religion, newspaper editors and trade union leaders) for expressing critical opinions on the war. In the “Palmer raids” of 1919, US attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer authorised the FBI to round up, jail and deport thousands of mainly immigrant trade unionists, anarchists and socialists during a government-manufactured “Red scare”.

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the imprisonment of 112,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps in the deserts of California and the swamps of Arkansas, following Tokyo's attack on Pearl Harbour. None was ever charged with any crime. During the Cold War, anti-communist laws, government spies and congressional witch-hunters put hundreds in prison and ruined the careers of thousands of people, simply because of their left-wing political beliefs.

The administration of US President George Bush junior has now joined this illustrious list of repressive regimes. His regime is capitalising on, and inflaming, the fear of terrorism in order to attack civil liberties.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the FBI conducted a dragnet roundup of over 5000 men of Muslim or Arab origin — not because they were suspected of committing a crime but because they fitted the “profile” of a terrorist hijacker. Most were guilty of nothing more than minor technical breaches of immigration regulations unrelated to September 11.

Some were the victims of personal vendettas, like the Jordanian-born civil engineer who was informed upon by a rival building contractor. Or the Yemeni-born janitor who was fingered by his employer in retaliation for filing employment discrimination complaints.

Two thousand of these men were detained in secret, refused information about the charges filed against them, forbidden from making contact with their families and sometimes maltreated. Many are still detained. The “evidence” against them is withheld from the detainees and their lawyers.

Such “secret evidence” has been found to be easily disproved, as it was for the dozen wrongly convicted Arabic and Muslim men jailed for years under President Bill Clinton's 1996 anti-terrorism act, which allowed secret evidence for immigration proceedings.

The detainees are victims of the racist policy of “racial profiling”. Ineffective as a law enforcement tool (nothing related to September 11 has come from the thousands interviewed and jailed), racist round-ups are useful to governments because they create the impression that politicians are “doing something”, that demonstrate their “toughness” and they hit the populist racist nerve.

The anger, fear, inflamed patriotism and talk of war that erupts around a Pearl Harbour, a September 11 or a Bali bombing are used by governments to gather extra repressive powers that they have long sought. It is no accident that inflamed patriotism is branded into the very title of the USAPATRIOT Act, rushed into law in October 2001. It allows for expanded surveillance of email and web sites, the introduction of secret evidence, the monitoring of confidential client-attorney communications and legalises indefinite detention.

The USAPATRIOT Act broadens the definition of “terrorist organisation”, which could now encompass Greenpeace and would certainly have included the supporters of the movement that is today the legally constituted government of South Africa. The act creates the crime of “domestic terrorism”, which could have been applied to the hugely successful anti-globalisation demonstration against the World Trade Organisation protest in Seattle in 1999. The USAPATRIOT Act also allows for wider use of undercover agents to infiltrate organisations deemed to be “terrorist” (a revival of the discredited Cointelpro program of the FBI to disrupt the progressive, African-American and socialist movements of the 1960s).

US attorney general John Ashcroft is considering even harsher measures, such as the fingerprinting and photographing of 100,000 more Arab and Muslim men, a national ID card and a personal database on every US citizen, more public video surveillance and the use of facial recognition software.

To make detainees more cooperative, the use of “drugs or pressure tactics such as those employed by Israeli interrogators” — in other words, torture — or extradition to “friendly” countries, like Egypt or Jordan, where torture is practised, is being considered.

Human rights are no match for the heavy boots of super-patriotism at war. The detention of 300 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, in brutalising and dehumanising conditions, “violates every human rights norm relating to preventive detention” but the so-called “war on terror” justifies all. Bush has also authorised military tribunals — secret trials with death penalty powers and no independent appeal — for dealing, summarily and without due process, with terrorist “suspects”.

Human Rights Watch notes that the “subordination of human rights” and civil liberties to the “war on terror” is practised by many other governments, including the government of Australian Prime Minister John Howard. By “stroking post-September 11 fears of foreigners”, HRW pointed out, Howard “built his candidacy for re-election in November 2001 around his summary expulsion, in blatant violation of international refugee law, of asylum seekers”.

Although the ACLU's obsessive political “non-partisanship” detracts from the integrity of It's a Free Country by including some contributions from some Democrats (who are predicably silent on Clinton's abuses of civil liberties), and even a Republican (who is from the libertarian right and is loud on rhetoric but a faker who voted for the USAPATRIOT Act), there is more than adequate recompense from Ani Di Franco, Steve Earle, Michael Moore, Howard Zinn and others from the left who make the crucial connections between the “war on terror” abroad and the attacks on civil liberties at home.

Sacrificing freedom for “security”, and launching bombing frenzies, will not end terrorism. As many contributors note, US foreign policy, and the global economic inequality it enforces, lie at the heart of the problem. Standing in solidarity with the innocent victims of the US “war on terror” and repression of civil liberties is essential to stopping governments from acting out of callous and cynical political self-interest in the wake of terrorist outrages.

From Green Left Weekly, December 11, 2002.
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