Whose Rights Are Sacrificed?

Against the Current, No. 96, January/February 2002

The Editors

ATTORNEY GENERAL JOHN Ashcroft made it official: The Bill of Rights is toilet paper as far as the Bush administration is concerned.  Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ashcroft declared that anyone objecting to indefinite detentions without charges or access to attorneys, anyone demanding to know who is being held and where, anyone questioning the legality of military tribunals for civilian suspects, is by that fact alone abetting and assisting terrorists.

Senate Democrats, who had walked into that hearing promising to ask tough questions, responded to Ashcroft’s lecture in predictable fashion by rolling onto their backs, purring loudly and begging to have their bellies rubbed.  Not a one of them had the courage to defend the simple principles stated by the Executive Director of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA), William Schulz, in his December 6 appearance before the same committee:

“We should not fear long-standing mechanisms that are designed to help us distinguish between the innocent and the guilty.  We should not fear a court system designed to ensure due process and prevent cruel and inhumane treatment.  We should not fear our Constitutional protections or our international human rights obligations.”

Schulz also testified:

“Today, we release our most recent findings (showing) how U.S. and local law enforcement officials have denied some detainees access to counsel; prevented them from seeing relatives; denied them medicine and food; held them in shackles for prolonged periods of time; and subjected them to beatings and other mistreatment.”

Short-term emergency wartime measures?  Want to bet?  Consider some other “contingencies” under public discussion.

“Under international law, torture is absolutely prohibited.  There are no exceptions—war, national emergency, even the so-called threat of the `ticking bomb,'” Marty Rosenbluth, AIUSA’s country officer for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, emphasized in an interview with Against the Current.

“Even though there are some circumstances where many violations of human rights are permitted under international conventions, including administrative detentions and even lethal force against civilian populations, there are no conditions, no exceptions allowing torture.”

Even so, despite the United States’ signature on the Geneva convention barring the practice, torture is an option that has been openly discussed in the mass media for extracting “information” from suspected terrorists.  A column by Jonathan Alter in Newsweek (November 5, 2001) was undoubtedly a trial balloon to test the political viability of the idea, using Israel as the “model.”

That discussion dramatically highlights the extent of the government’s post-September 11 drive to carpet-bomb the civil rights and due process protections of non-citizens resident in the United States.  Only a fool would imagine that U.S. citizenship represents some impermeable wall that will ultimately protect the rest of us from the same gross abuses of state authority—or fail to realize that people of color, especially the young, will be first and hardest hit.

Is there any doubt, for example, that Philadelphia police who violently assaulted a legal and peaceful march for Mumia Abu-Jamal on December 8 were encouraged by the climate that the administration has deliberately created?  It’s open season on dissent in Bush-Ashcroft’s America.

The Dragnet

Consider the fact that over 1200 post-September 11 detainees were initially held without any public record of their names or locations, with no access to attorneys, no oversight of their conditions of confinement or methods of interrogation, no knowledge of what threats are being made or implied against them or their families.

Among roughly 650 still held, 104 (16%) have actually been charged with a crime, of whom “only about 10 or 11 are believed to have any relationship to the terrorist group al-Qaeda.  Of another group of 548 people, all unnamed, that [Attorney-General] Ashcroft said are being held on immigration charges across the country, only about a dozen are believed to have terrorist ties, the senior law enforcement officials said.” (New York Times, 11/29/01, A1-B7)

In short, among all those swept up in the dragnet, maybe two dozen (2%) are suspected of “terrorist ties.” Roughly half have been released; 90 or so (7-8%) are charged with offenses, typically some type of low-level fraud, unrelated to terrorism or September 11; the remaining 40% are held, unnamed, on immigration status charges alone.  This is life in America, right now, for Middle Eastern immigrant communities.

As Rosenbluth observes, those initially rounded up included such cases as “an Egyptian antiques dealer who was held for two months, because he happened to use the same computer at a store to book an airline ticket as a terrorist suspect.” Consider the question: Are these practices likely to enhance the confidence of ordinary people of these communities in the U.S. legal process, or their willingness to cooperate with investigators?

Finally, consider George W. Bush’s November 13 executive order for secret military tribunals of terrorist suspects.  This measure, which would involve trials not of captured military personnel but of civilians (including U.S. residents), is blatantly illegal, horrifying even to many conservatives — but quite likely to be upheld by the same Supreme Court majority that selected this President a year ago.

This announcement, fortunately, has already produced a backlash, and not only among U.S. civil libertarians whom the administration is more than willing to ignore.  A Spanish court refuses to extradite to the United States suspects who might be subject to military courts and/or the death penalty, which Spain and other European states have abolished.

There’s the case in a nutshell: While the United States claims to lead the world’s war on terrorism, protection of basic rights in the U.S. justice system depends on the good offices of European courts.

A New Witchhunt?

Whether the remainder of the Afghanistan war is of long or short duration; whether or not this war is followed by a follow-up frenzy of military actions against Iraq, Sudan or Somalia; regardless of all this, the assault on the rights of immigrant communities in particular and on basic legal due-process guarantees in general will continue for years.  Its potential impact could be the equal if not greater than the witchhunts of the McCarthy era, which poisoned U.S. political life for a generation.

The “logic” that identifies Middle Eastern males in general as potential terrorists is neither more nor less absurd than the “logic” that identifies, say, Black males as potential drug dealers, Latino males as potential illegal aliens or white Christian males as potential right-wing mad bombers.  It’s not that ALL of these groups will be targeted in the new era of re-legitimized racial/ethnic profiling; only the first two will.

That is the fact of life where unregulated state authority is imposed on already-existing societal racism.  The worst effects of the new National Security State regime may be not on the level of federal anti-terrorist or anti-drug dragnets, as evil as these are, but at the level of the local police where the visibility of abuse is so much lower.  Philadelphia’s December 8 police riot is an early warning signal.

It is also important to recognize, for example, what happens when and if such safeguards as the absolute prohibition on torture are breached.  Marty Rosenbluth tells the story of Israel’s use of “shaking” (which Jonathan Alter in Newsweek ludicrously misidentified with a different torture known as “hooding”):

“In 1994, after years in which so-called `moderate physical pressure’ had been accepted, methods of `exceptional pressure’ were authorized for interrogators `under extreme circumstances.’ This included violent physical shaking, a practice which causes the prisoner’s brain literally to bang back and forth inside the skull.

“This caused the death of at least one Palestinian detainee.  When Prime Minister Rabin was interviewed after that death, he defended the practice by saying that 8000 prisoners had been subjected to shaking and only one had died. So he gave away the fact that eight thousand people were tortured, all `under exceptional circumstances’—that’s what always happens, the so- called exceptional becomes the ordinary.

“So why then shouldn’t the Palestinian Authority be able to torture suspected collaborators with Israel?  Why shouldn’t any dictatorship torture prisoners, or any state that can claim to be threatened?  This shows why we must not, absolutely must not go in that direction.”

Corporate Candy Store

Meanwhile, back at the Bush ranch candy store, Halloween lasts late and Christmas comes early for corporate America.  Does United Air Lines want to force wage concessions on its union mechanics, whose pay is at 1994 levels and who could strike right before Christmas?  No problem: President Bush will use the Railway Labor Act to appoint a “special board” that bars any strike for an additional 60 days.

Cash infusion, anyone?  Step right up: Not only did Bush’s proposed “economic stimulus” repeal the “alternative minimum tax” that companies pay if creative accounting and tax shelters allow them to evade the regular corporate tax; it would rebate the alternative minimum tax they have paid for the past fourteen years.

Is there no shame?  None at all: It’s the biggest and the wealthiest corporations and individuals whose hiring and spending will reboot the economy, we’re told by the right-wing ideologues and the lobbyists who cooked up this giveaway, at exactly the moment when these corporate giants are pitching their suddenly-redundant work forces onto the street.

Historically speaking, war profiteering is as American as, well, war profiteering.  According to tradition, however, the profiteers are supposed to actually produce something for the war economy.  Standing in line to simply pocket government handouts is something of an innovation—perhaps because this war, unlike many previous ones, will not by itself bring about an economic stimulus to revive profits.

Santa’s Trick Bag

At the same time, the war has enabled the Bush administration to advance its pre-existing agenda.  Fast-track presidential negotiating authority for new “free trade” deals passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 215-214, following an extraordinary series of procedural manipulations and pressure tactics.

But the events most emblematic of the time surrounded the disintegration of Enron, which last year was the seventh largest corporation in the Fortune 500.

Everything you could want in the era of deregulation is here: Fraudulent bookkeeping (widespread throughout corporate America) so that creditors, customers and investors couldn’t see the coming collapse.  One hundred million dollars in last-minute payouts to Enron executives and favored traders, eating up the money for employees’ final paychecks and severance; top company officers dumping their Enron stock while their workers’ pensions, 100% tied up in that same stock, became completely worthless.

After all this, do you feel secure now?  Whether Christmas 2001 brought you Santa Claus or the Grinch, a sackful of money or a layoff slip, depends on where you are in the class structure of U.S. capitalism.  And if George Bush’s glorious war for America’s security brings you a letter of invitation to an interrogation, or a midnight knock on the door—well, isn’t that a reasonable price to pay for freedom?

from ATC 96 (January/February 2002)