Your Rights AND Your Life!

Against the Current, No. 107, November/December 2003

The Editors

THE PURSUIT OF empire, in the view of some of its critics, is what gives the people of the United States cheap gas for our Brontomobiles; low-paid immigrant labor for the jobs an affluent citizenry refuses to perform; and a standard of living that generally depends on exploiting an obscenely disproportionate share of the planet’s resources.

Be all that as it may, one of the prices we pay for empire has been visibly inflating ever since September 11, 2001. The price is our rights — whether as citizens or as immigrants, as Arab- or African- or South Asian-Americans caught in the newly respectable trap of ethnic or racial profiling, as activists or researchers who read library books or visit websites that the government, on whatever grounds it chooses, deems to be “a threat.”

“Your rights or your life,” is the message that mad-dog Attorney General John Ashcroft gives to the population. Turn your right to privacy, to free expression and inquiry, to travel, over to the government — which promises to take good care of it, of course — or else the terrorists will take over all our lives.

This kind of thing has happened before in U.S. history, going all the way back to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, and resurfaces in almost every major war or domestic conflict: the Palmer Raids following World War I, mass internment of Japanese Americans in WWII, McCarthyism, COINTELPRO and other atrocities. Nor should we forget that generations of Black Americans in the U.S. South, from the end of post-Civil War Reconstruction until well into the 1960s, lived under conditions of near-permanent state-sanctioned racial terror.

The present wave of repression is notable on several counts. First, the Bush regime’s imperial fantasy of “reconfiguring the Middle East” (and the world) is linked to an open-ended right-wing project of configuring a “new America” which will face no serious dissent from movements for global justice, labor rights or racial equality. A second feature of the repressive agenda is its marriage to the most advanced technology for surveillance and control of the entire population.

A third is the extraordinary veil of secrecy wrapped around the entire process. Fourth is the explicit attempt by the government to extend presumably temporary measures indefinitely, indeed to make them permanent — precisely in parallel to the perspective for a never-ending “war on terror” extending decades if not generations ahead.

Fifth is the good news: Despite the secrecy, the fear and the amazing control the regime exercises over the ostensibly “free and independent” mass media, the Bush-Ashcroft agenda is meeting more serious public resistance than we have seen in at least the early phases of such repression. The Patriot Act and its even worse proposed extensions not only face defeat; they may even help bring down this wretched administration.

While socialists welcome all vocal and organized opposition to the legislative and judicial atrocities perpetrated in the name of “combating terror,” whether that opposition comes from civil libertarians or liberals on the left to libertarians and honest conservatives on the right, there is a central point we wish to stress here:

The destruction of rights at home is inevitably a by-product of the drive to control the world. It always has been, and always will be, at the expense of civil rights that capital pursues profit through imperialism. The real message from Ashcroft and Company to us and to the people of the world is, in fact: Your rights, your money AND your life.

We Are All Targets

In a subsequent issue of Against the Current we plan to explore in depth the atrocities that are being perpetrated upon immigrant populations, including the sheer arbitrariness and cruelty that is involved. Here we want to highlight some of the ways in which we are all targets.

The Free Expression Policy Project sums it up well:

“Almost two years after passage of the USA Patriot Act, little is known about how the law is being used to track terrorists or innocent Americans. The Justice Department has foiled numerous attempts by lawmakers and civil libertarians to learn how the Administration has deployed new tools granted under the Act.”

Congressional hearings this spring yielded virtually no new information about the number of times individuals’ library records have been sought or how many court orders have been obtained to watch someone’s computer activities or conduct other surveillance on U.S. citizens. Justice officials claim that even generic numbers are classified, and are provided confidentially only to congressional intelligence committees . . .

“Meanwhile, Congress has received two Justice Department Inspector General reports that identify dozens of cases in which department employees, as well as officers of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Immigration   and   Naturalization Service, have been accused of serious civil liberties violations involving enforcement of the USA PATRIOT Act. The July document reported that
the Inspector General’s office had received 34 complaints that it considered credible in the six-month period that ended on June 15, 2003. The June document found broader problems in the treatment of hundreds of illegal immigrants rounded up after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.” (Nancy Kranich, “The Impact of the USA PATRIOT ACT: An Update,”

Many sections of this Act, adopted with disgracefully little debate in the well-orchestrated panic following 9/11, are scheduled to expire in 2005. So far, attempts by the administration and Senator Orrin Hatch to make its sweeping powers permanent have failed.

The resignation of the retread Watergate felon Admiral John Poindexter, architect of a fantastic secret surveillance program “Total Information Awareness” (TIA), dealt a blow to the administration’s program. The effort to put cosmetic lipstick on the pig by renaming it “Terrorism Information Awareness” was too little and to late.

The struggle continues, however, as the above-cited Free Expression Policy Project commentary reports:

“Ashcroft is mounting a personal campaign to espouse the benefits of the current anti-terrorism legislation…as well as advocating new legislation–‘Patriot III’–that would grant the federal government new powers, including increasing prison sentences, expanding secret services, interfering with Arab business transactions, and easing secret access to business records.”

Two draft sections (503 and 504) of a proposed Vital Interdiction of Criminal Terrorist Organizations Act, or “VICTORY Act,” would allow subpoenas by the Attorney General (“administrative subpoenas”) of consumer records from telecommunications companies, Internet servers and banks. At this writing, due to resistance on many fronts, formal introduction of this legislation has been held back.

All this when introduced, says the FEPP, “will undoubtedly take the place of the rumored `Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003′– the so-called Patriot Act II, a more extreme version of the USA PATRIOT Act that would have made it easier for the government to initiate surveillance and wiretapping of U.S. citizens, repealed current court limits on local police gathering information on religious and political activity, permitted law enforcement officers to seek roving warrants to monitor cellular telephone and other wireless communications, and allowed the government to obtain credit and library records without a warrant through the use of national security letters — a practice already in use without specific Congressional authorization.”

Time To Act and Resist

If you add all this to the monstrous and flagrant disregard of due process and international law in the detentions without charge at Guantanamo, the summary incarceration and deportations of immigrants on secret evidence, one conclusion is unavoidable: It is foolish to imagine that the government’s treatment of non-citizens will be separate from what it does to the rest of us.

Those who imagine that “only” non-citizens are subject to these measures should consider the case of Jose Padilla, held in a secret military location on secret charges and secret evidence, purportedly of a bombing plot which the government doesn’t need to demonstrate actually ever existed.

Indeed, Ashcroft has suggested that any “aid,” defined in the broadest and vaguest terms, to “terrorist” organizations should be grounds for stripping defendants of U.S. citizenship — the kind of measure found only in the laws of fascist or Stalinist states.

Meanwhile, the government is attempting to use the Patriot Act to revive the long-dormant deportation proceedings against the “LA 8,” seven Palestinians and a Kenyan woman, for constitutionally protected activism — they have never been charged with any crime whatsoever — more than twenty years ago! (See for example The Nation, October 27, 2003: 5-6.)

The battle has been joined, and the time to act and resist is now. Among the actions we recommend to our readers are the following:

1) Go to the above-cited website of The Free Expression Policy Project to read the full report quoted here, and websites of human and civil rights groups such as Amnesty International, Center for Constitutional Rights, American Civil Liberties Union and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

2) Challenge every presidential or congressional candidate who comes to your city, especially the Democrats, to answer yes or no: Will you repeal the USA PATRIOT Act? Will you end the illegal detentions at Guantanamo? Will you immediately stop deportations based on technical visa violations and secret evidence? Will you sweep the Justice Department clean of every vestige of the Ashcroft disease?

3) Continue the struggle against the present war and the future one, and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Remember that these wars, above all, create the swamp in which the pestilence of domestic repression breeds.

4) Above all, do not be intimidated from speaking out. More important than technology, fear is the regime’s most potent weapon. That is the chief reason for the secrecy and the cancellation of legal safeguards: to enforce silence through generalized fear. What’s at stake here are your rights, and your life.

ATC 107, November-December 2003