Dispatch from Anthrakistan
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
IT'S A HELLUVA war our government has gotten us into. It could go on for years, we're told. There's no end in sight.
I'm not talking about the war against terrorist networks in Afghanistan and beyond. I'm referring to another troubling conflict: the crusade against civil liberties on the domestic front, the jihad against dissent that's taking shape in Anthrakistan, our anxious homeland.
This nervous nation used to be called the United States of America (a.k.a. America the Beautiful). That was before the World Trade Center towers came crashing down and "everything changed" on Sept. 11. We actually had a Constitution with 10 original amendments, which were meant to protect our freedom in times of war, as well as in times of peace.
Anthrax isn't contagious, but the spores of fear are everywhere. Inflamed by calamity and dread, our patriotic paranoia is running rampant. We're all on edge about what al-Qaeda might do next. A commercial jet crashes in Queens, and we immediately get the willies: was it a terrorist attack too? We don't know where or when, but another Sept. 11 seems inevitable.
Desperate to stop terrorists from striking again, the Central Intelligence Agency has pulled out all the stops -- even hiring psychics to join the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. Now that Kabul has fallen, CIA strategists are eager to dust off the 87-year-old Afghan king, Zahir Shah, who has lived in exile for the past three decades, and install him as the figurehead chief of a post-Taliban government.
Ah, the wish for kings ... I feel it stirring among us, a deep-rooted authoritarian impulse that throbs during times of crisis, the age-old hankering for an almighty power to issue decrees and set matters straight. Personally, I think George W. Bush would make a good monarch. After all, he has always been a titular kind of guy, a front man for oil and ordnance. So let's proclaim him King George. It's a fitting appellation for a sovereign who rules by capricious whim and exercises power without judicial scrutiny or statutory authorization. That's how things work these days in Anthrakistan.
Lord John Ashcroft, leading emissary of the royal court, tightened his Richelieu-like grip on the homeland last month when King George affixed his seal of approval to the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, which gives the government sweeping new powers to conduct secret searches without a warrant, tap telephones and computers, and detain suspects indefinitely in the name of fighting terrorism.
The USA Police State Act of 2001 would have been a more appropriate title for the bill that zoomed through Congress "without deliberation or debate," as Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) noted. Feingold, the only senator who opposed the draconian legislation, accused the Justice Department of exploiting "the emergency situation to get some things they've wanted for a long time."
"It's overkill," says David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "The new legislation gives federal authorities too much power. The potential for abuse is enormous."
Another new rule imposed by Lord Ashcroft allows the government to eavesdrop on conversations and intercept correspondence between prison inmates and their lawyers -- in effect nullifying the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel. And last week King George signed a decree that the government can try people accused of terrorism behind closed doors in a special military tribunal, rather than in a civilian court.
Meanwhile, the government still holds more than a thousand "aliens" who were rounded up and taken into custody after Sept. 11. Under the new regime, a foreigner visiting Disneyland can be arrested, jailed without a hearing, and incarcerated in perpetuity without ever being charged for a crime. Some detainees later cleared of any link to terrorism have been held in harsh conditions for prolonged periods and denied a chance to notify relatives of their whereabouts.
There's even talk of using torture to make people divulge information about terrorism -- an idea supported by 45 percent of Americans, according to a recent CNN poll. "U.S. investigators are considering resorting to harsher interrogation techniques, including torture," the London Times reports. "The public pressure for results in the war on terrorism might also persuade the FBI to encourage the countries of suspects to seek their extradition, in the knowledge that they could be given a much rougher reception in jails back home."
Subcontracting foreign police organizations that torture prisoners might afford novel opportunities for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but it's an old routine for the CIA, which has been given more leeway to engage in domestic spying in the wake of Sept. 11. CIA operatives continue to run amok, while court jesters on Capitol Hill fulminate about unshackling our spies, blithely ignoring the fact that they were never shackled to begin with. There was never any law that prohibited the CIA from enlisting narco-traffickers, death squad dons, neofascists, and other malefactors as sources and espionage assets, only a proviso that such unwholesome machinations be cleared with a superior officer. According to CIA spokesperson Bill Harlow, the agency "never turned down a field request to recruit an asset in a terrorist organization."
It was precisely this type of covert activity -- whereby unsavory characters were recruited to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives -- that set the stage for the tragic events of Sept. 11. Islamic extremists, who had been trained and financed by the CIA to battle the Red Army in Afghanistan during the 1980s, subsequently turned their psychotic wrath against their erstwhile patron. But instead of reprimanding the reckless U.S. spymasters who ran the Afghan operation, our officials have rewarded the CIA with billions of additional dollars to combat "terrorism," a term that is vaguely defined by the PATRIOT Act.
A "federal terrorist offense" is distinguished by "the intent to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct," explains Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii). "This broad, unclear definition may include groups such as Greenpeace, along with the terrorists." Ditto for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which "could be investigated as a terrorist group because one of its members hits the secretary of agriculture with a pie," says Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office.
In recent weeks, student demonstrators, civil libertarians, global justice workers, and peace and animal rights activists have all been pegged as terrorist sympathizers. No less an expert than Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan has dubbed globalization "the antithesis of terrorism," implying that those who condemn disparities in the global economic order are supporters of terrorism. The assault on the World Trade Center, according to King George himself, was above all an attack on free markets.
A few months prior to Sept. 11, FBI director Robert Mueller named a couple of harmless guerrilla theater-type groups -- Reclaim the Streets and Carnival Against Capitalism -- during Senate testimony on the terrorist threat. The FBI continues to probe other organizations it claims are linked to terrorism, including the U.S. chapter of Women in Black, a pacifist cadre that holds peace vigils to protest violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. "If the FBI cannot or will not distinguish between groups who collude in hatred and terrorism and peace activists who struggle in the full light of day against all forms of terrorism, then we are in serious trouble," one Women in Black member remarked.
Unfortunately, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies often seem oblivious to such nuances. Throughout American history, federal investigators have targeted and harassed political dissidents. During the 1960s the FBI mounted a full-fledged vendetta against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while spying on numerous civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activists. By the mid 1970s the FBI had accumulated dossiers on more than one million Americans, though only a few individuals were actually charged with committing crimes. In the 1980s government sleuths kept tabs on the sanctuary movement, which provided asylum in the United States for families fleeing Central American deaths squads.
Today a big chill is upon us, and many are peevish toward anything that smacks of dissent. If you question official policies, you run the risk of being labeled an apologist for terrorism. Lampoon our leaders and you'll be banished from the airwaves, while the major media grovel for Pentagon handouts and military analysts strut their stuff on television. Film-industry executives admit that they have been under pressure to take an "American stance" on issues, giving rise to concerns that the upsurge of jingoism could result in an anti-dissident blacklist much like the one that muzzled Hollywood during the McCarthy era.
Even two ostensibly liberal organizations, the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council, censored themselves and withdrew ads that chided Bush for his woeful environmental record. Such is the mood in Anthrakistan, where criticism of the king is frowned on and newspaper columnists are fired for expressing patriotically incorrect views. "People have to watch what they say and what they do," White House press secretary Ari Fleisher admonished.
Fifteen-year-old West Virginia sophomore Katie Sierra was recently suspended from her high school for wearing a T-shirt that read, "When I saw the dead and dying Afghani children on TV, I felt a newly recovered sense of national security. God Bless America." Several college professors who opposed the carpet bombing of Afghan cities were censured by university officials.
A group of prominent intellectuals -- including Edward Said of Columbia University and philosopher Anatole Anton of San Francisco State University -- signed a letter asserting that they had been threatened and attacked for speaking out against U.S. foreign policy. Shortly thereafter, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a right-wing academic group founded by Lynne Cheney (the veep's wife), released a report accusing 40 college professors of not showing enough patriotism since Sept. 11.
In what may be a harbinger of things to come, Nancy Oden, a Green Party USA coordinating committee member, was grabbed by armed guards and detained at Bangor International Airport in Maine on Nov. 1 as she attempted to board an American Airlines flight to Chicago. Prevented from flying, Oden was unable to attend a Green Party meeting in the Midwest the next day. "An official told me that my name had been flagged in the computer," Oden said. "I was told that the airport was closed to me until further notice and that my ticket would not be refunded."
An organic farmer with no prior arrest record, Oden believes she was targeted because of her outspoken political views. An airport spokesperson claims that Oden caused the confrontation by refusing to cooperate with airport security -- a charge Oden adamantly denies. Whatever the case, it's doubtful that this incident would have occurred before Sept. 11.
Perhaps if they spent less time spying on law-abiding citizens and nonviolent social activists, our law enforcement agencies would be more successful in thwarting terrorist networks that are plotting mass murder.
Martin A. Lee ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Acid Dreams and The Beast Reawakens.