A No-Questions-Asked War

During his much-acclaimed state of the union speech, George W. Bush did his usual we're-fighting-for-freedom-and-liberty-for-everyone schtick. (Yeah, tell that to dissidents harassed or imprisoned in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan -- all vital partners in the war-on-terrorism coalition.) But the boy-president-turned-man-president went much further, proclaiming "America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice and religious tolerance."

Now you'd have to be blind to not see where I am heading. Let's concede that's one helluva standard for conduct at home and abroad. Alas, it's been routinely ignored by this administration, as it has pursued the war overseas and within America's borders.

Limits on the power of the state? In the aftermath of September 11 -- before the fires were out at the World Trade Towers -- Bush rushed to assume more power for the government. At his insistence, Congress, with only modest discussion and debate, passed the sweeping USA Patriot Act, which included wide-ranging provisions that granted the feds more ability to spy on people. With his executive order permitting the establishment of military tribunals that could try (and then execute) non-citizens suspected of terrorism, Bush assumed powers that conservative columnist William Safire characterized as dictatorial.

Free speech? Bush's attorney general, John Ashcroft, accused civil libertarian critics of the White House of treason.

Equal justice? Many of Bush's anti-terrorism measures, enacted either through legislation or executive order, distinguished between citizens and non-citizens and yanked due-process rights from the latter.

As Bush went on about these "non-negotiable demands," I thought of Jean Tony Antoine Oulai, a 34-year-old citizen of the Ivory Coast. He is one of the 1200 or so individuals arrested during Ashcroft's post-9/11 dragnet. On September 14, he tried to board a plane in Jacksonville, Florida, hoping to return home to Los Angeles. Airline officials conducted a random search of his checked luggage -- a suitcase and two small boxes his cousin had been storing for him in Orlando. The airline employees found in the boxes a stun gun, flight manuals, and material supposedly in Arabic. The FBI and INS were called in, and Oulai was taken to a local county jail, where, he claims, he was denied access to a phone.

Over the next four months, Oulai was shuffled from one prison to another -- from Florida to upstate New York to Alexandria, Virginia. He maintains that on one occasion he was soundly beaten and that at one jail he was held in a cell kept dark nineteen hours a day. He was asked by his captors if he is a Muslim; he is a Catholic. His lawyer notes that at one point the feds would not tell him where Oulai was. His ordeal was masterfully detailed by Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein in a page-one article published several days before Bush's speech.

Oulai, who emigrated to the United States in 1988 and who had recently been trying to establish an organization to promote aid to West Africa, denies he had anything to do with the terrorist attacks. He says the flight manuals were from the days he attended flight school in Florida. (There is evidence showing he did take classes at a Florida flight school.) He asserts he had no Arabic material in his possession, and he and his family members say he does not know Arabic. He concedes he bought the stun gun a few years ago and had kept it in the packing box he checked at the airport. Oulai, according to federal regulations, should have told the airline his checked box contained a stun gun -- which he did not. But that sort of violation is normally cause for a fine, not imprisonment. He also has admitted to a technical visa violation and in November agreed to accept deportation. But then the FBI charged him with being a material witness in a criminal proceeding and he was held further. As Goldstein noted, in the FBI affidavit used to justify his on-going detention Oulai was described as Arabic. Yet he is clearly a black African.

Oulai's tale is modern-day Kafka. Not much rule of law or equal justice here. Yet the episode has generated not much criticism or outrage. When was the last time you heard a member of Congress raise questions about the civil liberties implications of the White House's anti-terrorism efforts? The little noise that occurred two months ago has died down.

Within the public discourse, there appears to be no space for considering the excesses of the war on terrorism. Another example: on January 24, U.S. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan raided two small compounds in a town 100 miles north of Kandahar. The action was one of the largest known ground operations of the war. Almost two dozen people were killed. Twenty-seven were captured, and these, according to the Pentagon, were mostly Taliban. It made front-page headlines. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pointed to the raid as an indication the United States was still actively in pursuit of terrorists and their comrades. Then several days later, The New York Times ran a piece by Craig Smith -- not on page one -- that gently but effectively decimated the official account.

After first quoting Pentagon officials defending the raid, the story dryly noted, "But in dozens of interviews this weekend, residents in this town ... said the two-hour raid before dawn, which ended with an American plane firing at the compound, was an error."

The locals Smith spoke to said that one of the compounds, a former grade school, had been briefly used by the Taliban late in the war but more recently it had served as a weapons depot for a local disarmament drive. The townspeople told Smith that after the raid they found the bodies of two individuals who had their hands tied behind them. A farmer maintained that during the attack he heard people in one compound screaming, "For God's sake, do not kill us. We surrender." An Afghan soldier who claimed to have survived the assault maintained the men captured and killed had been working for the provincial governor. And a fellow who said he was a local official told Smith that after the raid he found on a destroyed truck a piece of paper bearing the stars-and-stripes and the words, "God Bless America." There was also a handwritten addition: "Have a nice day. From Damage, Inc."

This is gruesome stuff. Did American Special Ops, fighting for "human dignity," erroneously slay Afghans involved in an arms-collection program and then leave a black-humor calling card? Had bound prisoners been executed? Smith presents a strong case. But not even his editors were eager to see this matter get front-page attention. Who in Congress wants to poke into this? Or into those instances when eyewitness testimony from Afghans suggests that civilian targets have been accidentally bombed by U.S. forces? (Days after the Times story appeared, Pentagon officials said the U.S. Central Command was investigating the incident. Yet Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, remarked that their forces had done nothing wrong.) As the United States continues a war on terrorism that Bush promises to be extensive and long, is it not fair to ask, just how precise are our bombs and intelligence?

Unfortunately, to pose such queries is seen by many as a traitorous deed. Several weeks ago, I wrote a piece in The Los Angeles Times proposing that the Afghan civilians harmed by misguided American bombs receive compensation from the United States. If Washington is kicking in several hundred million dollars -- and it should be more -- for reconstruction in Afghanistan, then why not provide a small amount of funds directly to those villagers who have lost relatives, limbs, homes or businesses due to targeting errors of the U.S. military?

The piece was reprinted; I talked about the idea on cable news and National Public Radio. And the hundred-plus emails I received in response were mostly rather impolite. ("Asshole" does seem to be the word of choice for angry cable viewers.) I was accused of being a Taliban sympathizer and an al Qaeda lover, opposed to the war, in favor of terrorism. My proposal was unattached to any criticism of the war. Since Rumsfeld had said he regretted the loss of civilian life in Afghanistan, why not attach something concrete to his expression of sympathy?

I realize that response-mail of this kind is produced by the most driven and motivated viewers and readers and, consequently, represents nothing. Still, I concluded that for many folks, any talk not completely in sync with the conventional rah-rah sounds like treason. Questioning the detention of Oulai and others, questioning the conduct of those who planned and mounted the January 24 raid -- there is not much room in America for these exercises at this time. But how else to protect human dignity, equal justice, rule of law and all those lofty abstracts for which Bush is warring?

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.

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