First, They Came for the Immigrants...

Two old friends of mine -- a Jewish couple in their 80s, both retired university professors who fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and eventually became U.S. citizens -- made a stunning remark to me a few months ago: "You know, all our lives we have blamed our parents and our parents' generation for allowing Hitler to gain control. Now we're beginning to see how powerless they must have felt to stop what was happening all around them."

My friends' melancholy comment came back to me and a palpable chill ran down my spine when I read about the Gestapo-style arrest of U.S. citizen Maher "Mike" Hawash. Two weeks ago, police took the 38-year-old Intel software contractor from his Hillsboro home and put him in solitary confinement (according to his wife) in a federal prison. No charges have been filed against him, and his attorneys reportedly are forbidden to discuss the case. What is happening to our country?

I already had heard on National Public Radio a New Jersey attorney's account of having been appointed as counsel for Jose Padilla, the U.S. citizen arrested in Chicago nearly a year ago for supposedly planning to concoct a "dirty bomb" -- radioactive materials packed around a conventional explosive. After only one or two brief meetings, she was abruptly denied access to her client, who was transferred to a brig somewhere in South Carolina, where he remains in solitary confinement to this day, unindicted for any crime and unable to see or speak with his lawyer. Can this really be happening in the United States?

A few weeks ago a professor in the University of Idaho School of Law reported that FBI agents staged a predawn raid -- in full SWAT team regalia -- on the apartment of a Saudi doctoral candidate in computer science, dragging him away from his terrified wife and children and astonished neighbors.

The Washington Post has reported that around the country "at least 44 people" were being held, like Mike Hawash, under the same distorted and unprecedented interpretation of the "material witness" law, designed for grand jury participants. This is clearly an outright suspension of habeas corpus, the 700-year-old cornerstone of individual civil rights in Western jurisprudence, which protects us from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.

The "war on terrorism" -- the surrogate for the Cold War so desperately needed by the military-industrial complex to justify its hugely disproportionate bite out of the federal budget -- has, of course, served as the oh-so-convenient excuse for the erosion of our freedoms. And the contemptible timidity of our elected representatives, who rushed to pass the ill-named and patently unconstitutional U.S. Patriot Act unread and undebated, helped to provide a fig leaf of legality for this abridgement of our civil liberties.

Never has the plaintive confession of Pastor Martin Niemoeller sounded so relevant: "They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. . . . Then they came for me, and by that time, nobody was left to speak up."

Richard L. Clinton is a political science professor at Oregon State University.

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