As American wars go, President Bush’s crusade—excuse me, campaign—against terrorism doesn’t really make the big leagues. So far, American military action in Afghanistan is not even comparable to the Gulf War of 1990-91, and put next to the Civil War, World War I, or World War II, the current adventure barely registers. That doesn’t mean, however, that the war business is not proving useful to those ever on the alert to stamp out constitutional freedoms and those dissidents who exercise and enjoy them.
Almost from the very moment of last year’s terrorist attacks, an endless parade of experts, non-experts, wannabe experts, and used-to-be experts have strutted forth on TV, radio, and in the opinion pages of newspapers to explain to Americans how they are going to have to accustom themselves to less liberty; how they had better not complain about standing in line at airports for two hours or more and having their toenail clippers and bottle openers pocketed by an avaricious, largely untrained, and manifestly incompetent security staff; and how we all have to start pulling together to root out the terrorists amongst us. Of course, as a result of the crackpot immigration policies of the federal government for the last three decades, there are, in fact, terrorists amongst us, and the Justice Department eventually admitted that there are some 250,000 aliens in the United States whom it wishes to question about their possible role in terrorism, but is unable to locate.
Yet, even as various political leaders and public figures told us to shut up, sit down, and prepare for our forthcoming servitude calmly, neither the government nor the experts (for the most part) expressed the least discomfort with official immigration policies or the vast hordes of immigrants, many from Arabic lands, that have flooded the country. As I noted in “Enemies Within and Above” (Principalities & Powers, December 2001), as far as the American ruling class is concerned, the Constitution is expendable, but immigration and the multicultural and multiracial checkerboard it creates remain sacrosanct, unquestionable, and untouchable.
Just how expendable constitutional freedoms are soon became clear. Within a month of the terrorist attacks, the Congress passed and the President signed a bill vastly expanding the powers of the federal government to spy, investigate, surveil, and wiretap, to the point that civil libertarian Nat Hentoff wrote that the new law represented “the worst attack on the Bill of Rights since World War II.” For a gentleman of Mr. Hentoff’s persuasion, that’s saying something, since it means the current law is worse than Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Richard Nixon. Mr. Hentoff is a zealous (and largely consistent) defender of liberty, and perhaps he has overstated the case—but not by much. As Jeffrey Rosen explained in the New Republic,
If your colleague [unknown to you] is a target of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act investigation, the government could tap all your [own] communications on a shared phone, work computer or a public library terminal.
There really are terrorists inside the country and others outside who would like to get inside, and it makes sense to allow federal police and intelligence services a certain amount of elbow room in tracking them down. But there is every indication that the elbow room, like a space warp in a science-fiction story, will quickly balloon into a vast and uncharted universe of its own.
By the time of the anthrax attacks of last October, some in the tyranny lobby were actually banging the drum for what could only be called an undisguised police state. A popular historian named Jay Winik published in the Wall Street Journal (October 23) a long piece entitled “Security Comes Before Liberty,” in which he expounded the glorious precedents of Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt in suspending civil liberties during the various “national emergencies” that their own policies helped to manufacture. Mr. Winik began his little rationalization of despotism with a glowing account of the torture of a suspected terrorist by Philippine police for several weeks in 1995. The terrorist eventually belched up information that prevented an attack similar to those later committed on the World Trade Centers, and Mr. Winik made it entirely clear that the procedures employed by American police are woefully and regrettably backward compared to the more sophisticated techniques of their Filipino colleagues.
The piece was mainly a theoretical manifesto to show that police statism is as American as, well, Lincoln, Wilson, and Ole Moosejaw himself. The real case for torture was advanced when the Washington Post ran a story about how some federal authorities, dismayed by the refusal of various terrorist suspects to spew their secrets voluntarily, are now pondering “alternative strategies.” “Among the alternative strategies under discussion,” the Post reported without cracking a smirk,
are using drugs or pressure tactics, such as those employed occasionally by Israeli interrogators, to extract information. Another idea is extraditing the suspects to allied countries where security services sometimes employ threats to family members or resort to torture.
The article quoted one unnamed (for obvious reasons) FBI agent as saying, “But it could get to that spot where we could go to pressure . . . where we won’t have a choice, and we are probably getting there.” I agree; we probably are.
By the week after this report, who should start bolstering the case for the outright legalization of torture but that icon of progress and liberty, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. Speaking in St. Louis, the hero of a thousand courtroom crusades—excuse me, campaigns—for the “underdog” spoke up for the legalization of dousing the underdog with gasoline and setting it on fire. “Even torture may not be off the table as an information-gathering tool, Dershowitz said,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (November 5). “But there must be a national debate about the circumstances in which torture is permissible and who should have the power to decide when to use it.” Right-o. We wouldn’t want to lurch into torturing anyone for just any reason at all, would we? How fortunate we are to have such apostles of constitutional law as Mr. Dershowitz around to tell us how to do it and who gets to authorize it.
As to who some of the guests in the nation’s new torture chambers might be, don’t bet your box-cutters that they will only be Arabs and Muslims. Almost from the beginning of the war on terrorism, there was a steady and increasingly loud hum about right-wing “hate groups” and their exact relationship to the attacks. It may not have been entirely a coincidence that, the very week after the antiterrorism bill passed into law, the FBI, while acknowledging that it had no idea who was sending out anthrax-laced envelopes, hazarded the guess (it was nothing more) that it might be the work of “hate groups.” There was and is no more evidence for that theory than for the idea that the germs were being sent by the Girl Scouts—or for that matter by such violent groups as the Jewish Defense League, the Animal Liberation Front, and various environmental terrorist groups—but it was the “hate groups” of the right that got their names smeared across the headlines.
“Hate groups,” of course, now include not just truly violent or hateful groups but nearly every organization that defends the Confederate flag, advocates a halt to mass immigration, supports the Second Amendment, denounces homosexuality as a sin, or expresses militant opposition to abortion, and some of the witch-hunting phonies who pose as “experts” on “hate groups” even try to rope in such leaders of the “religious right” as Pat Robertson and Gary Bauer. As it turned out, however, the line on “hate groups” and their supposed connection to recent terrorism was as confused and without substance as the concept of the “hate group” itself. Last September, Newhouse News Service released a story titled “America’s racist-right fringe groups laud terror attack,” in what was an obvious and rather hamhanded effort to “link” the “haters” with those who really did commit terror. One of the few “hate group leaders” who expressed any sympathy for the September 11 attacks was a sad chap in a place named Ulysses, Pennsylvania, who ranted cheerfully about “Satan’s children, called Jews” and expressed the hope that “the World Trade Center burn to the ground.” Even on the thither frontiers of politics, however, such sentiments were hard to come by, but that did not stop federal authorities from blithely speculating on their responsibility for the anthrax-laced mail or the mainstream media from smearing them with some connection, however vague, with September 11. Eventually, unable to produce any evidence whatsoever of serious “hate group” sympathy for or involvement in terrorism, the witch hunters began to change the official line. On November 10, the Washington Post reported that, so far from expressing sympathy for the September 11 attacks,
some [hate] groups are using the events as a recruiting tool. White supremacy groups have used images of the burning World Trade Center towers on fliers as a way to argue that the United States should close its borders to new residents.
At the same time, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center admitted that it was doubtful that “neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan or domestic militia organizations” were behind the anthrax campaign. “We have leaned toward a foreign explanation or a madman with a microbiology degree,” Mr. Potok solemnly pronounced, as though he had any grounds or qualifications at all for “leaning toward” any explanation whatsoever.
Nevertheless, if one subtext of the aftermath of September 11 was that the Constitution is expendable, another was that, while foreign terrorism might now be a problem, the real enemy remains “white racism” and “hate,” and even if no evidence of “hate group” involvement was immediately available, mechanisms were being developed that made real evidence perhaps not so necessary after all.
The possibility of outright torture was one such mechanism, but another popped up when Attorney General John Ashcroft suddenly announced that the Justice Department would now monitor conversations between attorneys and their clients in terrorism cases. A grotesque and blatant violation of longstanding criminal procedure and constitutional law, the decision produced a few squeaks from the administration’s Democratic opponents but no serious opposition. A few days later, no doubt emboldened by the silence, the administration announced that it was authorizing secret military tribunals for foreigners charged with “terrorism” either in the United States or abroad (in places like Afghanistan). The new procedures were justified as necessary to protect the jurors from reprisals, and the President himself explained that it simply is “not practicable” to require the tribunals to operate in accordance with “the principles of law and the rules of evidence” that pertain in real criminal trials. Of course, we have held trials of terrorists before without their comrades murdering the jurors or paralyzing the government, and there’s no reason to think we cannot continue to do so. The real reason for the secret trials is probably that the government simply lacks the evidence to convict a good many suspects whose involvement in illegal activities is by no means provable under established rules of evidence and procedure; therefore, we change the rules of evidence and procedure in order to throw them in jail or drag them in front of a firing squad.
Admittedly, most of the extraordinary measures so far adopted or proposed are directed against foreign terrorists, not Americans, but having demonized law-abiding and nonviolent dissidents on the political right as members of “hate groups,” the government and its extensions and allies in the ruling class may well find it expedient to use the “precedents” of the Bush administration to justify locking up or silencing political forces that have nothing to do with terrorism but a great deal to do with defending the right to keep and bear arms, resisting the New World Order, protecting national sovereignty, opposing immigration, or upholding traditional cultural symbols and icons. In the minds of the ruling class, there is little practical and virtually no moral difference between American militias and similar groups on the unreconstructed right, on the one hand, and the Islamic mass murderers of Al Qaeda, on the other. There is, quite literally, no telling what the ruling class will do or how far its greed for power will reach once it has liberated its mind and conscience—as well as its actual policies—from whatever constitutional and legal restraints it has so far been unable to shatter.