After the initial horror of the Oklahoma City bombing, official reactions were certain to be heavy-handed, and a great many reasonable people were likely to be swept along with the draconian countermeasures proposed. We should not be surprised about the sweeping nature of the so-called “counterterrorist” laws suggested this spring, which included the inevitable package of restrictions on the rights of immigrants and aliens, increased federal surveillance powers, and greater powers to infiltrate subversive groups. Measures of this sort have been on the collective wish-list of the federal justice agencies for years, and naturally enough they have taken this unparalleled opportunity to expand their powers. The time is perfect precisely because so few legislators have the temerity right now to vote against anything labeled an “Anti-Terrorism Law.”
Though the FBI and its ilk have often been accused of cynical empire-building, the agencies themselves do not emerge as the villains in recent debates. Refreshingly, many federal bureaucrats have been honest enough to admit that even if the various proposed powers had been available a year or two ago, they would not have prevented the terrorist attack which ignited the current fervor. When pressed, some will even state the obvious truth, that the authorities have always possessed a staggering range of powers that can be mobilized given the slightest plausible suspicion of a terrorist act or a potential assassination, and that claims that the post-Hoover FBI was “hamstrung” against dissident groups were largely bogus. All you ever needed was a claim that group X was planning an armed attack (which you obtained from a stooge within the group) and this permitted the unleashing of the whole panoply of wiretaps, penetrations, and RICO prosecutions. As with the CIA, the FBI’s current demands are a frank power play to avert calls for the dismantling of an agency which has outlived its usefulness.
What has been remarkable, even breathtaking, about the panic over the alleged terrorist threat has been the role of elected officials and specifically the Clinton White House, which has been indulging in a rhetoric with quite frightening implications. The whole affair is richly illustrative of the thinking both of the President himself and of his immediate circle. Shortly after the Oklahoma City blast, Clinton launched what was obviously a long-prepared campaign against “hate campaigns” and “irresponsible” political rhetoric, which he linked to the attack. This needed urgently to be supplanted by a “new civility” in public discourse. For good measure, the administration and its media friends then constructed a terrifying menace on the extreme right, which included not only armed ultraright terror groups but also “militias,” survivalists, hate groups, white supremacists, Klansmen, gun rights activists, and conservative media personalities. The tactic of guilt by association is blatant.
As a political campaign, there is nothing new here. The construction of an imaginary menace to taint one’s political opponents has countless precedents in American history, and it is tempting but misleading to refer to this tactic as “McCarthyite.” In this particular case, Clinton’s genesis of a fascist menace has different origins, ironically in the very scare which McCarthy used as his model. Both Clinton and McCarthy drew directly on the “Brown Scare” of the late 1930’s, when Franklin Roosevelt used the antics of the German-American Bund and Father Coughlin to stigmatize all his conservative and isolationist opponents as part of a “Brown Front,” all more or less tools of Berlin. There too, the White House used its wide network of media allies, notably Walter Winchell. The rhetorical resemblances are so close that Clinton was almost certainly mimicking Roosevelt. While he could have read about the FDR campaign in Robert Herzstein’s fine book Roosevelt and Hitler, it is also useful to remember that Hillary believes herself possessed by the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt. Furthermore, the earlier charges were orchestrated by none other than Harold Ickes, whose namesake is so prominent in the contemporary Democratic leadership.
What gives weight to the Clinton charges is that these appear to be setting the standards by which the federal agencies will choose the targets for their new war on terrorism, and if so, democratic rights are in for an exceedingly grim few years. The whole concern about giving agencies the right to investigate terrorist groups “proactively” is that it is so difficult to define “terrorist,” still harder to pin down “potentially terrorist” or “terrorist sympathizer.” If Clinton’s standards apply, then there is a simple criterion, of whomever the administration and its employees choose not to like at any given time. At present, that is likely to mean anyone who can be portrayed as “radical right,” but in a few years, it could include almost anyone sufficiently unwise as to participate in the political process more often than every other November. When the Clinton people said that the antiterrorist proposals demanded bipartisanship, they presumably meant that both political shades would suffer equally from this legislative foolishness.
Pro-life activists? Clearly part of the same network that assassinates doctors and bombs clinics. Environmentalist tree-huggers seem harmless enough, but what about animal rights bombings and vandalism at research facilities? Better to be prepared: begin a mail-opening and wiretap operation, and maybe send in some of our people to test them a little, talk about planning a violent act, and sec how many of them respond. We can even supply the explosives as a bait! The same principles cover both the pro- and antiabortion movements, immigrants’ rights activists, environmentalists, civil libertarians, gun control opponents, Irish nationalists, and any person or group protesting the misdeeds of any foreign nation, right or left. It would include critics of any American military involvement overseas, and of course anyone protesting the abuse of the new investigative powers. Taking Clinton literally, the terrorist front seems to include anyone who speaks harshly about his regime. Still worse, the proposed measures appear to be retroactive, meaning that agencies could intervene against someone who had in the past contributed to or written on behalf of a group that was then legal, but was subsequently deemed terrorist, or vice versa: for example, an American citizen who supported the African National Congress in 1985 or Sinn Fein in 1990. It is difficult to imagine any support whatever for Arab or Middle Eastern political groups that could not fall into the category of “terrorist sympathy.”
If any of this seems farfetched, consider the revealing moment in the committal hearings of one of the Michigan suspects accused in the Oklahoma City bombing, when the defendant’s lawyer admitted that his client possessed a wide range of guns and militaria. The federal judge declared that he too owned firearms, “but I don’t have any Waco material in my house, I don’t have am antigovernment material in my house, and I don’t believe most of the people m the country have those things.” And there, concisely, we have the stigmata that denote the terrorist. A terrorist is a person, probably a gunowner, who reads, watches, or transmits “antigovernment material,” a curious phrase in a democracy and one that should not be on the lips of a judge.
Not all antigovernment material would count here, only those items suggesting that the administration has engaged in gross illegality or the excessive use of force, perhaps resulting in deaths on a large scale. As a concrete example, “Waco material” tells us what to look out for. Accounts of the Waco affair as such are fine, so long as they depict ruthless cultists murdering themselves and their children and launching unprovoked attacks on armed federal agents amicably making their way through their windows. Totally unacceptable would be any of the books, videotapes, or news articles that present a different picture. This would not, however, be burdensome, as there are only a few million of these items in circulation, and they should be disposed of immediately.
In the interests of President Clinton’s “new civility,” there are certain things that can no longer be permitted, as they lead to terrorism and violence. “Waco material” is high on the list, but it would be a good idea to check through your library for other related antigovernment paraphernalia. To be on the safe side, any souvenirs of Watergate and the Iran- Contra affair should probably go, as they present the federal government as a behemoth freely violating legality. I suppose old videos of fFK and Executive Action should follow, together with any gun magazines. Make it an excuse for a real housecleaning! Virtually every religious bookstore in North America should begin an immediate review of its volumes on the New World Order, Waco, and political matters generally. And as for the Clinton Chronicles video . . . !
Not that free thought will be imperiled by these proposals. Think what you like: just don’t say it, discuss it over the phone, and by no means contribute to the culture of “hate radio.” Above all, keep it off the computer networks, which will be carefully checked and purged, to avert the flowering of unfettered discussion that has been the bane of older media. Why, taken together with attempts to keep indecent or disturbing material off the Internet, the whole anarchic individualist world of electronic communication might be strangled at birth! If only such “responsibility” had prevailed when the medium of print was new, how many dangerous and unsettling notions might have been prevented!
More than anything else, the “new civility” demands a new and positive attitude toward government, one freed from the psychotic hostility that has had such parlous consequences in the past. For example, the present administration has been much criticized, and there arc frankly some incidents which I personally do not understand. Why, for example, is there so much evidence that Vincent Foster was killed somewhere else and his body then dumped where it was eventually found? Why does no half-informed person believe that a crazed bank manager in Atlanta suddenly decided to give the Iraqis billions of dollars to build up their arms program, without the slightest connivance from a United States government agency? I do not know the answers, and a few weeks ago, I might have believed that there were suspicious angles to these stories. Now, I must struggle to believe that there is a good explanation, as it is my civic duty in a responsible democracy neither to assess the evidence nor to pursue the ideas to a logical conclusion.
Over the last months, I have been thinking back to a classic science fiction story written in 1953, more for the mood than for any specific analogy to current events. Jerome Bixby’s It’s a GOOD Life imagined a town cursed with a telepathic neighbor possessing supernatural powers. Whatever the provocation, each character in the story knows that he must never think an evil or unhappy thought, for if the monstrous stranger knows that you are unhappy, his twisted benevolence will cause him to strike out instantly to end your misery. As a result, everyone must always maintain an apparent cheerfulness, never letting the slightest discontent cross his mind. The final passage is memorable: “It did no good to wonder about it. Nothing at all did any good—except to live as they must live. Must always, always live, if Anthony would let them. These thoughts were dangerous, she thought. . . . Next day it snowed and killed off half the crops—but it was a good day.” Thoughts should not be dangerous; we should not be afraid to express them as freely as possible; and we should not even have to make this ease in a democracy.
Civility and responsibility used to be such positive words. Now, I’m not sure.
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Postscript: Nothing in the above text should in any way be construed to imply that federally elected or appointed officials should be held accountable for acts of illegality or excessive force committed in the course of their duties, or that such actions should result in any form of investigation, prosecution, or impeachment.