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Rage. Mistrust. Hatred. Fear. Uncle Sam's enemies within
While the US fights a war on terror, it is also systematically crushing its citizens' rights. Neil Mackay on the alarming rise of a new tyranny
WHEN the Hollywood actor Tim Robbins took to his feet before the National Press Club in Washington DC in April this year, he delivered a speech laced with deliberate echoes of Bob Dylan's protest song Blowin' In The Wind. While Dylan, however, sang of freedom and liberty one day triumphing over repression and control, Robbins was saying that the greatest democracy on earth, the United States of America, was heading in the opposite direction under President Bush: to a future where freedom had lost out to repression and liberty to control.
'A chill wind is blowing in this nation,' said Robbins -- who, along with his wife, the actress Susan Sarandon, has been routinely denounced by the American right. 'A message is being sent through the White House and its allies in talk radio ... if you oppose this administration, there can and will be ramifications. Every day the airwaves are filled with warnings, veiled and unveiled threats, spewed invective and hatred directed at any voice of dissent. And the public ... sit in mute opposition and fear.'
Just days before this speech, Saddam's statue in Baghdad was wrapped in the Stars and Stripes and dragged to earth by US tanks. To millions of Americans like Robbins, the image must have been replete with irony. Here was democratic America destroying one of the most tyrannical regimes on earth in the name of freedom -- yet in the process of fighting for democracy abroad, America's own freedoms were being systematically eaten away at home.
A few things have happened recently that show just how powerful -- and, perhaps, unstoppable -- is the march of the right-wing machine in the US. This month the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a right-wing think tank umbilically tied to the Bush administration, declared open warfare on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) deemed too left-wing and set up an organisation called NGOWatch to monitor these liberal pressure groups. NGOs that have fallen foul of its wrath include groups promoting human rights, women, the environment and freedom of speech; among its targets are the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the World Organisation Against Torture. Only this February, George Bush boasted that 20 AEI members were working for his administration. AEI fellows include Lynne Cheney, the vice- president's wife, and Richard Perle, the most influential of all neo-conservative hawks.
NGOWatch has issued scathing reports on the following groups:
lHuman Rights Watch, which investigates government abuses around the world. According to NGOWatch, it is an organisation that 'recommends groups that promote same-sex marriage', 'promotes sexual orientation rights', 'denounces abstinence [from sex] programmes', 'advocates gays in the military' and 'demands release of some detainees at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay'. Nearly 700 men are held at the camp without charge, trial or access to legal help.
lCARE International, which works in the third world. It is attacked because its president, Peter Bell, criticises Bush's Mexico City Policy, which prohibits international groups that perform or promote abortion from receiving tax dollars to teach family planning.
lThe NOW (National Organisation For Women) Foundation, which promotes abortion rights and equality in the workplace. NGOWatch says: 'With lesbianism and left-wing politics, NOW conferees cling to the fringe.'
Naomi Klein, author of the anti-corporate bestseller No Logo, points out that Andrew Natsios, head of the government-run United States Agency for International Development (USAID), attacked NGOs this May 'for failing to play a role many of them didn't realise they had been assigned: doing public relations for the US government'. Klein says NGOWatch is a 'McCarthyite blacklist, telling tales on any NGO that dares speak against the Bush administration's policies or in support of international treaties opposed by the White House'.
But the Bush administration might not find the term 'McCarthyite' all that insulting if the poster-girl of the American right, Ann Coulter, gets her way. Coulter is set to knock Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, off the top of the US bestseller lists with her book Treason: Liberal Treachery From The Cold War To The War On Terrorism. Its central thesis is that Senator Joe McCarthy, the man behind the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, was a good guy and an all-American patriot. Coulter is the woman who said after September 11: 'We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.' She also said US citizens should carry passports on domestic flights to make it easier to identify any 'suspicious-looking swarthy males'.
McCarthy was censured by his Senate colleagues: despite levelling charges of communism at all and sundry, he was unable to produce the name of a single card-carrying communist in the US government. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says he was seen by his detractors as a 'self-seeking witch-hunter who was undermining the nation's traditions of civil liberties', yet his accusations led to the persecution of many of those he condemned .
Coulter says: 'The myth of McCarthyism is the greatest Orwellian fraud of our times. Liberals are fanatical liars, then as now. Everything you think you know about McCarthy is a hegemonic lie ... Liberals denounced McCarthy because they were afraid of getting caught ... McCarthy was not tilting at windmills. Soviet spies in the government were not a figment of right-wing imaginations. He was tilting at an authentic communist conspiracy.'
Coulter's article of faith is that liberals have managed to shout harder than the right and twist society with propaganda. It is a remarkable claim given the approach to journalism by one of the US's most popular TV stations, Fox News. Vilification of liberals is almost a sport on Fox, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. One of its main anchors, Bill O'Reilly, told viewers the US should 'splatter' Iraqis; one of its other anchors referred to the veil worn by a Muslim-American woman as a 'thing'.
While Europeans might recoil at a subservient press and a government with such blatantly right-wing policies, others will say: 'So what? The Bush administration is simply pushing its agenda and the media is reflecting the support of the public.' But that is not the case. Scratch the surface and more and more disturbing examples of government control and attacks on dissent in the name of patriotism spring to light -- and it is obvious that a vast swath of the US public is horrified by what is happening.
Take the case of John Clarke, an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). In February 2002 he was crossing into the US from Canada to speak at Michigan State University. He was taken into the immigration offices and asked what anti-globalisation protests he had attended and whether he 'opposed the ideology of the United States'. His car was searched and he was frisked. He was denied entry to the US, then interrogated by a special agent with the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service. He was asked if the OCAP was a cover for anarchism and if he was a 'socialist'. The agent had a file on the OCAP, leaflets from public-speaking engagements Clarke had taken part in and the name of a man Clarke had stayed with in Chicago. Clarke was accused of being an 'advocate for violence' and threatened with jail. Astonishingly, the interrogator asked him questions about Osama bin Laden.
Sounds like a rogue agent? Not if you take into account the six French journalists who arrived at Los Angeles Airport this May to cover a video games conference. They were detained -- three of them in cells for 26 hours -- interrogated, subjected to body searches and then forcibly repatriated .
It is not just foreigners that are deemed dangerous and un-American. There was Tom Treece, a teacher who gave a class in 'public issues' at a high school in Vermont. A uniformed police officer entered his classroom in the middle of the night because a student art project on the wall showed a picture of Bush with duct tape over his mouth and the words: 'Put your duct tape to good use. Shut your mouth.' Local residents said they would refuse to pass the school budget unless Treece was sacked. He was eventually removed from that class.
Or how about Jason Halperin? This March he was in an Indian restaurant in New York when it was raided by five police officers with guns drawn. Halperin says they kicked open the doors, then pointed guns in the faces of staff and made them crawl out of the kitchen . Ten other officers from the Department of Homeland Security then entered. One patron said the police had no right to hold him; he was told the Patriot Act allowed his detention without warrant. Halperin asked if he could see a lawyer; he was told only if he came to the station, and then in 'maybe a month'. When he told police he was leaving, an officer walked over, his hand on his gun, saying: 'Go ahead and leave, just go ahead.' Another officer said: 'We are at war and this is for your safety.'
The American Civil Liberties Union had to take court action to help 15-year-old Bretton Barber, who faced suspension from school when he refused to take off a T-shirt showing Bush with the words 'International Terrorist' beneath. AJ Brown, a college student from North Carolina, was visited at home by secret service agents who told her: 'Ma'am, we've gotten a report that you have anti-American material.' She refused to let them in, but eventually showed them what she thought they were after -- an anti-death-penalty poster showing Bush and a group of lynched bodies over the epithet 'We hang on your every word'. The agents then asked her if she had 'any pro- Taliban stuff'.
Art dealer Doug Stuber, who ran the presidential campaign in North Carolina for the Green Party's Ralph Nader, was told he could not board a plane to Prague because no Greens were allowed to fly that day. He was questioned by police, photographed by two secret service agents and asked about his family and what the Greens were up to. Stuber says he was shown a Justice Department document that suggested Greens were likely terrorists.
Michael Franti, frontman of the progressive hip hop band Spearhead, says the mother of one of his co-musicians, who has a sibling in the Gulf, was visited by 'two plain-clothes men from the military' in March this year. Franti says: ' [The military] came in and said, 'You have a child who's in the Gulf and you have a child who's in this band Spearhead who's part of the resistance.'' The military had pictures of the band at peace rallies, their flight records for several months, the names of backstage staff and their banking records.
Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer prize- winning New York Times reporter, was booed off stage after making what was perceived to be an anti-war speech at a graduation ceremony at Rockford College in Illinois. College officials unplugged his mic twice while he was making the speech, which he had to cut sharply in order to keep the situation under control ; some students blared foghorns and turned their backs, while others rushed up the aisles screaming and throwing caps and gowns .
A report by the ACLU called Freedom Under Fire: Dissent In Post-9/11 America says: 'There is a pall over our country. The responses to dissent by many government officials so clearly violate the letter and the spirit of the supreme law of the land that they threaten the underpinnings of democracy itself.'
The words of Justice Antonin Scalia, an avid Bush supporter and member of the Supreme Court, seem to support these fears. In March, during a lecture at John Carroll University in Ohio, Scalia told his audience: 'Most of the rights you enjoy go way beyond what the Constitution requires.' He added that in wartime 'the protections will be ratcheted down to the constitutional minimum.'
Under current laws, anyone even suspected of terrorism can be held indefinitely without charge or access to a lawyer. A new proposed law would lead to anyone deemed a sympathiser of an organisation classed as terrorist having their US citizenship revoked; they would also be deported. The Pentagon's Total Information Awareness plans will allow the state to analyse every piece of data held on each US citizen.
Many are frightened to fight back. In September 2002, around 400 peaceful demonstrators near the White House were attacked and arrested; in Oakland, California, police used rubber and wooden bullets at a peace rally. Yet there is resistance. The Bill Of Rights Defence Committee has been supported by more than 114 legislatures in cities, towns and counties, as well as the states of Alaska and Hawaii. They have all passed resolutions opposing draconian legislation: that accounts for 11.1 million people.
Still, with massive donations rolling in from corporate backers, many fear it is unlikely Bush will be dethroned in 2004. With a supine Democratic Party, save a few maverick voices, and a craven media, it is left to a handful of fringe voices to speak out for Americans who are angered and disgusted at the state of their nation.
These voices belong to people such as Bruce Jones, an author and Vietnam veteran. He recently wrote about what he saw as 'the ugly side of patriotism ... those who insist that 'you are either with us or against us''. He added: ' There is no more important patriot in this nation than the citizen who has the guts to stand up and tell the official establishment that it is wrong.
'I know who my enemies are -- the idiots who burned down the dry- cleaning establishment I use here in Modesto because it had the word French in its name, or because it had Assyrian owners who immigrated from the Middle East. I know who I must fear the most -- those Americans who do not understand what freedom of speech means; those who equate patriotism with blind obedience.'
l Ralph Nader: Seven Days
29 June 2003
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