In the name of patriotism

Dec 5, 2001 at 12:00 am

Rifaat Dika has been an American for 20 years, but two decades of citizenship did not prepare him for this country’s response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

With a New York Yankees cap pulled low on his brow, Dika stands in the cold and drizzle on a late November night in front of Dearborn’s City Hall, one of about 100 people who’ve turned out to demonstrate against what they perceive as the collateral damage of our newest war: a Constitution shredded by the shrapnel of rampant jingoism.

A native of Lebanon who teaches sociology at Wayne State University, Dika recalls conversations with other Middle Eastern immigrants during the Gulf War.

“They told me to watch and see, that what happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II would happen to us,” he says. “That we would be rounded up. And I told them there was no way anything like that would occur. Now look what’s going on.”

More than a thousand Arabs and Muslims in the United States on visas have been rounded up in dragnets, most of them secretly locked away on immigration charges that a few months ago would have been considered minor violations. Thousands more have been summoned by federal authorities for questioning. But it’s not just foreigners in this country who have cause to worry. In the brave new world springing from the World Trade Center’s smoking rubble, say a broad array of critics, the civil rights of all Americans are being jeopardized by sweeping anti-terrorism legislation rammed through Congress with little scrutiny or debate. And all too often, the blind boosterism of the mass media is abetting the attack.

“It never crossed my mind that these things would happen here,” says Dika, 50. “It has shocked me.”

Against the tide

U.S. Rep. John Conyers saw the threat coming almost immediately.

One day after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the Detroit congressman warned America of potential dangers posed by a different sort of assault. While pledging his support for President Bush and calling for the redoubling of security efforts, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee also offered a prescient caveat: “Just as this horrendous act can destroy us from without, it can also destroy us from within. … We must ensure that these acts of terror do not slowly and subversively destroy the foundation of our democracy: a commitment to equal rights and equal protections.”

Two months later, Conyers declared that his fears were coming true.

“Today we stand on the verge of a civil liberties calamity in this country,” he said. “The administration and the attorney general have taken a series of constitutionally dubious actions that place the executive branch in the untenable role of legislator, prosecutor, judge and jury.”

Suddenly, hundreds of foreign residents in the United States can be locked away in secret, those suspected of terrorism can be hauled before closed military tribunals created by presidential edict, and the constitutional rights of all Americans have been placed in jeopardy by sweeping legislation rubber-stamped by Congress.

“Collectively,” observed Conyers, “the administration has swept away the independent judiciary, the right to a public trial, the right to an appeal, the right to counsel, due process, equal protection and habeas corpus.”

It’s the position of the Bush administration and its defenders that critics such as Conyers are being unduly alarmist. At a press conference in Detroit on Monday, Attorney General John Ashcroft responded to a Metro Times question regarding constitutional concerns by saying recent actions to combat terrorism have been “carefully crafted” to ensure civil liberties are preserved.

“We’ve been very careful to do everything we can to protect lives as well as the Constitution of the United States.”

In the court of public opinion, it is apparent that Ashcroft and the administration are prevailing.

According to a poll published last week in the Washington Post, the vast majority of Americans don’t share the congressman’s concerns.

More than 80 percent of those surveyed believe the U.S. government is doing enough to protect the rights of its citizens as it conducts the war on terrorism, and about 70 percent thought enough was being done to protect the rights of both Arab-Americans and other Arabs residing in this country. Some 60 percent supported the use of military tribunals to try suspected terrorists.

Fear of future terror attacks, the impulse to rally round the flag during crises, the desire for justice and retribution — all these motivations figure into the equation. What’s missing, say a disconcerting number of legal scholars and historians, is a genuine understanding of where this star-spangled road threatens to take us.

Terror of patriots

President George W. Bush signed the USA Patriot Act into law on Oct. 26, enacting what Nancy Chang of the Center for Constitutional Rights describes as a “radical” assault on our civil liberties.

Although the act passed the Senate 98-1, a more measured compromise version of the anti-terrorism bill (which underwent at least four name changes while navigating the legislative process) had been hammered out and unanimously approved by the House Judiciary Committee. But the House Republican leadership, in what one critic characterized as a “raw display of force,” scuttled the compromise version and its attempts to address civil liberties concerns. Under intense pressure from Attorney General John Ashcroft, the compromise version was buried, and the administration-supported version — sweeping and complex as it is — was rammed through with virtually no public scrutiny.

“This bill, ironically, which has been given all these high-flying acronyms — it is the Patriot Bill, it is the USA Bill, it is the stand up-and-sing-the Star-Spangled Banner Bill — has been debated in the most undemocratic way possible, and it is not worthy of this institution,” chided Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat.

But the majority was pleased with its work, and voiced certainty that the Constitution emerged unscathed.

Challenging the “naysayers that complain about the provisions,” Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) declared: “The question has been asked, are we endangering the rights and privacy of innocent Americans? The answer is no, but it does give our law enforcement officials the requirements that they need for their careful investigation.”

Since then, however, the naysayers have built a convincing case that there is plenty to worry about within the bill’s 342 pages. But none of the provisions are more chilling than Section 802, which redefines the concept of domestic terrorism.

According to an analysis of the bill by Chang, senior litigation attorney for the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, the crime is so broadly and vaguely defined that such groups as “environmental activists, anti-globalization protestors and anti-abortion protestors who use direct action to further their political agendas are particularly vulnerable to prosecution as ‘domestic terrorists.’”

Julie Hurwitz, director of Detroit’s Sugar Law Center, a public advocacy firm, reached a similar conclusion.

“Essentially,” she contends, “this law has less to do with protecting security and more to do with waging war on anyone who challenges this country’s domestic or foreign policies. What were acts of civil disobedience have suddenly been turned into acts of terrorism.”

Proponents of the bill counter such concerns by pointing out the widely reported “sunset” measure that nullifies provisions of the bill by 2005 unless Congress votes to extend them. Yet those sunset protections apply only to a few sections of the law; the bulk of the Patriot Act will keep rolling along.

The net effect is a law enforcement apparatus largely unfettered by regulations and judicial oversight put in place to protect the rights of citizens and noncitizens alike. Conservatives have been trying to get many of the Patriot Act’s provisions passed for 25 years. Now, in the smoke of national tragedy, they’ve been handed a wish list of new powers that, in the words of the ACLU’s Laura Murphy, goes “light years beyond what is necessary to combat terrorism.”

“Included in the bill,” reports Murphy, the director of the civil liberties group’s national office, “are provisions that would allow for the mistreatment of immigrants, the suppression of dissent and the investigation and surveillance of wholly innocent Americans.”

On its Web site (, the Electronic Frontier Foundation — a nonprofit group established to help guard cyber freedoms — describes the effect of the Patriot Act this way: “With this law we have given sweeping new powers to both domestic law enforcement agencies and international intelligence agencies and have eliminated the checks and balances that formerly gave courts the opportunity to ensure that these powers were not abused. Most of these powers were put into place after previous misuse of surveillance powers by these agencies, including the revelation in 1974 that the FBI and foreign intelligence agencies had spied on over 10,000 U.S. citizens, including Martin Luther King.”

So now law enforcement officials can conduct what are called “sneak and peek searches,” allowing them to break into your home or office, search your possessions and seize photos or computer equipment — without telling you what they’ve done until afterward, or perhaps ever. Agents have been given greatly expanded leeway to eavesdrop on heretofore privileged conversations between terror suspects and their attorneys. Judicial oversight regarding interception of e-mails or tracking of Web activity has all but been eliminated, as have the firewalls between domestic law enforcement agencies and foreign intelligence gatherers.

In addition, the Electronic Frontier Foundation asserts, much of the law is aimed at “nonviolent computer crime,” not terrorists.

But these details are apparently lost on the general public, which by and large expresses a willingness to temporarily sacrifice a few tangential freedoms in order to prevent further tragedy. People like Midge from Cleveland, who phoned NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” shortly after passage of the law to tell host Neal Conan:

“With great sadness I think of the 4,000 Americans, as well as people from other countries, who were murdered on Sept. 11th, and I do support the Patriot Act. And as much as we are afraid right now, we are trying to carry on, as we’ve been encouraged. But this is a time of war. This has not happened in our country, I guess, since the Civil War, and so many killed — more than at Pearl Harbor, and that was the military. And we are afraid, and I’m glad that our government is trying to do things to protect the citizens of this country. And I’m sure we’ll continue to be an open society, but right now there are laws that are going into place and protections that are going into place because we are at war.”

The problem, noted Georgetown law professor David Cole, is that the Patriot Act isn’t likely to bring the security Midge and millions of Americans like her are willing to sacrifice for.

“When you start treating innocent political activity as terrorism, then you’re violating core principles of our democracy, and I’m not sure we’re going to make ourselves safer by doing this,” said Cole. “I mean, if you look around the world and you look at which countries are more plagued by terrorism, by violence, they tend to be those that have clamped down on civil liberties, not those that have recognized and affirmed the importance of protecting civil liberties.”

Then there was Sam, from Raleigh, N.C., who phoned to ask, “As a law-abiding citizen, what should I really have to worry about with this anti-terrorism bill?”

In a sense, the question reveals much of what is at the heart of the general public’s acceptance of the law’s broad attacks on civil liberties. The unspoken sentiment is: If you’re not doing anything wrong, there’s nothing to worry about. But there is very much to worry about.

“If you are involved in any kind of political activity, you have to fear surveillance by the FBI; political spying,” explained Cole. “We’ve seen in the past, under much more restrictive regimes, the FBI engaged in political spying on civil rights activists, on people who are concerned about our policies in Central America, on people concerned about our policies in the Middle East, and we’re going to see a lot more of that in the future, and that’s going to reach law-abiding political activity.”

And a byproduct is a chilling effect that stifles dissent, making it easy for authorities to pursue whatever policies they choose without debate.

That’s not just an abstract theory. It’s already happening. It was apparent at that demonstration in Dearborn last week. The event was organized in large part to protest the government’s decision to question some 5,000 people based solely on the fact that they are Arabs and Muslims residing in this country. (Ostensibly, those being questioned are men between the ages of 18 and 33 from countries linked to terrorism who entered this country after Jan. 1, 2000, on tourist, student or business visas.) This, mind you, in a city that has what is considered the highest concentration of Arab-Americans in the United States. Yet no more than a few of the demonstrators were actually Arab.

Alma Khasawnih, a 23-year-old University of Michigan student from Jordan, explains why: “The way things are now, if you criticize what’s going on, you are viewed as anti-American. It is difficult to express what you wish, to say what you want, without people thinking you are a terrorist. So Arab people are afraid to come to something like this. They don’t want to seem anti-patriotic.”

The irony of that, of course, is that nothing could be more patriotic than peaceful protest. Which is why Rifaat Dika came.

“I appreciate the freedom of expression,” he says, “That’s why I became an American citizen. And I’m proud of my democratic values.”

The way Dika sees it, we’re caught in the grip of “war mania” fueled by President Bush’s good-vs.-evil rhetoric. Look at what’s going on, the way conservatives are trying to push through massive corporate tax breaks under the guise of national unity, and you see how easily our ordeal can be cynically manipulated to quell dissent.

“People need to wake up and see what’s going on,” insists Dika. “What’s happening is very shortsighted.”

He casts an eye toward the protesters circling on the sidewalk, holding their hand-written placards against the rain, chanting into the night.

“That’s the true America,” says Dika. “That’s the America I’m proud of.”

War is peace

To describe what’s happening now as Orwellian seems cliché, yet no other adjective seems to so aptly capture the tenor of these times — the ominous sense of 1984 materializing 17 years late.

It includes the double-speak of Bush, who declares us to be a peace-loving nation as we rain bombs upon a country, using the chainsaws of 15,000-pound “daisy cutters” instead of a surgical scalpel to remove the terrorists suspected of engineering September’s attacks.

That, though, is just the first step in what is described by our leader as nothing less than a campaign to wipe evil from the face of the earth. In other words, a war — never constitutionally declared — with no discernible end in sight. A war that will distract us, and give us a perpetual rallying cause, consuming resources and offering justification for any curtailment of freedom deemed necessary to protect … freedom!

Attorney General Ashcroft refuses to provide the names of detainees rounded up as part of a nationwide dragnet. Incredibly, he refuses to do so because he claims to be concerned about their rights to privacy. As if there could be a greater violation of a person’s privacy than to be locked inside a jail cell.

Just how many people — mostly Arabs and Muslims, mostly men — have been nabbed in the crackdown since Sept. 11 remains unclear.

The Justice Department, according to the most recent reports, says that some 550 of the 1,100 or so apprehended remain in custody. Most have been charged with minor immigration violations. No more than 10 have been held as material witnesses suspected of having firsthand knowledge of the terrorists attacks.

But lawyers familiar with the dragnet tell Metro Times that the Justice Department’s 550 figure is deceptive because it represents only those in federal custody. An untold number are also being held by state and local authorities. Part of the reason the number remains untold is that the Justice Department refuses to address Freedom of Information Act requests filed by a broad coalition of groups trying to determine exactly who is being held and why.

“What’s being done is totally without logic,” says Detroit criminal attorney Bill Swor, a member of Michigan’s Arab-American Bar Association. “These people are not being held because they pose any real danger, or because the government is afraid they are going to run away. What we’re seeing is the raw exercise of power, not the administration of justice.”

As a board member of the Arab-American group ACCESS, Swor is involved in coordinating the defense of about two dozen detainees, and personally represents at least three of the people in custody.

“My primary concern about what’s happening is that, whether we realize it or not, we’re being asked to give up a great deal of personal liberty for what we’re told is going to be security, without any proof that we’re actually going to get it,” Swor says.

What we are certain to get, according to the president, is the swift and efficient dispatch of those suspected terrorists who are apprehended.

The president guaranteed as much Nov. 13, when he signed a “military order” declaring foreigners charged with terrorism would be tried by secret military tribunals that will suspend most of the rights afforded to criminals tried in the United States.

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Georgetown University law professor Neal Katyal warned that the action set dangerous precedent. In the rare instances such measures have been imposed, it was done with the explicit approval of Congress, during times of a constitutionally declared war.

If this action stands, testified Katyal, it is no stretch to fear “a future president might unilaterally declare that America is in a ‘war on drugs’ and decide to place certain narcotics traffickers in military trials. A president might say that some prospective threat ‘is the moral equivalent of war’ and set up military tribunals to counter that threat as well.

“Some of these decisions might be entirely justified given the particular facts at issue. But they are the sorts of decisions that cannot be made by one man alone. These hypotheticals are much smaller steps than the one the administration is now taking. The administration’s military order is such a dramatic extension of the concept of military tribunals, when compared to the predecessors in American history, that these other steps appear not only plausible, but even likely, down the road.”

The Bush administration’s response to criticism has been to steadfastly maintain it’s the critics who are off-base.

“Some have sought to condemn us with faulty facts or without facts at all,” Ashcroft told a group of federal prosecutors last week. “Others have simply rushed to judgment, almost eagerly assuming the worst of their government before they’ve had a chance to understand it at its best.”

Freedom is slavery

We’ve been down similar roads before. At critical points in our history, this country has often clamped down on civil liberties — usually, in hindsight, to our great regret.

From the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 to Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, to the round-up and deportation of suspected communists during the Palmer raids following World War I, to the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II, to the blacklistings and House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of the ’50s to the wiretapping of civil rights activists in the ’60s and the FBI’s Cointelpro assault on groups such as the Black Panthers in the ’70s, we have often failed to live up to our basic laws, let alone our highest ideals.

But current events have us moving into new territory.

“The setting up of military courts at a time when we haven’t declared war against any country is probably the furthest we’ve come in terms of totalitarian, police-state justice,” says Howard Zinn, professor emeritus at Boston University and author of The People’s History of the United States. “And the rules in the so-called Patriot Act are probably the most extensive intrusion into the privacy of citizens we’ve ever had.”

Like other critics interviewed for this article, Zinn lays much of the blame at the feet of a mass media more comfortable serving as a lapdog to popular opinion and the politically powerful than it is fulfilling its constitutional function as a vigorous watchdog.

He cites Dan Rather’s appearance on David Letterman’s show shortly after Sept. 11. The veteran CBS news anchor twice sobbed, overcome with emotion at the scope of the tragedy. Less well-covered was a statement made between the tears.

“George Bush is the president,” said Rather, the longest-sitting network news anchor. “He makes the decisions and ... wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.”

Zinn laments, “That sort of set the tone.”

Whether it’s networks heeding Bush’s request to censor Osama bin Laden’s videotaped messages or CNN chief Walter Isaacson’s admonishment that correspondents make sure they pepper their reports with “talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people,” much of the media, say critics, have been better at cheerleading than at raising difficult questions and providing critical analysis.

“I’ve been very struck by the poor public understanding of a lot of what’s happening,” says Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. “It appears to be — and this is a generalization — that the press has dropped the ball on this.”

Kirtley was particularly dismayed by the networks’ decision to accede to requests from Bush and not run tapes of bin Laden. “That sent an unfortunate message,” she says. “I think it was symptomatic of something much broader, and comes down to who’s deciding what the public will see.

“There are questions that need to be asked, such as ‘How much privacy rights are we being asked to give up?’” continues Kirtley. “And I’m looking to the press to point some fingers, and to sometimes say the emperor has no clothes. Instead, they are collaborating with the government, and abrogating their watchdog role.”

And so, we are faced with a choice. We can take it upon ourselves to become truly aware and informed, and look beyond the flag-waving rhetoric. We can seek out Americans like Rifaat Dika, and listen when he warns, “What we are doing is so shortsighted. People need to wake up. What’s happening, if it continues, is going to pull us all down.”

Or, we can succumb to the words of Big Brother.

“Ignorance is strength.”

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]