The New Political Terrain in the U.S.

in the Aftermath of September 11


By C. Clark Kissinger


Since the September attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it has been commonplace to say that “the whole world has changed,” or at least in the United States “everything has changed.” But what exactly has changed? What does it mean for all our futures? And will we even be allowed to talk about it?


The Great Round-Up


First they came 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 the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

--Pastor Martin Niemoeller


One dramatic aftermath of September 11 has been the sweeping scale of the arrests and detention without charges. Government agents descend upon communities, and people are bundled into cars and taken away.


As of this writing, the number of people in detention is well over 1,100. The detainees seem to fall into three categories. One group consists of those arrested for immigration offenses. Only a few of these people are thought to be connected in any way with terrorist activity. Most were just swept up in the dragnet or turned in by suspicious neighbors. They are being held in INS facilities awaiting deportation.


The second group consists of people picked up as possible abettors of terrorist crimes, as well as those arrested on unrelated charges in the course of the investigation. They are being held in various facilities all over the country.


Typical of these people is Bader al-Hazmi, an Egyptian doctor doing a residency in radiology in Texas. His story was recently profiled in the New York Times Magazine. Dr. al-Hazmi was snatched from his home in San Antonio by FBI agents, who flew him to New York where he was held for 13 days without charges. His only crime was having a name spelled similar to that of one of the alleged airplane hijackers who flew into the World Trade Center.


Finally, there is a very small group of people being held, who are believed to have some connection with the World Trade Center attack. Where the authorities don’t have any proof yet, these people are being detained as “material witnesses.” Most of these prisoners are believed to be held in the federal government’s Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. MCC, as the facility is known, has been the high-security holding tank for dozens of people from other countries picked up over recent years and held indefinitely on secret evidence that even their lawyers cannot see.


Although there have been some releases, the total number of persons still held in secret detention is not known because the government refuses to release names and locations.


In addition, immediately after September 11, many political prisoners all across the country, ranging from religious anti-war activists like Father Philip Berrigan to former Black Panther Sundiata Acoli to active Muslim inmates, were thrown into “administrative segregation” (i.e., locked down and isolated from the general prison population). Many of them were cut off from contact even with their attorneys for weeks.


The absence of public outcry against these mass roundups and lockdowns has been appalling. It is as if the government need only pronounce the magic word “terrorist,” and all objections melt away. Yet the whole point of Martin Niemoeller’s famous quotation is that the only way to stop a police state is to spring to the defense of its very first victims, no matter how unpopular they may be.


We are prone to think of these mass round-ups as something without precedent and an aberration within a free society provoked by extraordinary circumstances. Unfortunately they are not, and the precedents are infamous.


Two that come to mind are the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920 (named after then Attorney General Palmer), when federal agents staged simultaneous raids across the country to arrest thousands of aliens considered by the government to be dangerous anarchists and communists. Hundreds were summarily deported. Even more chilling was the throwing of 110,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps during World War 2. Not a single Japanese-American was ever charged with any act of disloyalty.


Both the Palmer Raids and the mass internment of Japanese-Americans were done by executive order and without legislative authority. What is unprecedented in the current situation is that the government now proposes to enact that authority.


Sweeping New Police-State Legislation


...the consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.

--George Orwell, in his novel 1984


Some very dangerous new legislation has been jammed through the Congress. Known as the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001,” the final version passed the Senate on a vote of 98 to 1 and the House on a vote of 357 to 66.


This legislation is the love child of President Bush and the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, Tom Daschle. The effect of the new legislation is to sweep away remaining vestiges of the Fourth Amendment protection against search and seizure. It will vastly expand the federal government’s powers as follows:


It will grant authority to intercept wire, oral, and electronic communications relating to “computer fraud.” It permits the disclosure of supposedly secret grand jury testimony to federal police agencies. It permits “roving wiretaps”-- authority to tap any phone used by the target of a wiretap warrant. It permits the search warrant seizure of voice mail messages, allows subpoena of temporarily assigned e-mail addresses, and “permits” internet service providers to disclose the e-mail of their customers “to protect life and limb.”


It goes on to permit “sneak and peek” searches, where a search warrant is executed but the target of the search is not informed until later. That is, your home can be searched while you are at work and they don’t have to tell you about it. It has a ton of provisions to monitor bank accounts, supposedly to stop money laundering and the transfer of money to terrorists. And it mandates financial institutions to report “suspicious activities,” while granting such institutions immunity from law suits for doing so.


The new law amends the Fair Credit Reporting Act to require a consumer reporting agency to furnish all information in a consumer’s file to a government agency authorized to conduct investigations of terrorism. It allows the FBI to request telephone toll records. It amends the General Education Provisions Act and the National Education Statistics Act to provide for disclosure of students’ records to the Attorney General.


It provides for the mandatory detention until deportation of any citizen of another country certified by the Attorney General as a suspected terrorist or threat to national security. The pro-government media reported that this new legislation allows for detention for seven days without charges. What the new law actually allows is the holding of any alien for up to six months, solely at the discretion of the head of a government security agency. Then this period of detention may be repeatedly extended every six months without any new review. It also allows terrorism crimes by members of organizations to be used to shut down those (otherwise legal) organizations under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law.


Finally, it establishes regional “computer forensic laboratories,” and provides temporary authority to withhold from Congress reports on intelligence and intelligence-related matters.


On October 31, the Justice Department announced new regulations concerning federal prisoners. Henceforth, any federal prisoner suspected of terrorism or any act of “violence” will no longer be allowed to have private meetings with their lawyers. All conversations between lawyers and these prisoners will be monitored. At the same time, the government is considering the use of “seditious conspiracy” charges. This requires very little in the way of proof; it only requires that one defendant make a deal with the government to testify that he “conspired” with the other defendants.


These actions by the federal government have been supplemented by new state and local legislation. For example, a few days after September 11 the New York state legislature hustled through a series of vague new laws with Draconian penalties. In New York state, “hindering” the prosecution of a terrorist can now get you 20 years to life.


The New York Times Magazine ran a major article on the development of face recognition software, and reported on the use in London of video cameras that watch all public areas for wanted persons. Everywhere security is tightened. For weeks in New York, there were police checkpoints on the major bridges checking IDs. Amtrak announced that you would have to produce a photo ID to buy a train ticket. And numerous calls were made for the establishment of a national ID card that would contain encoded personal information which could be read by police.


For the first time that I can remember, there is open discussion in the media of the need for the government to use torture to extract information from suspects. This has now come up in Newsweek magazine, the Fox News Channel, CNN, ABC Nightline, and The Wall Street Journal.


None of this has much to do with actually stopping terrorist attacks on innocent civilians, but it does have a lot to do with what the government is planning for the future.


War Powers--At Home and Abroad


That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or individuals.

--from the September 15 Joint Resolution of Congress


This is an incredibly broad mandate of military power to the president. It goes beyond the Tonkin Bay Resolution which gave Lyndon Johnson a free rein to start the war on Vietnam (which lasted for 12 years). Because of that tragic experience, in 1973 the congress passed the War Powers Act that is supposed to restrict the power of the president to start wars on his own. That law requires the president to report back to congress within 60 days of putting troops in any situation that may result in armed conflict and get congressional approval to continue.


How does that apply here? It doesn’t, because in another part of the same September 15 resolution, the congress gave Bush the authorization to continue in advance! He doesn’t need to come back for further congressional authorization. Only one member of congress, Rep. Barbara Lee, had the courage to vote against this transfer of power to the president.


The second thing to note here is that there is no distinction made between foreign and domestic. After the Civil War, the congress passed a law that the armed forces could not be used for domestic law enforcement. This sweeping new authorization appears to override that, and give the president the authority to deploy the military against organizations and individuals domestically.


As if to drive home that point, the administration promptly called up thousands of National Guard troops and began deploying them around airports and other installations. They are being deployed to carry out a police function and make the point that people should get used to seeing armed soldiers in the new America.


Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has appointed the Secretary of the Army, Thomas White, to direct the military’s efforts against terrorism inside the U.S. White, who will continue as Secretary of the Army, favors creating a combat command for homeland security commanded by a four-star general.


Then on November 8, Attorney General Ashcroft announced “a wartime reorganization and mobilization of the nation’s justice and law enforcement resources to meet the mission of the Department of Justice.”


Some people have put a false hope in the so-called “sunset” provision of the new “USA Patriot” Act, that causes it to expire in four years unless renewed by congress. A more realistic assessment was given by Vice President Cheney, speaking to Republican governors on October 25. “Many of the steps we have now been forced to take will become permanent in American life,” Cheney said. “I think of it as the new normalcy.”


Better You Don’t Know


The first casualty when war comes is truth.

--Sen. Hiram Johnson


A few years ago, the media was trumpeting a wonderful new technology: private satellite photography. Through the marvelous medium of free enterprise, any of us would be able to log on to the internet and purchase current satellite photos of anywhere in the world. No longer would knowledge about events in far off places be the sole property of government.


So, what happened when the U.S. began using Stealth bombers against Afghanistan? The National Imagery and Mapping Agency of the Defense Department simply purchased all of the rights to pictures of Afghanistan taken by the world’s best commercial imaging satellite! The purchase contract allows the Defense Department to keep the images secret forever. As Adam Clayton Powell III, vice president of the Freedom Forum, observed: “This sets a precedent for the government to buy up all of the capability of a technology that can be used for independent verification and basic reporting.”


The next step taken by the government was to “ask” all the major networks not to broadcast the videotaped statements of Osama bin Laden. They all readily agreed. According to the New York Times: “The decision, the first time in memory that the networks had agreed to a joint arrangement to limit their prospective news coverage, was described by one network executive as a ‘patriotic’ decision.” The government’s excuse for this blatant act of censorship was that bin Laden might be sending secret messages in his recorded interviews.


The problem, of course, was that the Arab television network Al Jazeera was being broadcast all over the world via satellite, so the U.S. networks were unable to cut off bin Laden’s statements (at least in Arabic). As the New York Times lamented in a later article, “As recently as a decade ago, such an agreement between the government and broadcasters might have prevented Mr. bin Laden from communicating by television with any followers in the United States. No more. The global village simply has too many pathways.”


Unable to censor those abroad, the U.S. resorted to its time-honored custom of censoring those at home. First to feel the axe was Bill Maher from the late night TV program Politically Incorrect. Maher had suggested that people who flew airplanes into buildings should not be called cowards; that label belonged more to those who bombed people from a safe distance. He was immediately forced to apologize--for being politically incorrect on Politically Incorrect.


Next the censors went after the popular comic strip “Boondocks.” When artist Aaron McGruder wouldn’t toe the official line on the war--and had his lead character Huey run down the history of the CIA in Afghanistan--editors refused to publish the strip.


One of the major radio chains, Clear Channel, made a list of songs that were considered unpatriotic and suggested they should not be played on the air. (The entire collected works of Rage Against the Machine made the list.)


Journalists and college professors were threatened for voicing dissent.


Referring to the censorship of Bill Maher, Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer warned reporters in a White House press briefing that “people have to watch what they say and watch what they do.” Then, as if to demonstrate the new climate expected of reporters, the official transcript of press briefing omitted that remark by Fleischer!


Next the censors went after dissenting internet sites. Not only were Arab language web sites hit, but so were sites supporting the Irish struggle. For example, Radio Free Erieann which broadcasts on WBAI in New York maintained an archive of its program at Cosmic Entertainment Co. which maintained the web site was “strongly advised” by their Internet Service Provider Hypervine to take the site down. Hypervine told Cosmic Entertainment that the newly created Office of Homeland Security can seize all assets of any company or person “that helps, supports, or does anything that can be called or labeled terrorism or is found to be connected to terrorism in any way or means possible.”


Ideology and “Homeland Security”


A political and ideological program of “Resurgent America” is being cultivated and guided from the highest offices in the land. Its prominent themes--a “moral awakening of the nation” and the drive for America to be Number One in the world by force of arms--have a distinctly fascist aura and raise the specter of a police state.

--from the founding statement of Refuse & Resist!


Going beyond the censorship, there has been a vast ideological campaign to unite the country behind the war and police-state policies of the administration. TV networks endlessly broadcast banners across their news programs proclaiming “America Under Attack.” The unmistakable message has been that “we are all in this together,” “America is standing tall,” “America is fighting back,” and “You’re either with us or you’re against us.”


In New York immediately after the attack on the World Trade Center, there was a massive organized campaign around patriotic themes. Firemen were sent to hang giant flags from the sides of buildings. Street vendors, who are normally harassed by the cops, were given free rein to peddle flags and patriotic ribbons. Initially, the patriotic display was linked to the rescue effort which everyone supported. But then, step-by-step, the theme was transformed to support for the war against Afghanistan (and other countries yet to be named).


A special team was assembled at the White House to write a “presidential” address for Bush to read to a joint session of congress on September 20. Immediately afterward we were told that his approval rating had shot up to 89%, and that everyone was now hot to bomb Afghanistan.


To reassure the U.S.’s Muslim allies and to win popular support for his war moves and police measures in the U.S., the President denounced vigilante attacks on Muslims and Arab people. At the same time, FBI and police were systematically profiling Arab people for arrest and detention. And in the popular media, reactionary talkshow hosts were venting American jingoism and anti-Arab propaganda.


Quite predictably, the result was a series of attacks against Arabs, mosques, and anyone who even looked like they might be Arab, such as Sikhs from India who wear turbans. Right-wing outlets like the Washington Times and the Jewish Defense Organization were busy publishing the names of left-wing groups and individuals who were “supporting the enemy.”


The ugliness of all this was expressed most vividly by New York Mayor Giuliani in his October 1 address to the United Nations: “You’re either with civilization or with terrorists. On one side is democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human life; on the other is tyranny, arbitrary executions, and mass murder.... Let those who say that we must understand the reasons for terrorism come with me to the thousands of funerals we are having in New York City....” In other words, to even ask why this happened is to dishonor the innocent victims. So shut up.


The patriotism campaign escalated with the call by Education Secretary Ron Paige for all of the nation’s 52 million school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance simultaneously on Friday, October 12. One major school district that refused to go along, Madison, WI, was made the focus of a national attack, and it eventually gave in.


As if to soften the hard edge somewhat, the compulsory patriotism campaign was given a thin veneer of humanitarian aid. While the children were all forced to pledge allegiance to the government that was raining bombs down on incredibly impoverished people in Afghanistan, at the same time the president asked them each to donate a dollar for aid to the Afghani children who were being bombed. Similarly, as the planes dropped their bomb loads, little yellow bags sporting American flags fluttered down bearing gifts of peanut butter, strawberry jam, and shortbread cookies.


Not surprisingly, after compulsory patriotism had forced open the school door, Christian religious observance was right behind.


In the current climate, dozens of schools districts across the South are openly defying the Supreme Court ban on prayer broadcast at school sporting events. In South Carolina, there is a bill in the legislature to turn the moment of silence that begins the school day into a moment of prayer--something else declared unconstitutional. In doing this, they are led by a White House that publicly touts prayer as an adjunct to state power and welcomes patriarchal Christian fundamentalists into its administration.


To lead this whole effort at home, President Bush announced the creation of the Office of Homeland Security and announced the appointment of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge to head the office. As the new Director of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge is a scary choice. Ridge, like Bush, is an ardent supporter of executions. While governor of Pennsylvania, he signed 220 death warrants, including two against Mumia Abu-Jamal. Ridge has selected as his deputy retired Admiral Charles Abbot. Abbot was deputy to General Wesley Clark during the recent war on Yugoslavia, and worked under Vice President Dick Cheney directing a domestic security review.


The whole effort seemed climaxed by the great Anthrax scare. There is still no evidence to connect the small number of Anthrax-bearing letters that were sent to the attack on the World Trade Center. But we do know that prior to the new scare, over 170 abortion clinics and doctor’s offices in 14 states had received letters claiming to contain anthrax. Then in just the last few weeks, two hundred abortion clinics and pro-choice organizations have received FedEx packages containing a white powder and a threat of anthrax signed by the “Army of God.” The Army of God is a domestic Christian-fascist organization. But reporting on this doesn’t fit with the repeated calls by some in the adminis­tration who speculate on an Iraqi source for the anthrax, and call for extending the “war on terrorism” to an invasion of Iraq.


Why Do They Hate Us?


Americans are asking, “Why do they hate us?”

They hate what they see right here in this chamber....

--President George W. Bush, addressing a joint session of Congress


Americans are asking, why do they hate the United States? This is a very important question that people need to be discussing everywhere. But President Bush’s answer is downright ridiculous. His claim is that people hate the U.S. because of its democratic form of government.


Now think about that for a minute. Can anyone really imagine that what makes people willing to kill themselves by flying planes into buildings is that we get to vote for George Bush or Al Gore (before the Supreme Court makes the actual decision)? Can we really imagine that there are people in Third World countries, gritting their teeth and hurling curses at America because sometimes the Senate is run by Trent Lott and sometimes by Tom Daschle? Not likely.


The answer seems to be more rooted in the enormous imbalance of wealth in the world, and the determination of the U.S. government to keep it that way by supporting every vicious local tyrant in the world willing to do the U.S.’s bidding--and then stabbing some of them in the back. Whoever was responsible for the attacks of September 11, it is clear that the current crisis is the inevitable and terrible outcome of these twisted alliances and the deep injustices resulting from U.S. domination in the Middle East.


Rather than seeking “justice,” the government’s aim seems more directed at recasting power relationships in South Asia and the Middle East and to maintain and increase U.S. domination of these vital oil-producing areas.


Yet what is offered to everyone is a devil’s bargain: “If you will just give up all your civil liberties and join with us in a campaign to eradicate the anti-American infidels, we will protect you from the fallout from our actions in the world.” This then becomes an avenue and justification for standing with the world’s greatest power against untold millions of oppressed and exploited people of the world.


Personally, as a revolutionary internationalist I think the people of the world need to hear a different message from us. They need to hear that we know what this government is doing and why it is so hated by millions of people around the world. All those who seriously want justice need to reach out to the people of the world, to stand together against the crimes of this system, and to strengthen our resistance against every act of war and repression.


But regardless of how anyone analyses these questions, what has been brought home so tragically in the events of September 11 is that America can no longer find safety in some kind of “gated community” at the world level. Clearly there are people so angry with what the U.S. has done to their countries that they will stop at nothing to strike back. And what is needed now is great national debate, free of censorship and demagoguery by the administration, on who has caused this and how we should respond.


The Need to Resist


Some of us strongly believe in the principles and values to which this country has historically aspired; others of us find oppression and injustice to be rooted in these same principles. But ALL of us agree on the need to repudiate this new course of “Resurgent America.” The transformation now taking place is not some periodic swing of the pendulum from “left” to “right,” but a departure directly connected to preparations for war, repression of dissent, and promotion of U.S. global dominance and superiority over other people.....

--from the founding statement of Refuse & Resist!


Times of great danger are also moments when millions of people come into political life, begin to question what they are told, and are called upon to consider real choices. Getting voices of dissent and exposure out there into society is not so easy to do right now. To even have such a national discourse requires that we now fight for the space and the freedom to inform, debate, and protest. But we fail to do this at our own peril.


Most heartening have been the actions of thousands of people across the country who have spoken out in protest against the war and against the ugly climate of xenophobia and repression. Tens of thousands have marched against the bombing, ordinary people have gone to the defense of their Muslim neighbors, and organizations of lawyers and civil libertarians have exposed and denounced the new police-state measures.


The need now is to bring together all those who oppose these new policies, regardless of their views on many other issues. It is crucial to work together in support of the right to dissent and in defense of those who exercise that right in the coming period. People have to be mobilized to speak out, to take up this fight, and to build the resistance to all forms of repression.




(This is an updated version of a paper prepared for the November 3-4 meeting of the National Council of Refuse & Resist!)