by C. Clark Kissinger
The America that we have known for many generations is quickly disappearing. Yet many do not yet recognize the full extent of what is taking place. People may hear about immigrants being secretly detained, or of a plan to give the Pentagon access to the financial, health and credit card information of every citizen. They may have a sense that the “checks and balances” of government are not working, and that the rule of law is increasingly being replaced by the rule of men -- men with an extreme new agenda. They may sense that behind the campaign of “security” and “public safety” this extreme agenda is being implemented. The full picture remains obscure, but many people are deeply troubled.
Vice President Cheney has spoken of a “new normalcy” for America in the context of a war that may last for generations. What are the full dimensions of this, what are the implications, and where is it headed?
September 11 Unleashes the Flood
While democratic rights were under assault before “9/11,” the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon produced a dramatic and qualitative change. There have been drastic changes in the law. There has been an assault on immigrants’ rights and a manufactured climate of xenophobia (i.e., hatred and fear of foreigners). There has been a restriction of dissent, both of organized protest and the speaking out by public figures. There has been the widespread utilization of new surveillance technology and the promotion of a culture of complicity and snitching. And there has been a radical restructuring of government itself, giving much more power to the executive branch. Let’s look at each of these.
Drastic changes in the law: The Patriot Act, for instance, gives the government vast new surveillance powers, allows the virtual unlimited detention of immigrants without charges, permits “roving wiretaps,” and imposes gag rules to prevent persons served with warrants from revealing it. It expands the power of the government to obtain secret search warrants from secret courts to obtain any personal information, from our library checkouts to our personal medical records.
Assault on immigrants: Immediately after 9/11 federal agents spread out across the country, rounding up immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries (the “Ashcroft Raids”). People simply disappeared into government custody without charges or due process.
Hearings by immigration courts were suddenly closed to the public. Lawyers were often unable to even find out where their clients were being held. (Not a single one of these detainees has been charged with a crime relating to September 11.) Racial and ethnic profiling was back with a vengeance. Tens of thousands of immigrants were ordered to report and register with the government, and 13,000 who did now face deportation.
Restriction of dissent: On February 15 in New York, police refused to allow antiwar protesters to march anywhere in the city, blocked off streets to prevent people from gathering, attacked people from horseback, and confined those who did make it to the mobilization site to fenced-off “protest pens.” Police repression of dissenting politics went still further in Oakland in April, when rubber bullets were shot at peaceful protesters. It was later revealed that firing on these protesters was the result of recommendations from a state police agency on counter-terrorism.
Meanwhile, artists like Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover and scores of others came under fire for speaking out against either the impending war on Iraq or the attacks on civil liberties. Bill Maher lost his TV show Politically Incorrect . Dixie Chicks’ CDs were destroyed in rallies that seemed to come out of news clips from Germany 1933--after singer Natalie Maines dared to criticize the president on stage at a concert. The antiwar Phil Donahue lost his talk show in the increasingly prowar atmosphere of the media, despite the fact that he was the highest rated MSNBC host. Major antiwar organizations and leaders were red-baited and attacked as treasonous -- with ties to everyone from al-Qaida to the Cuban government being insinuated.
This chill came from the highest offices of the land. Ari Fleischer, speaking to the Bill Maher incident, warned the American people to “watch what they say.” And Attorney General Ashcroft, speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee, blasted any criticism of the Patriot Act: “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends.” This language echoed the legal definition of treason and was directed at some of the Democratic Senators present.
Stepped-up surveillance and a culture of snitching: The Department of Defense rolled out its Total Information Awareness program (now renamed Terrorist Information Awareness), a computer network that would allow the military to cross-check both government and private commercial databases, to quickly turn up credit card, travel, and other personal information on anyone. The new Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System II (CAPPSII) will rate the “security risk” of every airline passenger, based on government or corporate databases. Those who don’t pass are put on a secret “no fly” list.
Along with this have come widespread appeals to “report anything suspicious.” The government attempted to set up the TIPS program, which called on everyone from teachers to UPS deliverymen to report on the people they came in contact with. It was defeated this time, but the effort to instill an ethos of informing has not diminished.
Restructuring government: A major reorganization of the government is well under way. In a break with 225 years of precedent, the army is now routinely deployed on our streets in a domestic policing role. The Department of Homeland Security--a ministry of internal security--has been created. The Attorney General announced that the function of the Department of Justice was now “prevention and disruption,” not law enforcement. Government agents were authorized to monitor conversations between lawyers and their clients. Decisions by Immigration Court judges to release detainees were simply overturned on executive order. At least two native-born U.S. citizens have been transferred to military custody by executive order and denied access to lawyers or the courts.
One stunning and important example of the fading role of “checks and balances” was the passage of the USA Patriot Act. On September 17, 2001, Ashcroft demanded that the congress pass within one week a collection of new laws that they had not even seen yet. The House Judiciary Committee balked at some of Ashcroft’s more outrageous demands and unanimously approved its own watered-down version. But the next week, when the bill came up for a vote in the House of Representatives, members found that a new bill had been substituted overnight. There was no time to even read it. In an atmosphere of coercion and panic the congress quickly voted through the “anti-terrorism” Patriot Act by a vote of 98-1 in the Senate and 357-66 in the House.
The rapid-fire events since 9/11 are more than a series of isolated incidents or a motley collection of wrong-headed policies. It is not just a further step in already existing trends to criminalize immigrants, demonize people of color, and eviscerate our legal and political rights. It has elements of all of these, but taken together these developments amount to a watershed. We now face both the new repressive measures outlined above and the distinct possibility of a new social order qualitatively more ominous and draconian than anything we have known.
Behind the New Repression
We are told, of course, that this is for our safety. But that’s not what this is about.
The driving force behind this heightened repression is the U.S. agenda of open-ended war for global domination undertaken after September 11. George Bush was very precise in declaring that the U.S. victory in Iraq was only one battle in an overall “war against terrorism,” and administration officials have continually spoken of a war lasting for a generation. Today there is open speculation that Iran, Korea, or Syria may be the next victim of U.S. military might, while American troops are already deployed in Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines.
Bob Avakian has pointed out that the U.S. “can’t go and wage open-ended war like this and not have a lot of repressive mechanisms already being implemented and much more machinery ready to bring into play, especially when this kind of thing starts to get out of hand and there’s a lot of resistance, and there’s what they call `blowback’ internationally or even within the U.S. itself. Things could get very much out of hand by what they’re unleashing and the very things that they’re bringing into being. So they need repression now and they also need to prepare for even further heightening that repression as things go down the road.” (“Bob Avakian Speaks Out, Interviewed by Carl Dix,” Revolutionary Worker #1155, June 16, 2002)
Such a war is bound to demand sacrifices and it will also provoke resistance. The Bush team can foresee this and so they have taken steps to curtail protests and intimidate possible sources of opposition and disaffection. But they are also gearing up the machinery for even more repressive measures should the resistance shake up the whole society, as it did, for example, during the Vietnam War.
The need for this post 9/11 repressive agenda has come together with and, to a certain degree, subsumed the earlier moves towards a more repressive society in the ‘80s and ‘90s. That period witnessed a vast expansion of the prison system (primarily targeting African-American and Latino youth), severe curtailment of legal rights like habeas corpus and prevention of unreasonable search and seizure, the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, a demonization of immigrants, and what has been called, without much exaggeration, a war against women.
These measures came in response to several major trends. The struggles of the 1960s threw the status quo into chaos. The Black liberation struggle shook a basic pillar of American society, white supremacy. The U.S. defeat in Vietnam was a major shock to the system and reared a generation in opposition to U.S. aggression abroad. The women’s liberation movement challenged and upended long-standing relations and assumptions about women’s “place.” And the effects of these upheavals have yet to be fully reined in.
Coming on top of this were a host of changes in the 1980s and ‘90s. The “new economy” emerged, full of turbulent uncertainty, the disappearance of relatively secure industrial jobs, and huge gulfs between rich and poor. The social role of women continued as a focal point of controversy and struggle. The masses of Black people and many other oppressed nationalities were locked into rotted-out cities. Immigrants were pushed into the U.S. by political repression and poverty in their homes and pulled to fill various roles in the economy--but how they were to be “integrated” was a big bone of contention.
The old New Deal/Great Society “social compact” could not adequately contain these forces. In response, the leading edge of U.S. politics became “an aggressive, mean-spirited assault on those on the bottom of society and the slashing of concessions to them--a war on the poor in place of a supposed war against poverty--along with an equally aggressive and mean-spirited crusade to promote and enforce `old-fashioned values’ of patriarchy and patriotism as well as good old white chauvinism (racism).” (Bob Avakian, Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones )
This politics found its most extreme expression in what has been aptly called a Christian Fascist movement--the Pat Robertsons, William Bennetts, Tom DeLays, etc., whose politics are highly repressive and theocratic. This movement has now been “folded into” the Bush juggernaut, with some of its leading lights in top positions (John Ashcroft, for one), lending energy and a perverse vision to Bush’s effort to remake and recast the norms of U.S. society to serve the new permanent wartime state.
How It Matters
In a recent New York Times Sunday magazine, James Traub complained indignantly that people he knew--”none of them ideologues or cranks”-- had been telling him “that the erosion of civil liberties under the Bush administration constitutes an early stage, or at least a precursor, to the kind of fascism Hitler brought to Germany.” Traub replied at some length, listing particular dissimilarities between Germany 1933 and USA 2003. Obviously history never exactly repeats itself and people like Traub argue against a straw man.
The question is why people are drawn to make this comparison anyway. First, the Bush administration has adopted an extremely aggressive international posture quite reminiscent of Berlin in the ‘30s. When Jimmy Breslin published Hitler’s speech justifying the invasion of Poland on the eve of the Iraq war, the parallels in logic and even phrasing were stunning. Second, the Bush team has been rapidly setting in place the machinery--legal, technological, and ideological--that could take society almost overnight into a police state should they decide that they need to . There is a direction and a logic to current events that gives substance to people’s nightmares.
Still, the future is yet unwritten. We have a choice in the matter. We could choose to keep our heads low and hope that things will somehow sort themselves out. We could choose to ignore the international outrages perpetrated by our government. But we have seen where that kind of choice has led in the past. We should remember that the Germany of 1933 went through a lengthy process by degrees before it reached the full all-out horror of the death camps, which weren’t instituted until 1941. By then, of course, the chance to stop the Nazi horror had passed.
Martin Niemoeller was a clergyman in Germany during those times. He described how it happened, simply and chillingly:
“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.”
His words ring with a hauntingly contemporary message.
Revolutionary Worker #1206, July 6, 2003