Indefinite Detention And Other Tales From the New America

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 7/18/02

When I lived in Central America, I found international borders to be particularly disturbing.  It’s not the bureaucratic hurdle one faces entering a country that really bothered me – it was the difficult pass one must make when attempting to leave a country that scares me.  Are your papers in order?  Did you overstay your welcome?  Can we collect a few more “fees?” Any problem, and you become, in effect, a prisoner – unable to leave.  In other countries, such as Cuba, citizens can’t leave except under special and rare conditions.  As a visitor, it’s quite easy to enter Cuba.  It’s when its time to leave, however, that border guards give you the hairy eyeball, scrutinizing your papers and your accent, making sure your are who you claim to be, and not an escaping Cuban.

All of these borders also have an authoritarian aura, provided by an ambient military presence, adding to the oppressive stress factor already present.  Hence, as much as I enjoy traveling, I’m always happy to come home.  I can deal with arrogant smug third world bureaucrats and their obtrusive and invasive questions (“Have you fathered any children while in Costa Rica?”), because I know they only pose a temporary passing indignity – not part of my regular life as an American.  And least in the U.S., for all of its faults, you’re free to leave any time you damn please.

The New U.S. Border

Of course this has all changed since the Bush team took over the White House.  The U.S. now has exit checks, often snarling traffic at borders as agents question folks as they attempt to leave the country.  Usually white people in late model cars are waved through while people of color have to explain themselves, who they are, and where they are going.  The questions being asked, such as, “Do you have a job?” or “What do you intend to do in Canada” are inappropriate and invasive.  Neurosurgeons and Wal Mart clerks alike, theoretically, have the same right to play bingo or visit Ming Tai, no matter what their class status.  The questions these Customs agents are asking, like those asked by their third world counterparts, are all about power – a petty bureaucrat exercising their power of the minute over average citizens. 

Don’t be fooled.  This is in no way part of any real or perceived fight against terrorism.  There have been no arrests of terror suspects heading to the Canadian beaches.  In no way do these checks make us secure, either in reality or in perception.  What they do is strip away that comfort and dignity we had as free Americans.  We’re learning to accept invasive questions and submit to random searches.  We’re learning to obey and to fear government officials, who can ruin your trip to the beach today, or your life tomorrow.  And we’re learning, in this globalized race to the bottom, that there is no refuge from oppression.  These recent changes on the U.S. border, however, are just the most obvious of an insidious and unprecedented war against our civil liberties and our way of life as Americans. 

Protestors at recent demonstrations against corporate globalization discovered their rights to free speech have been curtailed.  More and more, the new norm is that peaceful protestors are being segregated away from populated areas and corralled into what are known oxymoronically as “Free Speech Areas.”  Here, and only here, usually surrounded by hostile police and kept far from public view and the targets of their protests, they are allowed to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to dissent.  Many California municipalities are now designating such zones in what may soon be a national trend.  Exercising free speech outside of a police-designated free speech area can now lead to arrest, hence a wide array of protest ranging from anti-abortion marches near health clinics to anti-slumlord demonstrations near their slumlords’ homes or offices may soon be criminalized.

Indefinite Detention

Most frightening, however, is the recent and severely underreported suspension of the Bill of Rights – most clearly exemplified with the arrest of New York native Abdullah al Muhajir.  Muhajir, whose family hails from Puerto Rico, was born as Jose Padilla, later changing his name during a conversion to Islam.  His case is particularly frightening since he is now being held for indefinite detention with no charges filed, no trial scheduled and absolutely no due process.  George Bush, by executive order, simply created a new extrajudicial category, which he labels “enemy combatant,” whose victims are denied all rights accorded under U.S. law.  Muhajir has been transferred into military custody where he is being held incommunicado under unknown conditions despite the fact that he was never charged, or convicted, of a crime.

The crime the government claims he is guilty of, conspiracy to obtain and detonate a “dirty nuclear bomb,” is quite serious.  The fact remains, however, that Muhajir was never formally charged with or convicted of this crime.  At this point, he is simply tarred with the accusation.  The evidence against him is purely circumstantial and sketchy at best – traveling in the wrong countries at the wrong time with large amounts of money, much like an opium trafficker would.  There’s no physical evidence of any sort, and no indication that Muhajir actually attempted to obtain radioactive material.

The precedent set by this case is at least as frightening as a dirty bomb. It means the executive branch, in a cheesy third world sort of move, can have anybody detained indefinitely without even the veneer of due process.  But don’t be surprised. History shows that this is precisely the kind of government you get after a coup – and that Jeb Bush / Harris / Supremes dance in Florida was clearly a coup.  As for Muhajir, the Bushistas claim we’re at “war” (but with no one in particular), and that Muhajir will be held until the end of their perceived war, which they also said could go on indefinitely.

Arresting the Lawyers

Then there’s Lynne Stewart, a 62 year-old trail lawyer in the Bill Kunsler fashion with a history of taking on political cases.  Her mistake was serving as defense attorney for Abdel Rahman, known in the media as “The Blind Sheikh.”  Rahman was charged and later convicted for conspiracy in connection with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.  In defending Rahman, Stewart followed a long proud American legal tradition of defending people accused of high-profile heinous crimes, in the interest of assuring all defendants adequate representation.  As Rahman’s attorney, Stewart worked diligently, despite political and cultural differences between her and her client. 

Unfortunately for Stewart, John Ashcroft and the folks in Bush’s Justice Department, are unfamiliar with this tradition as well as the basic tenets differentiating lawyers from clients.  Hence, they charged her with “collaborating with terrorists,” which basically, is her job as a defense attorney.  Two paralegal assistants were arrested as well.  If convicted, they each will be facing a 40-year jail sentence as political prisoners. 

According to the Justice Department, Stewart provided material assistance to the Sheikh by facilitating communication between him and his followers.  Stewart did this by issuing a press release on Rahman’s behalf, which is a normal procedure in an aggressive defense strategy.  Stewart, in an interview with the World War 3 Report’s Bill Weinberg, explained that while she doubts she’ll be convicted, she believes she was arrested in a government attempt to dissuade other “political lawyers” from aggressively defending similar clients in the future.  The new Bush doctrine, which eliminates trials, makes this a moot point.

The Justice Department issued what they call a Special Administrative Measure (SAM) in order to control Rahman’s communication with the outside world and to undermine attorney-client privilege.  Hence, while the government was allowed to build their case against Rahman in the media, Rahman was forbidden to respond.  The government also surreptitiously videotaped Stewart’s confidential meetings with her client and wiretapped the telephone of her paralegal assistant.  There is no attorney-client privilege or assumption of innocence in the land of Big Brother.

SAMs are not just for those tarred with the label of “terrorist.”  Native American rights activist and internationally recognized political prisoner, Leonard Peltier, is also incarcerated under the guidelines of a SAM, limiting his communication with the outside world. 

The American Taliban

Then there’s the case of John Walker Lindh, dubbed by the media as “The American Taliban.”  This much we know:  Lindh was blindfolded, stripped naked (except for a cloth covering his penis and testicles), bound and strapped to a metal gurney, and photographed in this humiliating, dehumanizing position for all the world’s media to see.  If he was a prisoner of war, such treatment would violate international law.  I don’t care if Lindh is a spoiled punk California misogynist.  Seeing this spectacle is degrading to all of us as Americans.  If there is a case against him he should be tried and convicted, not stripped and paraded in front of cameras like a hunter’s trophy buck.

There’s also a troubling double standard in the Lindh case. He is charged with aiding and abetting the Taliban.  Folks such as Unocal oil executives, however, who wined and dined Taliban leaders in Texas last year and lobbied on their behalf in Washington, have never had their “patriotism” questioned, and of course will never face the charges Lindh is facing today, though they clearly gave more aid to the Taliban then Lindh ever could have.

These certainly are historic times.  The constitution is all but suspended as accused “Evildoers” are stripped of their rights and their clothes.  Most Americans have forgotten that our justice system and our Bill of Rights are both specifically designed to protect precisely the people who are being denied their protection today – unpopular people who are clearly different from the mainstream and have been accused of terrible crimes.  If we forgo these protections we undermine the very foundation of our society.

Dan Rather and the Silent Media

This brings me to another alarming problem.  Future historians, if they are still free to do so, will look back on these attacks on the constitution as being pivotal in the history of our nation.  Our current mass media, however, is ignoring them.  Americans are being held incommunicado by the military while the media drones on about Martha Stewart.  Dan Rather, arguably America’s best known news anchor, finally broke the silence, telling the BBC that American journalists are practicing self-censorship out of fear of being labeled as not patriotic.  This fear, he explained, “keeps journalists from asking the tough questions.”  Rather also told the BBC that never before has the U.S. government so limited information about any war as they did during their recent war in Afghanistan. Rather explained that his idea of patriotism was quite different from that articulated by the White House, arguing, “It’s unpatriotic not to stand up, look them in the eye, and ask the questions they don’t want to hear. 

Rather’s comments made front-page news across Europe.  Back in the U.S., however, the mass media, including Rather’s own CBS network, ignored his warnings just as they ignored the hundreds of recent stories outlining the erosion of our civil and human rights. As for Rather, while he deserves praise for his frank honesty in speaking to a British television audience, he still isn’t asking any tough questions back home on American television.  Such silence is at the crux of the problem he outlined before his European audience.  Patriots need to speak out now, or forever hold their tongues.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Michael I. Niman
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