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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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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