By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice
Science fiction often provides a venue for ideas and warnings that are
otherwise too hot or risqué for inclusion in the mainstream media. Ray
Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1954) warned us of a textually illiterate
society hooked on television, where reading was illegal and the lack of a TV
antenna was cause for suspicion. George
Orwell’s 1984 (1949) warned of an all encompassing surveillance state
(Big Brother), euphemistic and often oxymoronic language (newspeak), and an
always changing yet perpetually constant geo-political landscape of
international conflict designed to rally folks behind their fascist government
(We’ve always been at war with Eurasia). Even
Star Trek pumped out a few classic political episodes, with one depicting
a time in the not to distant future where poor people would be incarcerated in
Much of this, in one form or another, has come to pass. We’re a post-literate society where many homes, despite what seems like acres of closet space and a whole array of dens, recreation rooms and home offices, are devoid of books. In many houses TVs now outnumber occupants, yet fewer and fewer conglomerates control what more and more people around the globe are watching.
Newspeak is epidemic.
The “Department of Defense” wages war, ugly boxy cars are called
“sport,” their fuel inefficiency is obscured by the name “utility,”
calculated deaths of civilian noncombatants are called, “collateral damage,”
violent invasions are often referred to as “peacekeeping,” and their weapons
are missiles named “peacekeepers.” Our
former enemies are our allies (the Soviet states), and our allies are now our
And poor people are segregated in ghettos. Lousy or non-existent mass transportation, hostile police forces in surrounding communities and a battery of laws and regulations (try visiting Hamburg’s restricted public beach or Lancaster’s restricted public parks) serve to trap poor folk in inner-cites. In a precursor to the Star Trek model, many wealthy communities have fenced themselves in, in effect fencing everybody else out, creating a nationwide model of police enforced physical class boundaries.
Still, there is usually a bit of lag time from when sci-fi authors first trumpet their warnings, to when they actually become some sort of reality. This nightmare-gap, however, has been shrinking. Take the popular Steven Spielberg film, “Minority Report,” (2002) which warns of a future day when “criminals” are convicted and locked up for crimes that they theoretically will (might) do in the future. The film was still in theaters when Attorney General John Ashcroft, after his daily Justice Department prayer meeting, announced new guidelines for identifying people as suspected terrorists (or pre-terrorists), and hence, waiving many of their few remaining civil rights.
Under Ashcroft’s guidelines, a terrorism investigation may begin when two or more people are “furthering political or social goals wholly or in part through activities that involve force or violence…” Hence, if a strike turns ugly, and a replacement worker (scab) is hurt trying to force his or her way through a picket line, the strike could be defined as “terrorist” and the union sponsoring it as “sponsoring terrorism.” If civil rights activists were conducting a non-violent sit-in, at, say, a lunch counter or in a bus, and a police officer breaks a finger as he or she is striking one of the protestors, the protest, according to already established legal precedents, could be considered “violent,” and under Ashcroft law, “Terrorist.”
A key problem here is the legal
definition of violence. A few years
ago I escorted two of my journalism students to
The above scenarios all reflect established case law. Hypothetically, if anti-globalization demonstrators block traffic (since the media ignores demonstrations without arrests), and someone is injured in a traffic accident due to the ensuing mayhem, all of the demonstrators could be charges as violent criminals. Planning such a demonstration, under the Ashcroft pre-crime guidelines, could initiate a terrorism investigation.
Encouraging someone to go to such a demonstration, thinking about going yourself, giving someone a ride, eating lunch with someone who is going, or being mistaken for someone who might be thinking about going, under the new guidelines, could also initiate an investigation of you. Now I admit, this sounds absurd, but so does the concept of having a life-long opponent of civil rights and free democratic expression as our main law enforcement officer in charge of protecting those rights (and having an avid anti-environmental activist as head of the EPA, but that’s another story). The Ashcroft guidelines specifically state that “the reasonable indication standard for commencing a terrorism enterprise investigation is … substantially lower than probable cause,” which itself has proven to be pretty damn low. An investigation can commence, according to the guidelines, “even if there are no known statements by participants that advocate or indicate planning for violence or other prohibited acts.”
To Jail Forever
Defenders of Ashcroft may argue that we’re only talking about initiating an investigation here – not putting people away as in “Minority Report.” Hence, if they are innocent (not charged or convicted of a crime), they should have nothing to worry about. But in effect, we are talking about putting people away. The investigation that is being initiated is termed a “terrorism investigation.” Once commenced, all sorts of rules protecting citizens are waived. Furthermore, as we have already seen, there is no need to convict, or even indict, a terrorism suspect, for them to be put away for “indefinite detention.” So while the aforementioned burglar gets 16 to life, even though his crime may not have been violent, the suspect in a terrorism investigation can be put away indefinitely even if no evidence is ever presented to a court connecting them to a crime.
The immediate impact of all of this is to scare the living hell out of anyone who would organize, for instance, an anti-Ashcroft demonstration. “We’re at war,” the mantra goes, “and our enemies are everywhere.” “You’re either with us, or [as is most of the world] against us.” American patriots exercising their democratic rights may, at a whim of Ashcroft’s Justice Department or the Bush White House, wind up tarred as terrorists, or worse, enemy combatants.
The future-crime scenario is
playing itself out in the larger theater of world affairs as well.
The Iraqi government must be toppled, so the argument goes, since Saddam
Hussein possesses the “potential” to develop nuclear weapons, or is likely
to develop nuclear weapons. Hell, we
already have them, and we’ve used them. Where
does this logic put us? Anyway, the
prevailing Bush administration logic dictates that even if
These certainly are scary times.
It’s also a time in our history when we as Americans have to act to
resist this wholesale destruction of our rights and values.
We must demand that our elected officials resist knee-jerk support of
those traitors in Washington who don’t share the American reverence for free
speech, due process, open and accountable government and human rights.
The ill-named PATRIOT act must be repealed.
So do the hastily penned copycat laws such as
We also have to be weary of local
governments who are taking advantage of the political climate at the Justice
Department to begin their own future-crime programs.
Prominent among them is the
Make no qualms about it.
The people in the Bush administration are dangerous.
They pose one of the greatest threats
Dr. Michael I. Niman’s articles are archived online at
his website, mediastudy.com.
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