Pre-Crime in Ashcroft’s America

By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 9/12/02


            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 Warsaw style ghettos where the wealthy folks would not have to witness their poverty.

            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 enemies ( Iraq ).  A corporate / government big brother films us as we buy groceries (or box cutters), use the bank, or pass through toll barriers.  The Orwellian-named PATRIOT Act allows the government to monitor all forms of communication and even aborted communication, such as computer keystrokes on unsent messages.

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.

The Nightmare-Gap

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 Attica , where we met with a Buffalo man serving 16 years to life after being convicted of burglarizing three homes where the windows were open and the occupants away.  The 16 to life part kicked in since a judge declared these to be violent crimes, since theoretically there was a potential for violence to occur if the occupants returned.  Similarly, environmental activists in the Pacific Northwest , who “spike trees” (insert roofing spike into trees in an effort to force sawmills to slow down, hence making harvest unprofitable) are now charged as violent criminals and often tarred as “terrorists.”  The logic is that a sawmill worker could die.  If the spiker warns the sawmill about the spikes, and the sawmill management decides not to scan trees with metal detectors since that would slow the mill, it is the spiker and not the management who is considered the violent criminal. 


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.”

Go 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.  

Iraq and Future-Crime

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 Iraq is not threatening us, and has not in any way attacked or grievously vexed us, we have the right to punish them for the future crime of their leader.  Given this logic, it’s no wonder almost every world leader and a bipartisan host of American politicians such as former President Jimmy Carter, have condemned the Bush administration’s illegal and morally reprehensible war moves.  But then they’re all probably a bunch of future criminals themselves.

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 New York ’s anti-terrorism legislation, which, among other silly things, accidentally outlawed Windex (noxious substance in a spray container).  We had ample laws on the books on September 11th, 2001 to catch and convict the hijackers who attacked New York and Washington .  We just didn’t do it.  All the draconian legislation in the world won’t change that embarrassing reality.  And it also won’t help stop terrorism.

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 Wilmington , Delaware Police Department, which is creating a database of likely criminals to be used in future line-ups (radically increasing the chances of future mis-identifications of innocent “suspects”).    The future-criminals are picked up at random – their crime is living in the wrong neighborhood.  Police Departments around the country are watching to see how this “innovative” program susses out.  The Justice Department, predictably, sees no problem with the Wilmington initiative.  We, as patriotic Americans must use every legal means at our disposal and join with organizations such as the ACLU to protest against all such attacks on our civil liberties.

Make no qualms about it.  The people in the Bush administration are dangerous.  They pose one of the greatest threats America has ever faced. They are traitors.  They hold our American values in contempt.   And if the 2004 election is not suspended under the guise of some sort of emergency, they need to be voted out of office and replaced.


Dr. Michael I. Niman’s articles are archived online at his website,


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