Al-Ahram Weekly Online
29 Nov. - 5 Dec. 2001
Issue No.562
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McCarthyism returns

Under the guise of patriotism, civil liberties in the US are being eroded to the dismay of ethnic and religious minorities and anti-war activists, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Gamal NkrumahMcCarthyism may be making a comeback. There is growing concern in the United States and abroad that hard-won civil liberties are being fast eroded in the wake of 11 September. Since the tragedy, there has been a fevered rush to push through anti-terrorism legislation. Anti-war activists and ethnic and religious minorities in the US believe this will exacerbate the iniquities of a justice system that many minorities already feel is weighted against them. Many fear that McCarthyism has risen again, and the "war on terror," and appeals to patriotism will be brandished against those who oppose the ugly contradictions that scar US society.

"This is a conflict between the United States and murdering barbarians," declared Brit Hume, the Fox News Channel anchor, banishing anyone who refuses to see the world so simplistically from the debate. Others are fast following his lead. CNN now has a policy of tempering its already muted coverage of dead and wounded civilians in Afghanistan with regular reminders of the 6,000 killed at the World Trade Centre.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently voiced concern. "While we all want our government to prevent future tragedies, we cannot allow our outrage to serve as justification for laws that trespass on our rights under the constitution," said Anthony Romero, executive director of ACLU. "As it has done in times of past tragedy, the government responded by passing legislation that reduces or eliminates the process of judicial review and erodes our civil liberties."

Former US Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader urged the American people to uphold the Bill of Rights and the freedoms of speech and press fiercely. "Don't ever allow Washington to tell you to shut up, get in line, and wave the flag," Nader said. "We are not going to bomb our way to a solution of [the terrorism] problem."

But despite the concerns of Nader and others, the US people are being asked to sacrifice some of their civil liberties to the fight against terror. This especially worries minorities: ethnic and religious minorities already suffer from disparities in the legal system.

Youths of an ethnic background are disproportionately likely to be put in jail or executed in the US. African-American and Hispanic youths account for two-thirds of US adolescents in local detention and state correction facilities. But they only make up a third of the US adolescent population. African-American and Hispanic youths in the US are far more likely to be sent to adult criminal courts, while white youths are invariably given probation.

The new anti-terrorism legislation, signed on 26 October, will compound these iniquities. The attorney-general can now certify any individual as a threat to security and indefinitely detain non- citizens under suspicion of involvement with terrorists. There are also alarming plans afoot to try non- US citizens in military courts.

This seems all part of a general disdain for the rights of non-US citizens. Blood-freezing incidents like the death of suspects in detention have proliferated. Mohamed Rafiq Butt, 55, a Pakistani-born immigrant, was found dead in his cell in New Jersey's Hudson County jail on 23 October.

Immigrants like Butt, who speak little English and are unfamiliar with US legal procedures, do not realise that they have the right to telephone lawyers and loved ones. Pakistani consulate officials in New York were not notified of Butt's detention; nor were they contacted when he died in mysterious circumstances. Imagine the uproar if a 55-year- old American was arrested and died in a police cell in Pakistan.

Butt was one of 1,147 people detained after the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington. He was first arrested and questioned by the FBI before being transferred to the Immigration and Naturalisation Service for overstaying his visitor's visa and having improper travel documents.

All this has boosted the political fortunes of US President George Bush, who now enjoys an unprecedented 92 per cent approval rating, even as he presides over a teetering economy. "Have 19 terrorists succeeded where the Supreme Court and the Republican Party could not, in legitimising the presidency of George W Bush?" asked John Nichols author of Jews for Buchanan: Did You Hear of the One about the Theft of the American Presidency? in an editorial in In These Times, Nichols pointed out that the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN withheld the results of the exhaustive reviews they commissioned of more than 170,000 rejected Florida ballots. The disputed results of the 2000 election, a telling indictment of the democracy the US preaches, have gone almost unnoticed, virtually smothered by the US-led assault on Afghanistan.

Not everyone, though, is taken in. "Patriotism is a complicated notion that resonates differently among blacks," noted Jonetta Rose Barras recently. Barras, the author of The Last Black Emperor: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in the Age of New Black Leaders, and host of a weekly talk show on WPFW- FM radio, pointed out that ethnic minorities and especially African-Americans are disproportionately represented among dissenting voices.

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre for People and the Press showed that while 20 per cent of African-Americans surveyed did not support the strikes against Afghanistan, the comparable figure for whites was six per cent. Furthermore, another 17 per cent of blacks were undecided about the war -- compared with 11 per cent of whites, Barras noted.

Privacy has suffered, too. The National Security Agency's "Echelon" project, that monitors by satellite communications all over the world, will be an increasing intrusion into people's lives after 11 September. This violation of individual privacy makes a cruel mockery of much-touted US democracy. The right of association with those under suspicion by the US authorities is now regarded as tantamount to treason, even before the suspects are deemed dangerous criminals.

What is the difference between the supposedly democratic US and the most pernicious African or Asian dictatorship if a political cartoonist like Aaron McGruder, creator of The Boondocks comic strip with the New York Daily News, is having trouble getting his works printed? McGruder has effectively been banned from practising his profession because he dared to depict a dissenting image in these days of political conformity.

Weeding out terrorists is a legitimate exercise and the tracking of terrorists is justified, and indeed in most instances, welcomed by the very communities who are often the first victims of terror. Hard evidence, however, must be produced and individuals, and not entire communities, targeted. When law enforcement officers start hunting those suspected of sympathy with "Arab terrorists" and "Muslim extremists" then something is seriously wrong. The tragedy is that such wanton arrests are hardly likely to eliminate or even lessen Islamist extremism or terrorism. On the contrary, such capricious clampdowns are more likely to further enrage and embitter Muslims and ethnic minority groups in the country.

The rise of an all-pervasive "American Patriotism" is a grim reminder of the "Red Scare" of the 1919 and 1920s, the summary deportations of supposed subversives and "Bolsheviks" and the legacy of Joe McCarthy with the onset of the Cold War. According to Webster's American Biographies, McCarthy made "slanderous attacks on persons who were not only innocent, but defenceless." This could be a fitting comment on the opprobrium suffered by Muslims, African-Americans and anti- globalisation activists in the US today.

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