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Background Check: Operation Tarmac And The Many Faces Of Terror


Terror’s Many Faces

Terror comes in many forms and from many sources. It can manifest as fear that your community or workplace will be attacked by the likes of Al Qaeda, Al-Jihad or Timothy McVeigh. It can appear as a dread that your nation’s government will continue to engage in precisely the sorts of actions that make such attacks likely.

It can come from living in a nation where conditions are so oppressive that you feel compelled to leave in search of greater opportunity. It can come from living illegally and undercover in a new nation, exploited by your employer and in constant fear of discovery.

It can come from living in territory occupied by a racist state that subjects your people to constant harassment, humiliation and violence carried out with means of destruction provided by the most powerful imperial state in world history.

It can come as dread that that state will rain bombs upon your nation because of a conflict with your nation’s ruler and its quest to control the oil beneath your nation’s soil. It appears as horror that your children will die because of malnutrition and filthy drinking water resulting from previous bombings and “economic sanctions” imposed by the same state.

It can arise from living as a technically “free” citizen in a desperately poor neighborhood within the borders of that state- a de-industrialized ghetto where jobs have disappeared and police regularly patrol to put you behind bars. It can arise from being incarcerated, serving as raw material for a powerful domestic prison-industrial complex and subjected to the threat of rape and other horrors because of a narcotics offense or other nonviolent crime.

It can emerge from the fear that you will never be able to find a decent job because of multiple disadvantages in a competitive job market. It can come on an employment application form – the part that asks if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony.

The Crime of Wanting to Work

These different faces and forms of terror are worth reviewing to appreciate the significance of the United States’ “Operation Tarmac.” This is the official code phrase for a massive federal dragnet targeting airport workers in the wake of 9-11. Thirteen months ago, investigators and prosecutors with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FBI, the Social Security Administration, the federal Department of Transportation, the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Department of Justice began working with state and local officials and local employers to scrutinize the employment applications, criminal records and immigration histories of the nation’s more than 750,000 airport workers. The people targeted to “make our airports secure from terrorism” include airline mechanics, baggage carriers, airport janitors, fast-food workers and people preparing in-flight meals. .

Operation Tarmac has so far resulted in raids on nearly 100 US airports. In the latest crackdown, at Chicago’s O’Hare International and Midway Airports, federal investigation of 43,835 employee files led to federal felony charges against 25 workers. Six of these workers allegedly lied about felony convictions, 16 allegedly gave false Social Security numbers and 3 allegedly re-entered the country after being deported. In addition, 553 Chicago airport workers lost their security clearances (and therefore their jobs) and 15 were placed under INS custody for deportation proceedings. None is accused of having any connection to terrorism.

This is consistent with the national pattern: to date, of the more than 800 airport workers arrested and the nearly 600 airport workers charged, not a single one has been linked with terrorist activities.

Also consistent with national patterns, most of the Chicago workers charged and/or scheduled for deportation hearings have Hispanic surnames. They are part of the massive population of undocumented Latino workers, mostly of Central American origin, who provide cheap labor for the US business class. They can’t make a decent, family-supporting living in their home country, thanks largely to the dominant power of the US. In a game that might be called “kicking away the ladder,” that not-so “good neighbor” to the North has joined with other leading Western nations to rig the rules of the world economic system in a way that keeps “developing” nations perpetually poor, savagely unequal, non-competitive and ecologically unstable.

At the same time, it regulates regional and domestic labor market through a racially and ethnically biased high-tech system of borders, checkpoints, identification cards, computerized background checks and mass incarceration. This punitive neo-liberal regulation of the American labor market serves capital by and suppresses homeland labor costs. It keeps millions of Black, Hispanic and poor white workers stigmatized and afraid.

Operation Tarmac’s chief victims are people like Juana Jimenz. According to a recent article by Ben Ehrenreich in LA Weekly:

After working the night shift at the food-services job she’s held at LAX for the last 21 years, Jiminez went home and crawled into bed. A tall woman in her 40s, Jiminez got home a little after 10 a.m. and was still sleeping peacefully at 2:20 p.m., when her oldest daughter nudged her awake. Jiminez opened her eyes to find four marshalls standing around her bed [who] handcuffed her right there in the bedroom. Jiminez, who had arrived in the United States from Mexicao in 1976 and had been a legal permanent resident since 1987, had no criminal record. Most of her time was spent working to support her three children, all of them U.S. citizens, and her husband, also a citizen, who had been unable to work since being diagnosed with cancer. Wanting to work, it turns out, was Jiminez’s only alleged crime. The government claimed that she had illegally obtained the Social Security number she used on her job application in 1978. Two decades later, she found herself behind bars, out of work, and facing felony charges and possible deportation.

Jiminez was one of 81 LAX workers whose life was suddenly turned upside down by Operation Tarmac last summer – victims of what the Service Employees International Union calls “a public relations way to show to show that they’re doing something for the security of the country.” It is interesting to note that Operation Tarmac has produced no arrests of employers for hiring undocumented workers.

Deepening “The Stigma That Never Fades”

The main brunt of this terrorist “public relations” strategy is born by members of the nation’s massive undocumented Latino population, estimated at about 6 and a half million. It is worth noting, however, that Operation Tarmac’s high-profile use and embrace of criminal background checks also worsens the precarious labor market situation of the nation’s massive and very disproportionately black army of ex-offenders – collateral damage, largely of the nation’s racist “War on Drugs.” Currently, 13 million people, fully 12 percent of the adult male population, possess felony records in the not-so freedom-loving US, which has by far the world’s highest incarceration rate. Thanks to the nation’s 30 -year binge of racially disparate surveillance, arrest and imprisonment, an astounding one in three black men in the US now carry the mark of what The Economist recently (in an article about America’s hyper-incarceration of its “minority” urban “underclass”) called “The Stigma That Never Fades.” They generally experience no real wage increases in their twenties and thirties, when American men without felony records typically experience rapid earnings growth.

According to research released last October by the Chicago Urban League, black male ex-felons in the metropolitan area targeted by Tarmac’s latest operation are equivalent in number to a remarkable 42 percent of the region’s black male workforce. Living in a state (Illinois) that puts 20,000 more black males in prison than its public universities, they come mostly from a small number of heavily disadvantaged and predominantly black neighborhoods that experience extreme socioeconomic disadvantage, exhibiting negative or weak job growth, high unemployment, high poverty, and low education levels. They are subjected to massive surveillance and arrest for nonviolent, especially drug, offenses (see Paul Street, The Vicious Circle at www.cul-chicago.org).

They wrestle with the issue of whether to reveal past criminal convictions on employment applications. With good reason: more than 60 percent of 3,000 American employers recently surveyed by the Multi City Study of Urban Inequality report that they “would not knowingly hire an ex-offender.” In a recent academic civil rights investigation conducted in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the possession of a prison record reduced the likelihood of white testers being called back by a prospective employer by a ratio of 2 to 1. Among black testers, the mark of a prison record reduced that likelihood by nearly 3 to 1.

The Official Versus the Real War on Terrorism

Welcome to yet another example of the difference between the official doctrinal version and the lived reality of America’s War on Terrorism. In the doctrinal version, trumpeted by top policymakers and mainstream (corporate) media, the virtuous, freedom-loving and benevolent United States is engaged in a noble effort to protect its populace and the world from the scourge of terrorism. It is also advancing as always the inseparably linked (and falsely conflated) forces of democracy and free market capitalism.

In the real version, the Bush administration and its super-privileged clients and allies atop the world’s leading military and incarceration state are using 9-11 and the fear it engendered as cover and pretext for state-capitalist policies that deepen inequality and repression at home and expand imperial power abroad.

These policies and practices assault basic domestic civil liberties and roll back social and economic protections at home, in a nation that is already the most unequal in the industrialized world. They undercut social expenditures to expand the already massive public subsidy granted to high-tech “defense” corporations. They expand and camouflage US support for state violence and repression conducted by client states like Israel, Russia, Indonesia and other states whose objectively terrorist actions against subject and occupied peoples like the beleaguered Palestinians are described in benign and supportive terms by US policymakers and their compliant imperialist media. They directly terrorize millions in Middle East, including the people of Iraq, who live under constant threat of an imminent massive US military assault, including “the thermonuclear option.” Those people have lost more than half a million children during the last decade because of a terrorist US-imposed policy-weapon of mass destruction called “economic sanctions.”

These terrorist policies actually increase the vulnerability of ordinary Americans to further terrorist attack of the sort conducted by bin-Laden. Official post-9-11 American doctrine holds that the people who want to attack Americans at home and abroad are driven by hatred of the supposedly “free” and “democratic” nature of America’s internal society.

This is a lie. Whatever their obviously reactionary and theocratic values, the shock troops of extremist anti-American Islam care little about domestic US society. Their terrible movement is fueled by predictable mass Arab outrage over external US policy in the Middle East – the daily humiliation and terrorization of the Palestinians by America’s racist nuclear client state Israel, the occupation of Islamic Holy Lands by armies of supreme terror state America, the genocidal and terrorist sanctions imposed in the innocents of Iraq, the murderous bombing of innocents in Afghanistan, the terrorist war by US ally Russia against Chechnya, the expansion of American military bases through Southwest Asia, and the ever-imminent US threat to inflict yet more massive destruction on the people of Iraq.

Rather than confront this reality and acknowledge the many faces of terror, including those at home, the Bush White House is determined to up the ante of global conflict in pursuit of endless global empire and the deepened power that flows from expanded control over Middle-Eastern petroleum reserves. The fact that this terrorist campaign can be sold in the name of homeland security and deepens repression, inequality and insecurity at home is a welcome Orwellian premium for the fanatical and authoritarian corporate warmongers who hold the reins of power in Washington

Someday, perhaps, we will investigate their criminal histories in preparation of cases leading to their incarceration for crimes against humanity.

Paul Street ( [email protected]> [email protected]) is a social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois

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