Fear can be a powerful driving force for resolute and determined action; albeit action that is often irrational and self-defeating. Hence, the use of tension in society has long been a powerful tool for controlling and rallying the masses. History abounds with uncountable instances of governments or leaders manipulating entire populations towards consent, for goals and wars that serve narrow ill-defined purposes; and too often with great calamity to many.
The post September 11 atmosphere in the U.S. can certainly be qualified as tense. Furthermore, fear of further attacks – with various sinister scenarios – has been effectively drummed up by the mainstream media. As a result, a series of new regulations have been adopted during the past year as part of the â€œPatriot Actâ€ purportedly to reduce the chances of repeats of the tragedy of September 11. Taken at face value, many of these new laws appear well intended. With a closer look, they can be seen to be general enough so as to have great potential for abuse; to be directed for purposes unrelated to the original intent. Purposes that can perhaps be solely political; or that can embolden those elements in every society that accord to racist ideologies.
On November 22, 2002, the I.N.S. announced that nationals of certain countries with non-immigrant status, who intend to be in the U.S. through January, need to register with an I.N.S. office. The regulation appears innocent enough except for several subtleties. For one, the deadline for registration was set to January 10, 2003; and the announcement was rather discrete. Mostly unreported in the mainstream media, along with not much of an effort on the part of the I.N.S. to notify people affected by the new regulation, most would miss the deadline and hence be in violation of immigration law (punishable by jail time or deportation). Furthermore, many who have proceeded to registration have been detained for minor irregularities in their paperwork. Some have been jailed, denied due process, others released on bail; at one I.N.S. office, the agents ran out off handcuffs in the frenzy of arresting people who showed up to register. The number of arrested people, as of the writing of this article, is believed to be between 500 and 2000. Naturally panic is ensuing amongst otherwise law-abiding ethnic communities.
It has been argued by I.N.S. officials that the law does not constitute â€œracial profilingâ€ since the criterion for selecting foreigners is country of birth. This is a hint into the spirit of the decision-making process adopted: â€œracial profilingâ€ is bad because it is politically incorrect; not because of the moral implications. Profiling and targeting anyone based on factors that he/she cannot be in control of, such as his/her race, skin color, or birthplace, is at best ridiculous; at worse morally corrupt. And shall we assume that some at the I.N.S. are under the impression that terrorists would be willingly lining up at I.N.S. offices to register? And was a few weeks worth of notice without proper community outreach intended to be enough time to register an estimated 10,000 visitors?
The list of November 22 included 13 countries, mostly Arabic â€“ yet with Saudi Arabia missing from the list; i.e. the country of origin for 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers. Hence, there was an understanding that the policies of the I.N.S. are driven by narrow economic interests in oil at the expense of some ill-defined attempt at achieving security for the country. Correspondingly, pressure has been mounting on the administration to include Saudi Arabia in this privileged list. This yet is not the real point of contention. In many respects, corruption by financial interests, while potentially destructive, is not the most prominent form of danger to civil society.
An amendment to the November 22 law, released on December 16, reveals a whole new layer that serves a first probe into the minds of those behind this new drive and hype of securing the homeland. The new amendment extended the original list of countries by three additions: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia; and Armenia.
While the addition of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to the list is interesting enough, the appearance of Armenia is more revealing. Armenia is a small country in the Caucasus populated by about three million Christians. Armenia today is a rather poor ex-soviet republic, democratic and vehemently anti-communist. Relations with the U.S. are warm; with Armenia being near the top of the list of recipients of U.S. aid (per capita). And Armenians have long been the victims of Islamic extremism. In 1915, the Armenian Genocide resulted in the destruction of three fourths of the Armenian population of the region. The perpetrators of the crime, members of the Young Turk party, successfully employed Islamic fundamentalism to set the stage for the killings; and they were never brought to justice due to narrow political interests that prevailed in European politics of the times. This impunity is known by many Holocaust scholars to have set the stage for the 1945 Genocide of the Jews (which in turn had in it an element of Christian fundamentalism). Today, most Armenians live outside Armenia, a total of six million scattered across all continents. Nine out of ten are descendents of survivors of the Genocide, most tracing back their roots to a handful of concentration camps in the Syrian desert. After September 11, 2001, Armenians were very quick to rally behind the U.S., identifying Islamic fundamentalism as a common enemy. So, why then Armenia appeared on the I.N.S. list?
There are different possible answers to this. There is always the possibility that this was a genuine mistake. Given the importance of the decision and the level at which these regulations have been handled in the recent past, this scenario is not likely. Indeed, an I.N.S. spokesman was quoted recently in the L.A. Times as refusing to acknowledge that this was an error. The reasons for Armeniaâ€™s inclusion in the list may then range from political to racial. Political in a sense unrelated to terrorism. Racial in the sense that is generally well-understood; that foreign nationals are often regarded as undesirables; be they Mexicans, Egyptians, or Armenians. Yet, singling out Armenians amongst others makes a racial motivation less likely. A political answer to the question is more reasonable.
Before speculating on a political motivation, let us emphasize the main point, irrespective of the upcoming details. A legal framework established with the intent to increase security (whether we agree about its effectiveness or not) has been diverted to satisfy an unrelated political goal. Political influences and games in the ruling circles get direct access to the organs established for the purposes of â€œhomeland securityâ€. The potential for abuse and the corresponding danger to society is testified to by modern history itself.
As for the political motivations in question, the easiest way to go about this analysis is to compare the political issues at hand in the context of other countries not on the list but that share various similarities and differences with Armenia. The idea is to look for what sets apart Armenia from other potential â€œcandidatesâ€. And then one is left with only one political context.
For the past 80 years, an international political struggle has ensued between the Armenian Diaspora and Turkish governments. Turkey has repeatedly denied that the events of 1915 were of Genocidal intent, qualifying them as part of a civil war. Turkey today is a country effectively run by its military, with several military coups having occupied its political stage in the past dozens of years. It is also near the top of the list of countries with most journalists in jail, as well as being repeatedly admonished by human rights organizations for its brutal treatment of its minorities, in particular the Kurds that live across the border from Iraq. Turkeyâ€™s tactics in recent years to refute the Genocide of 1915 have been nothing but remarkable, both in innovation and extent. These ranged from the funding of chairs at American universities with strings attached, to outright threats to governments who would be considering mention of the events of 1915 in ceremonies commemorating human rights. A good analogy is to imagine a neo-Nazi Germany today that accords to an official policy of denying the Holocaust and glorifies the architects of the Holocaust. While the U.N., the Vatican and the European Union have repeatedly affirmed the events of 1915 as Genocide, successive Turkish governments still resist this characterization. This matter has become an issue in the candidacy of Turkey to the European Union. Last week, France effectively vetoed Turkeyâ€™s membership. France has a large and politically influential Armenian community formed through the influx of refugees from the events of 1915.
Yet Turkey is a U.S. ally, and a member of NATO. There are yet more elaborate layers to the issue. The Republic of Armenia plays a geopolitically somewhat strategic role in the Caspian basin, where large oil reserves have lured many U.S. and British oil companies in the past few years. And Turkey is involved at various levels in this Caspian oil consortium. Furthermore, Turkey is also expected to play a supporting role in the upcoming Iraq war that we are being psychologically prepared for. The week prior to the announcement of the amendment to the I.N.S. law in question, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz concluded a visit to Turkey; and Turkeyâ€™s new leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan was visiting Washington. Meanwhile, the European Union, on Franceâ€™s insistence, postponed the talks on Turkish membership to 2004.
The recent amendment to the I.N.S. law may have well been intended to send a message to a million Americans of Armenian decent. The message is: we have acquired new means of pressure in an old dirty game. This is a political game that is at best an annoyance to U.S. economic policy, and at worse a racially charged insult to Armenians.
During the days following the addition of Armenia to the list (leaked to the press on December 13), Armenian-Americans mounted a political campaign of protest. Within 24 hours, ten thousand faxes were sent to president Bush. A day later, the I.N.S. removed Armenia from the list. It appears some had underestimated the resolve and the numbers of Americans who would be aware of the matters. A crucial role in this grassroots campaign was played by many non-Armenian Americans who would not tolerate such game play. On December 17, the Turkish foreign minister announced that his government might adopt a change in policy with regards to Armenia, pursuing constructive and friendly relations.
It seems that, in the decision making process, the new department of homeland security consults the interests of foreign governments before those of American citizens. And many our now asking: was this about vile corruption or extreme incompetence? The moral of the story is yet simple. Beware of any attempt to strengthen government at the expense of the individual. With shifting political winds, these are the very means that can serve forces more dangerous than corruption and economic elitism. At the end, no one is really out of reach.