Excuses for Bad Behavior: “Suspending” Civil Liberties is Nothing New

On one of TV’s tabloid news shows, the hype for a recent segment went like this: “You’d better watch what you say.” Then the announcer explained that, in these dangerous times, expressing certain opinions can get you fired. It was very casual, offhand, just another bit of info-tainment for viewers accustomed to hearing that their rights are being stripped away. The official line is that they’re just being “suspended” — as if we’re just temporarily canceling a subscription.

But the casual attitude isn’t the worst of it. The worst is that so many people are willing to give up privacy, the Bill of Rights, even human rights, to protect themselves from threats.

So, now we have the USA Patriot Act, which stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America By Providing Appropriate Tools Required To Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” Among other things, it permits the detention and deportation of non-citizens who assist in the lawful activities of groups — if the government claims they are terrorist organizations. The group doesn’t even have to be officially designated as terrorist. The burden of proof is on the immigrant, who has to prove he or she didn’t know his associations might be dangerous.

Which raises the question: what is the definition of terrorism? In the new law, it includes the use of a “weapon or other dangerous device… to cause substantial damage to property. ” The damage doesn’t have to create any danger of injury. It’s so broad that people protesting against the WTO who engage in minor vandalism could become targets. Or people opposing abortion who engage in civil disobedience. Or protestors at Vieques who damage a fence. Any of them can qualify as terrorist groups.

Here’s another example. Section 411 of the Patriot Act, which resurrects the McCarthy Era law known as the McCarren-Walter Act, allows the government to prevent lawful permanent residents from reentering the country if the Secretary of State says they’ve advocated something that undermines anti-terrorism efforts. It doesn’t have to incite a riot. It could just be a controversial speech.

There’s much more. Like allowing the CIA to create dossiers on constitutionally protected activities of Americans and eliminating judicial review. Or like government intercepts of telephone and Internet conversations without a court order. Yet two things should be kept in mind: This is a global trend, being duplicated throughout Europe, among other places, and very little of it is really new.


Criminalizing Dissent

The current rollback of civil liberties started almost a decade ago. Between 1993 and 1998, the FBI’s budget went from $78 to $301 million. Then, in 1996, as a result of the Oklahoma City bombing, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorist Act. The result was Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which were operating across the country long before September 11. And what were they doing? Mainly spying on the labor groups and the Left. Take Portland, Oregon, which has a task force. Police there videotaped and monitored the labor movement, including organizing by the International Longshoremen’s Union. Some anti-globalization groups also have been defined as terrorist threats, as has online civil disobedience.

Before that, in the late 60s and early 70s, we had Cointelpro, the government’s covert program to disrupt various groups – on the Left and the far Right. By the late 70s, anti-nuclear activists were also being targeted as potential terrorists. But even more insidious was an attempt to rewrite of the US criminal code. It was another massive bill – hundreds of pages that hardly any members of congress actually read. And it became the Nixon administration’s blueprint for crushing dissent. Surviving Nixon’s departure, it was ultimately defeated — mainly because it was so huge and also because a Left-Right coalition managed to stop it.

That attempt to re-write criminal law — and effectively criminalize dissent — was co-sponsored in the 70s by Strom Thurmond and Edward Kennedy. As is often the case, eroding basic rights was a bipartisan affair. The Clinton era crime bill is a case in point.


Chilling Effects

In the late 1940s, we had an anti-sedition law, the Smith Act. Passed in 1946, it was first used against leaders of the Socialist Workers Party. Subsequently, it was aimed at anyone who officials suspected of having communist sympathies. That war on dissent escalated, in part, because few people had the nerve to defend its first victims. Facing little opposition, the repression snowballed into a full-blown, and very deadly red scare.

The Socialist Workers Party, by the way, was also one of the prime targets during the 60s Cointel program. And it’s again a target today, perhaps a harbinger of what’s ahead. Last October, the Socialist Workers candidate for mayor of Miami was fired by Goodwill Industries. The reason, according to the plant manager was that Michael Italie’s “views of the US government” were contrary to those of the company. Not much goodwill there.

A week later, Lida Rodriquez-Tassef, president of the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, compounded the problem. She said, “Employees don’t have a First Amendment right to express their political views if they work for private employers. Employers have a First Amendment right to associate with people whose opinions they approve of.” In short, ACLU wasn’t going to take the case. Certainly, there must be sound legal reasons. But in the current atmosphere — without at least saying forcefully that people shouldn’t have to fear they’ll lose their jobs — that kind of response sends chilling message.

Moving further back in time, we come to the period following World War I. We had a sedition law then as well, the Espionage Act. Passed in 1917, it was a weapon to silence anyone who opposed the war, conscription, or the political status quo. The results? Illegal raids, massive deportations of immigrants, even lynchings of anarchists, socialists, members of the Industrial Workers of the World, and union militants.


Roots of Repression

And finally, Haymarket – the moment that changed the labor movement for decades, and etched the image of foreign radicals as violent terrorists into the American psyche. It happened in Chicago in 1886, at the time the most radical city in the US. It was rapidly industrializing, and had experienced massive immigration.

To the mainstream press, the immigrants were outsiders, communists, socialists, and worse — anarchists — meaning to most people at the time that they were enemies of all law. Many radicals accepted the labels as badges of honor. And many were reaching the conclusion that peaceful change faced violent repression. They certainly had evidence. Strikes and peaceful demonstrations were being disrupted by heavily armed police, who beat and sometimes killed unarmed people. Businessmen were creating private armies, and newspapers were calling for a crackdown. In some respects, it resembles the current anti-globalization movement. Press reports even describe some of today’s protesters as “violent anarchists” and outsiders.

On May 1, 1886, across the country, 300,000 workers laid down their tools, calling for a shorter work week. In Chicago, 40,000 people went out on strike. Three days later, during a confrontation between strikers, scabs, and management goons, several people were killed. And the following night, during a protest rally, someone threw a bomb into the crowd, killing several policemen. Precisely the excuse the establishment wanted.

The outcome was one of the most shameful moments in US legal history — a show trial in which eight people, mostly self-proclaimed anarchists, were convicted for what they believed and said. None had anything to do with the bombing, but four of them were hung anyway.

During this time, newspapers developed a visual interpretation to go with the word anarchist: A long-haired, obviously foreign man, wild eyed and holding a lit bomb in one hand. That became the official take on foreign-born radicals. Connecting xenophobia with fear of violence, publishers waged an effective disinformation campaign – one of the nation’s earliest – that engraved an “un-American” and dangerous image in the nation’s consciousness.

Again and again since that time, whenever the establishment has been able to exploit a tragedy or some act of violence, basic rights have been undermined. It doesn’t always last, but there has been long-term damage – and not only for the immediate targets. The damage is to the whole idea of free expression, freedom of association, and the right to assemble.


Reframing the Debate

So, what to do? Well, first we need to convince people that basic rights matter. At this point, most don’t even remember what’s in the Bill of Rights. And even if they’ve heard of freedom of speech, many think it’s something we’ll just have to do without until we feel safe again — whenever that is. This points to an important task — a massive re-education program on what freedom really is. We must go beyond self-interest and convince millions of people that basic rights are crucial for everyone — not just options we can choose to take or discard depending on how safe we feel.

Further, we have to reclaim the language. That means challenging the loose use of words like patriotism and terrorism. In this regard, we’re up against massive forces of propaganda — in other words, corporate media. Obviously, we need our own media, and must become much better at framing the debate. For example, what is real security, and can we really obtain it through a vigilance that borders on paranoia?

On the other hand, we also have to find some common ground with those who are captives of fear. It’s not enough to say they’re being lied to, or to take some high moral ground. We need to cultivate compassion, and to listen as much as we speak.

Finally, we need to confront the pervasive atmosphere of fear with a narrative of hope that is inspiring and convincing, bold and inclusive, attractive and honest. That’s easy to say, but very hard to sustain. To do it, we must first convince ourselves that a better future is still possible. That despite the violence of capitalism and the violence of fundamentalism, human solidarity and real freedom can — and often do — prevail.

Greg Guma edits Toward Freedom, a world affairs newsletter. This article is excerpted from a January 22, 2002 talk in Burlington, Vermont. www.TowardFreedom.com

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