No More Surprises?

It’s October now and at dawn a layer of mist coats the valleys of Western Massachusetts where I live.  I don’t mind the autumn mist because I know it will disperse as the sun rises, revealing the charged colors of the changing leaves. The mist holds and folds within it the promise of future light.

How different the autumn mist is than the heavy fog that has enveloped the country these last eight years of the Bush administration.  A fog of lies and deceit so thick that one despaired at ever seeing the light of day.  Today, it seems this fog is finally lifting as the financial crisis wakes people from their stupor. McCain is faltering and Obama is pulling ahead in the polls notwithstanding Palin’s racist fear-mongering. There’s a hint of cautious optimism in the air.

But there’s still a long way to go until November 4, time enough for an October surprise or two. While George Bush may be ready to head back to the barn on his Texas ranch, can we be so sure that Dick Cheney is willing to forsake his imperial ambitions?  Could there be plans to steal or suspend the November election?

If the past is any guide, an attempt to steal the election is highly likely. Manipulating voting machines, removing people from voter registration lists, harassment and intimidation are the Republicans’ dirty tricks of the trade. But if Obama’s lead continues to grow, it will be harder to pull off the robbery in 2008 than it was in 2000 and 2004.

Might the Bush administration go so far as to consider suspension or postponement of the election? Such a prospect may sound far-fetched, but think back to the May 2007 National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive, transferring power from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the White House in the event of a "catastrophic emergency." The directive provides a sweeping definition of "catastrophic emergency" as "any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government functions."  As the current financial crisis escalates, there’s a possibility the administration could use the directive to declare a state of emergency on the basis of severe disruption to the economy.  When the crisis first hit, Bush and Cheney tried to give Treasury Secretary Paulson sweeping powers, the ability to implement a rescue plan free of any legislative or judicial review. This tactic failed, but was there a more sinister logic behind it? 

More likely than deploying economic disruption alone, the administration might try to manufacture other crises to go along with it.  The heaviest fog of all is the fog of war.  An air strike on Iran by U.S. or Israeli forces cannot be ruled out, nor an attack on North Korea which recently resumed its nuclear program. A terrorist attack on the U.S. also remains a very real possibility.  A combination of these factors could give the administration the rationale it needs to postpone the election, and John McCain would probably be more than willing to go along.  Witness his attempt to suspend his campaign and cancel the first presidential debate at the onset of the financial crisis.

Fortunately, the fog has lifted enough that if Bush and Cheney declare a state of emergency and suspend elections, angry crowds will probably hit the streets.  But dissent is not so easy anymore.  The arrest of eight non-violent protestors at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul on charges of "Conspiracy to Riot in Furtherance of Terrorism" should send a chill down the spine of anyone who believes in freedom of speech and assembly.  According to the National Lawyers Guild, which is representing the defendants, this appears to be the first use of criminal charges under Minnesota’s 2002 version of the federal Patriot Act.  If convicted, the eight face up to seven and a half years in prison. Other states have similar laws.

Equally troubling is the recent news in the Army Times (9/30/2008) that from the first of October, a Brigade Combat Team recently returned from Iraq is joining the U.S. Northern Command to function domestically as "an on-call federal response force for natural or manmade emergencies or disasters, including terrorist attacks." The brigade could be called upon "to help with civil unrest and crowd control" and is being trained to use nonlethal weapons "designed to subdue unruly or dangerous individuals without killing them" such as Tasers and beanbag bullets.  The current plan is to assign such a unit to the Northern Command every year in a serious erosion of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act which prohibits the army from domestic law enforcement.  Is the October first start-date just a coincidence, or preparation for an October surprise? 

It’s worth asking ourselves these questions as we count down the days until November 4.

Betsy Hartmann’s latest book is the political thriller Deadly Election about a right-wing administration in Washington trying to suspend elections. A longstanding activist in the international women’s health movement, she lives in Amherst, MA where she teaches and directs the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College.  Her other books include the novel The Truth About Fire about neo-Nazis in the American heartland.  See www.BetsyHartmann.com.

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