THE FRAGILE SUPERPOWER US: no longer the land of the free
01 November 2001
In the near-panic in the US after the terrorist attacks, there were arbitrary arrests, detentions, and new legislation introduced which will easily be misused against radicals and dissidents, by MICHAEL RATNER *
I live a few blocks from the World Trade Centre. I saw the explosion in the North Tower and watched in shock as the second plane flew 200 yards over my head and crashed into the South Tower. I saw the buildings collapse. Members of my family barely escaped. The ruins still smoulder like the vast funeral pyre they have become, and all downtown is a smoke-filled memorial to the thousands killed. For weeks missing posters covered the walls of the city; candles were on every corner. A young student in my child's school lost her father; my child's soccer coach was killed.
All of us want to protect our children, arrest and punish the terrorists, eliminate the terrorist network and prevent future attacks. But gradually our freedoms and fundamental rights are being eroded by a new war being fought on different fronts: financial, legal, political, psychological and diplomatic. Senator Trent Lott, the Republican leader, declared: "When you are at war, civil liberties are treated differently". Even Sandra Day O'Connor, a United States Supreme Court judge, said: "we're likely to experience more restrictions on personal freedom than has ever been the case in our country" (1).
The government has made a tripartite plan to eradicate terrorism in the US: President George W Bush has created a new cabinet-level Homeland Defence Office; thousands are under arrest or being interrogated; and Congress is enacting new laws that will grant the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other intelligence agencies vast new powers to wiretap and spy on people in the US.
The Homeland Defence Office, set up on 20 September, is to gather intelligence, coordinate anti-terrorism efforts and take precautions to prevent and respond to terrorism. It is not yet known how it will function, but it will probably try to centralise the powers of the intelligence and law enforcement agencies. People are worried that it will become a super spy agency and that the military will play a role in domestic law enforcement.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has introduced new legislation focused on non-citizens (2), whether permanent residents, students, temporary workers or tourists. Normally an alien can only be held for 48 hours before being charged. The new regulation allows arrested aliens to be held without charges for a "reasonable time", presumably months or longer. The FBI has carried out massive detentions and investigations of individuals suspected of terrorist connections. Almost all are non-citizens of Middle Eastern descent, and more than 700 have been arrested (3). Many were held for days without access to lawyers or knowledge of the charges; most are still in detention.
Few, if any, have been proved to have actual connection with the attacks people were even arrested just for being from Pakistan. There are stories of mistreatment. For example, on 18 September a 20-year-old Pakistani college student boarded a bus to return to school. Immigration authorities raided the bus and detained the student for a visa violation. Once in detention, he was severely beaten by three fellow white inmates who threatened to kill him.
The FBI is also now investigating groups it claims are linked to terrorism among them pacifist groups like the US chapter of Women in Black, which holds vigils to protest violence in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The FBI has threatened to force members either to talk about the group or go to jail. As one member said, "If the FBI cannot or will not distinguish between groups who collude in hatred and terrorism, and peace activists who struggle in the full light of day against all forms of terrorism, we are in serious trouble" (4). Unfor