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[Dear Readers: This article was first published in December of 2001, in the wake of 9/11, when the grim outlines of police-state-like tactics were first starting to appear on the American horizon. It might be useful to compare and contrast — whoops, it turns out there isn’t much to contrast — between then and now. Doing so may help us understand the forces we’re facing and how to respond as Bush & Co. continue their move toward a more militarist society. At appropriate points, I’ve added [[ in italics inside double brackets ]] some observations from our contemporary situation. Reading the essay this way might serve as a reminder that those of us warning then of the due-process dangers ahead faced epithets like "paranoid" and "conspiracists" — much like those today who are connecting the dots that take us from Bush & Co.’s pre-9/11 knowledge and the Administration’s manipulation of a frightened Congress and citizenry that have followed. — BW ]
First, they came for the terrorists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a terrorist.
Then they came for the foreigners, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a foreigner.
Then they came for the Arab-Americans, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t Arab-American.
Then they came for the radical dissenters, and I didn’t speak up, because
I was just an ordinary troubled citizen.
Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.
(Adapted from Pastor Niemoller’s 1945 quote about the Nazis)
I’ve been steering clear of the F-word, because too many on the Left fling that term so carelessly that it soon loses its truth-punch. But things are happening, so quickly, in this country that are taking us closer to a brand of near-fascism that is frightening in its seeming acceptance by the American populace and in its implications for the future of American democracy.
The non-domestic corollary: America, already resented and hated for its arrogant attitudes and policies around the world, is behaving more and more like a mad bull on a Pax Americana rampage.
In short, we appear to be at one of those moments in American history where the executive branch, using the genuine need to respond to a terrorist attack of massive proportions, is badly overreaching in both domestic and foreign areas. (The first draft of Ashcroft’s anti-terrorism law even recommended suspension of the rule of habeus corpus, which would have allowed for indefinite incarceration without charges or trials.) [[ In effect, Bush&Co. have been able to do exactly that to hundreds being interrogated for a connection to terrorism; when people are "disappeared" in third-world countries, we get all weepy-eyed and angry as mothers and wives bang pots & pans in the public squares, trying to find out what happened to their husbands and sons. Here, aside from civil liberties organizations, we remain basically silent. ]]
The Administration figures it can get away with its current actions, and assume even more power, because the Congress and the American people are frightened and willing to bend over backwards to make sure the President has the power he needs during "wartime." [[ Recent polls indicate that Americans are deeply troubled by giving the government, any government, that kind of unbridled power, but, given the current terrorist threat, seem willing to trade off SOME of their Constitutional protections for personal security. ]]
(Of course, there has been no official declaration of a State of War by the Congress, and the Bush Administration is not about to try to get one; doing so would give the legislative branch its rightful place in the balance-of-power arrangement the founders set up in order to prevent political mischief.) [[ Now Bush&Co. are moving quickly toward attacking Iraq, and not only has there been NO declaration of war by the Congress against that nation, but there has been NO discussion, NO debate, NO hearings by the appropriate committees in Congress. After the body bags start coming back, prepare yourself to listen to all the breast-beating in the Congress about how they should have tried to do something to prevent this unauthorized war. See below. ]]
Now, whether we’re moving into the outskirts of fascism because the Bush Administration is merely confused and incompetent when dealing with issues of such moment is not clear. Equally plausible, especially given their ruthless, take-no-prisoners style as revealed in the Florida election chaos and beyond, is that they know exactly what they’re doing: attempting to enforce a harsh interpretation of justice so as to more easily cram their far-right cultural and economic agenda through a complacent Congress and public, under the cover of "national security" and "homeland protection." (I grant that it’s possible they sincerely believe they’re doing so out of the best motives " protecting the American people from further terrorism" but, even if that were the case, the damage being done to the American polity and Constitutional system of government is incalculable.)
The hawks in the Administration seem to have convinced Bush that with the successes in Afghanistan–forgetting that perhaps as many as 20,000 Al Queda troops are holed up for the winter, in caves and in neighboring Pakistan–it’s time to widen the war by going after Iraq, and maybe a few weaker states, such as Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, maybe even North Korea. (This plan may be put on temporary hold while the U.S. assays the military/political fallout from the quick-building war between Israel and the Palestinians.)
Why go to war against any of these countries? There is no evidence that any of the states named above has engaged in threatening activity " no bombs exploded on US soil or US assets abroad, no airplanes flying into tall buildings, no biochemical attacks launched " but, we are led to believe, these rogue states threaten America’s vital interests merely by existing and, in some instances, by having weapons similar to ours.
Iraq may be a special case. Saddam Hussein, who Bush Sr. let stay in power, i s a truly vicious, monomaniacal dictator who has been known to dabble in biological weaponry and other weapons of mass destruction. Since he kicked out the U.N. inspectors, we don’t know what mischief he’s been up to. A good candidate, so goes hawk-logic, for getting his ass whupped by the US, provocation or not.
Were the US to bomb or invade Iraq to topple Saddam and install an opposition government, the current war coalition would collapse, and the worst stereotype of US foreign policy –of America as a giant bully not averse to arranging a Pax Americana with massive violence–would be verified in a good share of the globe. There might well be uprisings widely in the Muslim world, and probably the toppling of several key governments in the process, Pakistan and Indonesia being the top candidates — either by popular revolts or, more likely, by military coups. (Let us not forget that Pakistan has nuclear weapons.) [[ There is speculation that Saddam will resign and appoint one of his sons in his stead; it is hard to imagine that this ruse will stop the U.S. from attacking. ]]
But let us suppose that the US approach is successful, and that it is able to navigate its way through the negative foreign consequences flowing from that demonstration of high-tech warfare carried out against low-tech resistance. How would you feel living in a modern version of the Roman Empire, our armies abroad enforcing a peace on several continents at bayonet point?
Which brings us to what life would be like domestically in such a neo-imperialist arrangement. Even some right-wingers are reacting negatively to the alterations of our judicial and Constitutional system a la Bush and Ashcroft. There have been columns in the Wall Street Journal, William Safire’s blistering attack on Bush as a would-be "dictator," ex-FBI officials willing to be quoted denouncing the Administration’s more extreme policies, politicians such as right-wing Republican Bob Barr decrying Bush’s policy excesses, editorials in the mainstream press chorusing that Ashcroft has gone way over the top. [[ Off the record, many GOP senators and Congress members -- especially conservatives anxious about giving too much power to big-government, which regularly has abused that authority -- express their revulsion at what the Bush Administration is doing to Constitutional guarantees. But they tend to keep silent in public, lest they be accused, in an election year, of being insufficiently "anti-terrorist." However, lately, a few GOP moderates have begun to speak out publicly, along with more Democrats. But virtually all of them tend to backpedal whenever Bush&Co. make growling noises. ]]
Unless you’ve been living in a cave –whoops!, wrong metaphor these days– you must have become acquainted with Ashcroft’s way-out-there approach to civil liberties mostly, it is claimed, directed at non-citizens suspected of terrorism. That would be bad enough. But the wording of some of Ashcroft’s orders " and Bush’s setting up of secret military tribunals" is so vague and (deliberately?) sloppy that it wouldn’t take much to blur the distinction between citizen and non-citizen. [[ Despite Ashcroft & Bush's protestations that such a thing would NEVER be allowed to occur, this is already happening, as several U.S. citizens have been whisked out of Constitutionally-guaranteed due process, and secreted away in military installations, and permitted no contact with lawyers or anyone else. They can rot there for years with no contact with the outside world. Did a judge or jury OK this? Nope, Bush signed a piece of paper authorizing the transfer. Bush&Co. thus becomes prosecutor, judge and jury. It's clear that this could happen to ANY citizen now. ]]
Already–shades of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTEL program of the 1960s-70s!–Ashcroft wants to begin more spying on US citizens, especially religious and political organizations. [[ Just recently, Ashcroft, by fiat, simply gave the FBI this authority to spy on any organizations -- just as under COINTEL decades ago -- including, in this new technological era, fishing expeditions into anyone's personal e-mail. ]]
In short, the foundations for officially-sanctioned neo-fascist policies are being contemplated and swiftly put into place. And, since Bush and Ashcroft, from the beginning, have made it clear that if you’re not on the side of the war on terrorism, you’re probably a supporter of terrorists, the way is clear for cracking down on dissent internally against US citizens. It’s not outside the realm of speculation that in the near-future even writing analyses such as the one you’re reading might be adjudged detrimental to the war effort and thus liable for prosecution "or to being "disappeared" into the judicial system, with all that suggests in the way of respect being paid to citizens’ constitutional rights.
Am I being overly paranoid? I hope to God I am, that I’m misreading what’s happening. After all, Bush and Ashcroft and their spokesmen claim that their approach will NEVER overstep Constitutional bounds and everything will be handled fairly. Maybe you trust the government, especially this government, that much; I don’t. These guys are playing political hardball, and they appear to be aiming at any institution and individuals that dissent beyond certain boundaries.
Those boundaries are being laid out clearly for the usual sources for dissent: the media and academia. Most of the big papers and networks are now owned by huge corporate conglomerates; Lynne Cheney’s American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a well-financed conservative group devoted to curbing liberal tendencies on campuses, already has issued its first blacklist of professors it considers insufficiently "patriotic." Many will be fired or eased out, many more will tone down their criticism–as many journalists already have–and the message will be quite clear: Do not dissent too vocally. [[ Look what happened at the Ohio State graduation ceremonies recently, when Bush came to speak. The authoritative voice of the university's president announced that any students who turned their backs on Bush as a protest would face expulsion and arrest. Only a few continued their planned silent, turning-of-backs protest, and were immediately hustled outside to the waiting police. ]]
Two scary ramifications:
1. We’re only in the first year of Bush’s term; the damage he can cause to the Constitution and the body politic during the next three (or, God help us, seven) years is frightening to imagine. [[ Even more frightening, because Al-Qaeda elements inside our borders are planning another massive attack inside the U.S., frightening the population even more -- which fear Bush&Co. will attempt to manipulate once again, to give it even more extra-Constitutional control over thought, activity, dissent. ]]
2. The American people, for the most part, still appear to be lending strong support to Bush’s interpretation of the war on terrorism, although cracks are starting to show up. [[ Nearly 4000 innocent Americans died on 9/11, and Bush&Co. had been apprised months in advance that an attack like that was coming and did nothing to prevent it. Many ordinary Americans are disgusted and angered by that behavior. In addition, there are the Enron, Halliburton, anthrax, Venezuela scandals, and probably many more, that are starting to cause stirs and ripples in the body politic. Dots are starting to be connected. ]]
So what is to be done? If there ever was a time for a rebirth of the Movement, this is the time… The US Senate is probably the place where most attention should go at the moment, given that the House is pretty well dominated by the Bush/Armey/Delay-led right-wing majority. The Democrats in the Senate, who rolled over too easily on the so-called PATRIOT anti-terrorism act, need backbone; hearing from their constituents, urging them to stand up for the Constitution and the balance-of-powers that rein in power-hungry executives, might actually work in stopping some of the more extreme actions to date, and to come, by the Bush Administration.
This struggle for peace and justice and respect for the Constitution will not be an easy one, if only because of the politicized nature of the Supreme Court majority. But it is one we must join, and, for the sake of our representative democracy, we must win. [[ That's even more clear today. If we can't stop them now -- or, at the very least, put sand in their total-control wheels -- it may not get any easier in 2004. ]]
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught government and international politics at Western Washington University and San Diego State University; he was with the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly 20 years, and has published in The Nation, Village Voice, and widely on the internet.