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Civil Liberties After September 11


The shock and horror following the deadly terrorist crimes of September 11, 2001 led to major legal changes in America that undermine fundamental civil liberties and constitutional rights. In swift succession, government security and intelligence agents have been granted broad powers: to spy on citizens and others lawfully in this country, without evidence of any crime; to keep previously public information and legal proceedings secret; to engage in ethnic profiling, including indefinite detention without criminal charges; to conduct secret searches and wiretaps, without probable cause; to monitor People’s internet and library use; and to collect personal records.

Many of these changes came first in the infamous “USA PATRIOT Act” (Uniting And Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) in October 2001. But many others came in the form of less publicized executive orders, administrative law memos, and even unwritten executive branch directives and guidelines. More recently, the passage of the “Homeland Security Act” created a gigantic new federal department charged with defending the “homeland” from terrorism, and exempted from collective bargaining rights and civil service protections for more than 170,000 employees. Lurking in the wings is Attorney General John Ashcroft’s proposed “Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003” (aka “Patriot II”), leaked to the public on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, after the Justice Department had repeatedly denied the existence of any such draft legislation. Among other things, if enacted “Patriot II” would provide for the unprecedented revocation of the citizenship of anyone deemed to provide material support to an organization the government labels as “terrorist.”

As sweeping, important, and frankly scary as this contemporary American crisis of civil liberties clearly is, in order to more fully understand what is happening it should be seen as one aspect of a much broader series of interlocking crises. In mutually reinforcing combination with legal attacks on our fundamental constitutional rights, we face related spasms of conflict in an extremely large number of areas of our society involving resources, rules, and conflict resolution, including:


Corporate political domination

Conflict resolution:

Clash of cultures and terrorism

The constitutional structure of our government and our society is theoretically based on the idea that we should have fair and fairly applied rules. A government of laws means that we as citizens have a meaningful vote and voice in how we function as a society, allocate our resources and resolve our inevitable conflicts. However, the pervasive environment of fear following 9-11, fuelled by a corporate media explosion of narrow-minded nationalist “patriotism,” has undermined many rules that were developed and applied throughout previous eras of US history, at great cost and through difficult popular struggles. This ongoing process, especially in today’s context of hard economic times, inherently and quite intentionally favors the growth and domination of unaccountable power, as the formal legal “reforms” reinforce the mob mentality of revenge and racism to produce a powerful backlash against any form of dissent or resistance.

This maelstrom of conflicts has many sources. Primarily, the Bush administration has consistently demonstrated loyal support for the interests of multinational corporate power, and drawn support in turn from Christian fundamentalist political forces that base their appeal on apocalyptic messages of “rapture” and “end times.” The financial interests of the administration’s corporate supporters, coupled with the intolerance of its religious base, make for a fanatical and poisonous challenge to democracy. The same forces have simultaneously shown utter indifference to the cruel economic consequences and the environmental devastation caused by single-minded pursuit of their political agenda. The result is the economic, political, and spiritual context of the civil liberties emergency we face today.

The current, unelected and illegitimate US government is using fear and extreme nationalist/ fundamentalist fervor, in an attempt to prevent growing international social movements from overturning the legitimizing institutions of corporate globalization upon which much of its power depends. Those institutions include globally dominant American political, economic and military power, as well as international bodies like the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, which can be counted on to act in the interests of US corporate power. In the name of “fighting terrorism,” and in reaction to vocal, worldwide demands for global justice, peace and democracy, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft and their corporate and ideological supporters are pursuing a strategy of US empire-building through military force. They are counting on the fear of terrorism, war, and economic privation to whip people into line behind their leadership.

Despite the monumental challenges facing dissent and opposition, and the enormous concentrated power of the US government together with its multinational corporate allies, this widespread and multifaceted crisis actually presents opportunities. There is a simple and very clear alternative to Bush’s imperialist “war against terrorism.” As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in announcing his then-controversial opposition to the Vietnam war, “justice is indivisible. And injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I will not stand idly by when I see an unjust war taking place . . .” Paradoxically, because of the incredible breadth and depth of these interrelated crises, as well as the savage attacks on constitutional liberty mounted by the government, we can begin to see the possibility of an organized social response, in the form of a newly internationalist, anti-imperialist peace, justice and democracy movement, and in the tradition of the New Deal, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the civil rights revolution of the 20th century. The US government’s actions seriously threaten its own legitimacy and that of the corporate economic system it serves. In order to find a way out of the current trap between terrorism and war, we must get as many People as possible to see not only what this illegitimate US government is doing to violate People’s fundamental legal and economic rights both at home and abroad, but why they are doing it, and also that there are clear alternatives to their undemocratic policies.

Civil Liberties in the War Against Terrorism; The Legal Background

This is a good time to return to basic first principles. Explicit recognition of the danger of violating individuals’ fundamental legal and human rights during wartime is at least as old as the United States Constitution itself, the body of the written document that established the powers of the US government, even before it was amended by the Bill of Rights. Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution says “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeus Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” Habeus Corpus is the Latin name of an ancient legal remedy for wrongful imprisonment that was available under English Common Law, which is the source of US law. In the US, filing in federal court for a “Writ of Habeus Corpus” has long been the procedure to challenge the legality of convictions in state courts. Historically, because the Constitution itself preserves the Privilege of Habeus Corpus, except in cases of “Rebellion or Invasion,” since the Civil War the government has at least had to claim it was following the law, when it arrested, detained or imprisoned People for reasons of state during wartime, as it has over and over again. Preserving this basic legal right of individuals to be free from unlawful imprisonment, except only during the most extraordinary national emergencies, even greater than “war” or hostile attack, was written into the text of the US Constitution, in addition to the specific individual rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Those who preach “support the troops and the president,” and unthinkingly condemn dissent from illegal wars of aggression as akin to the crime of treason, have forgotten, or never learned, this basic American truth.

The most important legal protections of individuals’ civil and human rights in America are in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution that were adopted in 1791, as well as the 14th Amendment, adopted after the Civil War in 1868. These include:

The First Amendment Right to Advocate for Change: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Fourth Amendment Right to be Free from Unreasonable Search and Seizure: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or Affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The Fifth Amendment Right to Remain Silent when Questioned by the Police and Due Process: “No person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself. Nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law ”

Fourteenth Amendment: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

In addition to the above fundamental constitutional rights under US law, in order to see the outlines of the full crisis of civil liberty, and its entanglement in larger crises of resources, rules, and conflict resolution, some mention should be made of economic rights developed in the second half of the 20th century under the accepted customary principles of international human rights law. The UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966), are based on the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” These seminal documents, which were largely based on initiatives of the Roosevelt administration during WWII, are systematically violated throughout the world today. And this situation is inevitably becoming much worse with the spread of warfare. The US Government has rejected implementation of the economic rights set forth in Articles 22 through 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, calling them merely “aspirational,” and failed to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. However, these stirring legal and moral documents remain as widely recognized statements of fundamental human rights that are broader, deeper and more meaningful to the masses of the world’s People than the civil and political rights guaranteed in the US Bill of Rights.

The Threats to Civil Liberties in the “War on Terrorism”

From the so-called “USA PATRIOT” Act in October 2001 to the confusing aftermath of the invasion and occupation of Iraq in the economically shaky summer of 2003, Bush and Ashcroft’s political police have been extremely busy carving out a “terrorism exception” to all the above legal protections of human freedom. The legal issues raised by these events will be working their way through the court system for a long time, and involve far too many complexities to comprehensively analyze here. Even now, almost two years into the Bush administration’s crusade for imperial domination of the Middle East and Asia, we cannot possibly know what the ultimate results will be for American liberty. Most of the basic outlines of the huge problem have emerged in a number of battles in courts, legislatures and local government campaigns.

Start with the USA PATRIOT Act itself. It essentially consists of a grab-bag of police powers that had been sought and rejected long before September 11, 2001, but got a fresh look after the intelligence and security agencies of the Bush administration were caught napping by al-Quaida. Rather than engaging in any honest or serious study of what went wrong, this sweeping deconstruction of American constitutional rights was rushed through Congress in the immediate aftermath of the unimaginable tragedy, with no time for most legislators to even read its provisions, much less deliberate on their wisdom, before voting on it. In particular, there has never been any demonstration that this statute would cure any of the specific law enforcement problems that enabled the 9-11 attacks (such as lax airport security and the failure to keep track of known terrorist suspects who entered the USA after they were identified at an alleged planning meeting). Rather, it was a case of “do something, anything,” regardless of the monumental human and civil rights issues at stake. When a bipartisan group of Representatives offered an alternative bill that received some actual debate, it was almost immediately voted down in favor of the administration’s propagandistically named “PATRIOT Act” wish list.

What did this panic button legislation do? There are four major inroads it made into previously well-established legal rights. The first is secrecy; it provides for secret “sneak and peak” searches, secrecy of government and legal case information, secret evidence, and secretly collected personal information. On June 18, 2003, the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, in a split 2-1 decision, upheld the government’s power to withhold information about those thousands of Arabs, Muslims and South Asians it secretly detained for months in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. As the great Sixth Circuit Appellate Judge Damon Keith famously said in another case involving secret immigration hearings, “Democracies die behind closed doors.” This broader scope of permissible government secrecy, especially under the paranoid and militarily driven Bush administration, is one example of a broad legal and political issue that will have to be fought out for many years in the US Supreme Court, and in the streets, legislatures, and town halls, if the American people are ever to have any chance again of having accurate information about the actions of our government.

The second area transformed by the USA PATRIOT Act is the criminalization of dissent. This was already well underway before 9-11, in the series of massive confrontations between the global justice movement and the institutions of corporate globalization, becoming impossible to ignore in Seattle in November of 1999, and continuing through Genoa in July of 2001. After the global shock of 9-11, guilt by association, deportation and exclusion of foreigners based only on membership in suspect groups, increased penalties for donating money for humanitarian purposes through the wrong organizations, and the overnight creation of a new category of “domestic terrorist” groups, took on a vigorous new life in prosecutor and police circles. The potentially tragic consequences for First Amendment freedom of association, as well as Fourteenth Amendment equal protection and due process, are increasingly apparent to those who sincerely care about such issues.

A third major area is the balance of powers upon which the American model of constitutional liberty theoretically rests. As limited as it sometimes is, and increasingly has been in the reactionary climate of the last 20 years or so, the authority of courts as a check on unaccountable power has traditionally been the last resort for protecting American freedom. The USA PATRIOT Act limits courts’ authority to issue warrants, limits appeals, and limits the basis for constitutional challenges to executive branch overreaching. Congress of course, simply abdicated its power, leading directly to the establishment of executive branch supremacy in the crisis. Some of the first major tests of this fundamental rebalancing of government powers came in the Habeus Corpus cases filed on behalf of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals held, in another split 2-1 decision, that they are outside federal judicial jurisdiction, and thus effectively without enforceable legal rights. Additional tests will come in the cases of Yasser Hamdi and Jose Padilla, US citizens declared “enemy combatants” by the executive branch, and denied even the right to representation by lawyers. The chilling implications of such precedents hardly need elaboration for anyone concerned about maintaining a reasonable balance of power between the various branches of government, and between individual liberty and the power of the state.

The fourth major area of legal rights affected by the USA PATRIOT Act is in the lowering of protections against criminal investigation. The long-established distinction between law enforcement and intelligence operations has been eliminated in cases involving suspected or alleged terrorism, opening the door to systematic abuses like those committed during the 1960s in the notorious COINTELPRO program (such as the cold-blooded police murder of young Chicago Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, among a long list of other political police state violations), and J. Edgar Hoover’s hounding of Dr. King. The requirement of probable cause for initiating an investigation, tapping phones, monitoring internet and e-mail use, and other intrusive police actions has been eliminated in such cases, opening the door wide to police confrontation and harassment of dissidents, and leading to continually escalating politicization of “law enforcement” in the name of fighting terrorism.

As noted briefly at the outset, this civil liberties crisis does not end with the USA PATRIOT Act. A series of executive orders, Department of Justice Regulations, and government memos have allowed the executive branch to extend its power even further, without effective challenge by the coordinate branches of government or the People. On September 21, 2001, the Chief Immigration Judge issued a memo closing certain immigration hearings to the public. On October 31 the Justice Department issued regulations for detaining people in Attorney General Ashcroft’s sole discretion, a provision that was severely abused in practice by extended periods of detention. Prosecutors and prison officials began to monitor attorney/client communications without judicial authorization, and commenced a prosecution of Attorney Lynne Stewart for her statements and actions in representing a convicted terrorist, sending a clear message to other lawyers about the consequences of defending fundamental rights in this context. The previous Freedom of Information Act presumptions were reversed, so that if any reason was articulated to withhold documents, they would not be provided. All of this was accomplished without any judicial or legislative action at all, by the mere stroke of a bureaucratic pen.

The case of military commissions established by executive order for those arrested abroad deserves a brief discussion. The original proposal for such tribunals was completely lawless. It provided for execution without appeal, without a unanimous decision of military judges, and without any right to counsel of one’s choice. The most severe deficiencies in these regulations were modified after a public outcry, the first example of any effective opposition to Ashcroft and Bush on civil liberties issues after 9-11. However the military commissions set up retained the option to use secret evidence, and with the ruling that the camps in Guantanamo Bay are outside federal courts’ power, the imminent prospect of secret military trials and summary executions there cannot be ruled out.

The shocking abuse of immigrants has barely been mentioned so far. In the aftermath of the al-Quaida attacks on New York and Washington, DC, the immigration authorities (subsequently reorganized into the Department of Homeland Security, as if “immigrant” were another word for “terrorist”) went into high gear. They interviewed thousands of Arabs and Muslims, including interrogation about visa status that in some cases led to deportation. They asked questions about religious and political beliefs. They discovered no significant information about terrorism whatsoever in this orgy of racial profiling. The government abused the material witness statute to detain innocent immigrants, who may have had some incidental contact with either the 9-11 hijackers or some other suspects, for prolonged periods. Most notoriously, approximately 2000 People were swiftly “disappeared” in secrecy, and the government refused to release information about them to their families or attorneys. This was the program recently upheld by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. And the government aggressively moved to “seize and freeze” the assets of numerous suspected “terrorist organizations,” without any distinction between legal functions and other parts of related organizations engaged in fighting anywhere in the world, especially of course in the Middle East.

In the broadest sense, what is happening is a comprehensive government campaign of spying on groups and organizations, without probable cause to believe they are engaged in any criminal activity, targeting people because of their beliefs, speech and associations. Even the issue of torture has been raised, with psychological pressure placed on family members, physical mistreatment of immigrants in custody who were never even charged with any crime, deportation to other countries that are known to practice torture systematically, and respectable academic discussions of hypothetical circumstances–such as where it might lead authorities to a “ticking bomb”–when torture could allegedly be justified. The Independent newspaper in the United Kingdom recently published a shocking investigative report on the use of what authorities call “torture lite” at the US Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Techniques (at least some of which were previously perfected in US “supermax” prisons), such as binding prisoners in awkward and painful positions, forcing them to wear hoods, sleep deprivation, 24-hour lighting, and withholding painkillers are being systematically used at an unspecified number of secret CIA detention centers for terrorist suspects. What may be even more shocking is the fact that US officials are more or less openly bragging about it. “If you don’t violate someone’s human rights some of the time,” one reportedly told the Independent, “you probably aren’t doing your job.”

This situation would be extremely frightening if the above civil liberties issues were the only government abuses ongoing in the “war on terrorism.” But that is far from the case. Consider the following related power projections:

Homeland Security Act: Approximately 170,000 government employees with responsibilities for areas such as customs and immigration–but not the CIA or the FBI–have been reorganized into a vast new bureaucracy under Secretary Tom Ridge. These employees have been deprived of union, collective bargaining and civil service protections, as though the right of workers to organize for their protection and economic benefit were a form of terrorism that threatened national security. This authoritarian organizational culture is modeled on that of the FBI, where before 9-11 agents were afraid to rock the boat and challenge their superiors’ lax follow-up on the emerging terrorist threats, including the failure to even try and get a warrant to search the contents of terror suspect Zacharias Moussaoui’s computer. This kind of barely hidden agenda leads many commentators to conclude that the so-called “war on terrorism” is really more of a “war on workers” that suits the Bush administration’s political desires at the expense of national security.

National Security Strategy: In September 2002 the administration announced its National Security Strategy, an official policy document that it is legally required to transmit to Congress. This is an unprecedented and brazen assertion of the US government’s intention to unilaterally and pre-emptively strike anyone, anywhere, any time that it claims, in its sole discretion, not only that the designated enemy poses any threat to America or anyone else, but if it even poses the possibility of ever becoming a rival of American power. The document incredibly states that the tragic events of 9-ll opened “vast new opportunities” for reshaping the world, and posits the existence of only one successful model of a nation and a society: the corporate free trade version. Such sweeping departures from previous official doctrines like self-defense and deterrence (no matter how often these doctrines were actually violated in practice) could not be pursued without the use of massive force for its demonstration effects. Therefore we had the run-up, invasion and now brutal occupation of Iraq, while Afghanistan descends yet again into the chaos that spawned al-Quaida, and on the home front Ashcroft continues to ask for more power to violate legal rights domestically, as he even further intensifies moves to deport thousands of undesirable immigrants.

National Energy Policy: One of the earliest acts of the Bush administration, even before 9-11, was to craft a corporate oil, gas and coal-based energy policy, with a nuclear option, and virtually complete rejection of any renewable energy sources or conservation measures. This broad and essential policy thrust of an oil-industry-based government lay behind the projection of military power into Afghanistan (for gas pipeline routes) and Iraq (for oil reserves) after 9-11. It also links the crises of terrorism and civil liberties to the crises of the environment and the economy, which are so tightly bound up with oil supply and use, the great geopolitical “game” for control of energy sources, and the global ecological damage caused by over-reliance on fossil fuels to stimulate economic growth.

Federalist Society: The corporate forces dominating foreign policy, energy policy, tax policy, and the rest of the Bush administration’s agenda have not hesitated to attack the independence of the legal system. On the contrary, Bush’s nominees to powerful lifetime posts as federal judges, wielding the judicial power of the United States under Article III of the Constitution, have been drawn not from the ranks of the relatively conservative American Bar Association, as in previous administrations, but rather from the ultra-right wing ideologically driven Federalist Society. Dogged right wing opposition to judicial nominees during the Clinton administration, together with the relatively moderate politics of those nominees, already unbalanced the federal courts significantly to the right. The executive branch is now aggressively moving to increase this systematic bias on the federal bench. While Democrats in the Senate have filibustered a handful of the most extreme nominees, a large number of other, equally reactionary but somewhat less blatantly biased judges have been confirmed. This little-understood reactionary transformation of the federal courts will affect the administration of justice in the US for at least a generation, as the legal issues raised by the civil liberties crisis after 9-11 work though the system.

The original federalist himself, principal author of the Constitution James Madison, described the situation we face when he wrote that “the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.” My colleague Kit Gage, who contributed seminal ideas on the basic dangers outlined here, expanded on our duties under these circumstances:

“As long as due process is denied, people will not be able to defend themselves; and when the government is allowed the opportunity to use evidence of dubious quality free from challenge, it will do so. As the government adds new regulations, memoranda and laws to its capacity, those concerned with government overreaching need to be prepared to educate people about the implications of these changes and respond to change and any new legal needs. The effort is broad, legal, political, media and education across lines of ethnicity, religion and politics, and it is nationwide. The organizing should not be defensive. We are raising fundamental issues of governance and constitutional rights. We are participating in shaping the direction this country takes, domestically and abroad. There is no greater responsibility and challenge as US people. We dare not repeat the mistakes of McCarthyism, of COINTELPRO. The closer international connections in the world today make it imperative that the US allow political dissent to exist and continue to bring about gradual change to our government and in the world. The alternatives to that change we can better imagine today than ever.”

Why is all this Happening?

While the crises of resources, rules and conflict resolution playing themselves out today across the nation and around the world were enabled by the 9-11 attacks, their roots go back much further. As the leading American dissident Noam Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out, the essential policies of the Bush administration on energy, taxes, the environment, social welfare and the economy are wildly unpopular, and the state needs to use repression to implement them. In trying to understand what lies behind the crisis of civil liberties that is symbolized by Attorney General Ashcroft’s increasingly hysterical power grabs, it may help to keep in mind at least six factors that the Bush administration’s domestic and foreign policies have in common:

1. Hostility to Democracy: The US recently passed the two million mark of incarcerated prisoners, a percentage of its population that has no comparison anywhere else in the world, and no parallel to any other supposed democracy in history. Disproportionately minorities, these people are increasingly disenfranchised, often for life, by state laws against ex-felons voting. Meanwhile, the administration that “won” election largely by preventing African Americans from voting in Florida is propping up any undemocratic regime around the world that, for its own reasons, pledges to support its “war on terrorism:” Pakistan, Indonesia, the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are all US allies whose authoritarian government structures are totally ignored and thus effectively supported by US foreign policy. 2.Disproportionately Targeting People of Color: Whether through the white supremacist gulag of the US prison system, the cruelties of Welfare and Medicare “reform,” the legal race war labeled a “war on drugs,” the post-9-11 attacks on Arabs, Muslims, and South Asian people, or the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and perhaps Syria or Iran next, US government hostility to people of color is becoming legendary throughout the world. 3.A New Stage in the “Race to the Bottom” of Social, Environmental and Economic Standards: Following up on the worldwide frauds and abuses of corporate globalization, the increasing militarization of the “war against terrorism” is devastating minority and working class communities at home and abroad, as they attempt to find some basis for economic development, in a world now reorganized to serve US domination of energy-producing regions through military force. Paul Street describes perfectly:

“a vicious policy circle that feeds on itself in the fashion of a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. America’s commitment to imperial militarism and corporate-financial globalization produces instability, poverty, and violence around the world, providing endless pretexts for the illusory “corrections” provided by more US empire. Domestic mass incarceration furthers the impoverishment, demoralization, and destabilization of America’s most disadvantaged communities and families, creating conditions and expanding recruits to inner-city crime and providing pretext for more destabilizing intervention on the part of the criminal punishment system.”

4.Costly and Inequitable Government Financial Crises: The profound economic consequences of the Bush administration’s pro-corporate domestic and foreign policies are making themselves felt. The occupation of Iraq was transformed into a guerilla war within a month of Bush’s strutting declaration of victory aboard an aircraft carrier. It may last several years, and require hundreds of thousands more troops, in order to achieve its apparent objective of converting Iraq into an oil colony. The economic and political consequences of such a retrograde “victory” are potentially catastrophic, in terms of US prestige and the international legitimacy of democracy. At the outset of this tortuous road, state and local governments are already screaming in financial pain and on the brink of bankruptcy, caused by the combination of costly prison and “homeland security” policies with serial tax cuts for the richest Americans. The most intense burdens of these policies and their public fiscal consequences in terms of loss of essential human services such as health care, education and housing are felt precisely by those who are least able to bear them: the working poor, unemployed, uninsured, and even homeless millions of People in the richest society on Earth, together with their teeming super-exploited brothers and sisters of the Third World. 5.Corporate Corruption: First came Enron in the traumatized last months of 2001 and the beginning of 2002. Incredibly, the corporate scandals did not end there, as one major household name after another revealed accounting scams, securities frauds, and shady economic and political connections to the seats of government power. The gigantic bankruptcy of Worldcom dwarfed Enron’s previous record, but did not prevent the telecom giant from receiving a $45 million no-bid contract to rebuild Iraq’s wireless communications systems. The energy reconstruction boodle handed out to the most well connected corporate giants in Iraq–primarily Dick Cheney’s Halliburton and Reagan administration Secretary of State George Schulz’s Bechtel–makes a mockery of all the government’s stated reasons for attacking Iraq, from phantom weapons of mass destruction to liberating oppressed People suffering under the long-time US client dictator Saddam Hussein. It’s about corporate profits in the oil bidness. Perhaps this shameless administration and its corporate media cheerleaders can maintain the veneer of respectable policy and assertive national pride long enough to win the 2004 election, even in the face of this rotting ethical cesspool of obvious corruption and self-dealing, even as the Iraqi and Afghan occupations look more like imperial quagmires with every passing day. If so, the very idea of responsive and meaningful democratic government in the US is a sick joke.

6.Corporate Globalization: Whatever its rhetoric about unity, security, pride, patriotism, and whip smart military/intelligence toughness, the new “war against terrorism” is at bottom a continuation by other means of the imperial project of corporate globalization that has been misleadingly labeled “free trade.” As the world of the Seattle uprising at the end of the 20th century recedes into the past, the 21st century increasingly threatens the prospect of lawlessness. The dominant institutional arrangements require constant and intense struggles between the powerless and the powers for resources, governed by no meaningful or democratically-arrived-at rules, and where the frequent, unrestrained use of brutal military and police force is the most common denominator of domestic and international governance. One of the world’s most eloquent insurgents, the famous Subcommandante Marcos of the Zapatista Liberation Front in Chiapas, Mexico, recognizes and names a world run by the transnational “society of power,” where:

“there previously was a legal and institutional system which regulated the internal life of the Nation States and the relationship between them (international legal structure), today there is nothing. The international legal system is obsolete, and its place is being occupied by the spontaneous ‘legal’ system of Capital: the brutal and merciless competition through any means, among them, war. What are the public security programs of cities but the protection of those who have everything in the face of those who have nothing? ‘Mutatis mutandis,’ national security programs are no longer national, confronting other nations, but they are against everything, everywhere. What nuclear war did not do, the corporations can. Destroy everything, even that which gives them wealth. Now, globalization, the greatest fraud in the history of humanity, does not even have the decency to try and justify itself. Thousands of years after the emergence of words, and, along with them, reasoned argument, force has again come to occupy the decisive and deciding position.”


This survey of the multifaceted global crises of the 21st century may lead some to the edge of despair. But that would be to repeat the mistake of the fundamentalists, who base their actions and beliefs on the Israelites’ violent invasion and occupation of the Promised Land many thousands of years ago. Deeper myths like that of David and Goliath, and the anti-imperial message of the Tower of Babel story, may not fit the Bush administrations’ juvenile, ahistorical message. But they capture the essence of politics in the real world of the 21st century. The assaults on civil liberties in the wake of 9-11 are intended to, and to some extent have had the effect of, distraction from the key issues. Beyond and beneath the undermining of basic human rights, we can see the outlines of the real fights for natural and energy resources, different rules of international and domestic conduct, and various means of conflict resolution, from war to peace. The Bush administration’s model is inequality of resources, imperialism as the rules for social order, and authoritarian conflict resolution, including even torture and wars of aggression to achieve their domination. There simply has to be a better alternative than this new American nightmare. Simply put, we have to choose between the government of laws enshrined in our national history, and that of unaccountable power, currently arising out of the “war against terrorism.”

While all of this demonstrates quite conclusively that our prospects are for a very difficult time, we should recall that our ancestors have been here before. In the first great “red scare” of World War I, in the forced relocation of Japanese Americans to concentration camps during World War II, in the ideological depths of the Cold War, McCarthyism, and COINTELPRO, we can clearly see the historical precedents for the more recent “Ashcroft raids,” the Guantanamo Bay and Bagram torture complexes, and the multifaceted legislative and executive assaults of today’s “war against terrorism.” With the benefit of the examples of Dr. King’s movement, the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, the recent Global Justice Movement, and its even more recent and much broader sister Movement Against War in Iraq, we stand on a massive foundation of moral and political activism for democracy and justice. The first step is to see the vicious circle of abusive policies for what it is. The second step is to withdraw our consent to its continuing. The third is to persuade others to join us.

Again, Subcommandante Marcos has illuminated the way with his evocation of the People’s historic “No” to aggression against Iraq:

“The 21st century began with the globalized ‘NO TO THE WAR’ which gave humanity back its essence and held it together in a cause. As never before in the history of humanity, the planet was shaken by this ‘NO.’ From intellectuals of all stature, to unlettered residents of the forgotten corners of the earth, the ‘NO’ became a bridge which united communities, towns, villas, cities, provinces, countries, continents. In manifestos and demonstrations, the ‘NO’ sought the vindication of reason in the face of force.”

This vision of multinational Humanity, Peace and Justice recalls, updates, and internationalizes the great African-American poet Langston Hughes’ evocation (also recalled by Dr. King) of a new and alternative Patriotism, worshipping not America’s corporate military/prison industrial complex, whose tanks and troops occupy Afghanistan and Iraq today, but rather “the America that will be.” This vision of transformative politics is the only way out of the massive overlapping crisis in which we find ourselves living. While intensely idealistic, moral, and rooted in the age-old and universal aspiration for social justice, such a vision must also be profoundly practical, if it is to give life to popular movements that make history. The links between the wider social, ecological, and political crisis of our world today, and the civil liberties crisis inaugurated by the obscenely mislabeled “PATRIOT” Act, can be most clearly seen in the wisdom and the belated solidarity voiced by Nazi victim Pastor Martin Niemoller:

“First they came for the Communists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me, but by that time, no one was left to speak up.”

This time there is really no excuse for not speaking up.

TOM STEPHENS is a lawyer in Detroit, Michigan. He can be reached at lebensbaum4@earthlink.


Tom Stephens is a coordinator of the communications working group of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM).  Their web site is at:

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