The First 21st Century Police State

The New York Times wrote recently about Russia getting a new “Western-style” legal code: “The code enshrines the fundamental concept of presumption of innocence and gives new responsibilities–and, in theory, independence–to judges, while it will gradually strip prosecutors of the enormous powers they have wielded over almost every step of any prosecution, from arrest to trial. Defense lawyers will have the right to challenge the admissibility of evidence, throwing out, among other things, evidence collected by wiretaps without a warrant.”

The Times writes without a sense of irony. None of these constitutional protections exist anymore in the U.S.

The Times goes on to describe Russia, but unwittingly provides a perfect description of the new Aschroftian fascist state in America: “…is…a country where suspects can be detained indefinitely, where arbitrary, politically…motivated prosecutions are common, where coercion of suspects is rampant, where the police can stop anyone on the street without any reasonable cause.”

In Tom Cruise’s new movie, Minority Report, based on Philip K. Dick’s story, individuals can be arrested before they’ve committed a crime. It’s not much different in America today.

Consider, from Matthew Rothschild’s Progressive magazine, these few instances from his McCarthyism Watch. At the Milwaukee airport on April 20, high school students were detained before going to peace demonstrations in Washington, D.C. because their names were on a no-fly list. Stephen K. Jones, a graduate student at the University of Maine at Orono, was fired for developing a lesson plan on Islam and Islamic civilization as part of his world history course at Old Town High School. Musical group Alma Melodioso, on their way from Monroe to Park City, Utah were surrounded by cops, asked harassing questions, and had their bus subjected to a search by FBI and Secret Service agents, because they had earlier asked at a gas station if there were any Olympics security checkpoints along the way. Like several other journalists, Tim McCarthy, prize-winning editor of the Courier in Littleton, New Hampshire, was fired for questioning the rush to war.

A Palestinian activist has been in detention for six weeks, on minor, unrelated vehicular charges, after he joined in a demonstration outside the Israeli embassy in Boston. His teeth were forcibly pulled out while in jail. Another Palestinian student activist in the Chicago area has suffered a nearly identical fate.

Legislators are considering the formation of a domestic intelligence agency, like Britain’s MI-5. The new Homeland Security agency, which will lead overt martial rule in the event of a future “attack,” is seeking to be exempted from access to information, conflict of interest rules, and whistle-blower protections. The military is extending its involvement in all phases of day-to-day “security.”

The category of “enemy combatant” is arbitrarily being applied to an American citizen named Yaser Esam Hamdi who is being held indefinitely in a naval brig in Virginia to evade constitutional protections. Mr. Hamdi was born in Louisiana and grew up in Saudi Arabia. He has been denied access to a lawyer, and is being held indefinitely without a crime being charged. The judge in this case asked the public defender, “What is unconstitutional about the government detaining that person and getting from that individual all the intelligence that might later save American lives?”

Similarly, Jose Padilla, the American citizen accused of being a “dirty bomber” (on flimsy evidence) is being held in a navy brig in Charleston, S.C. A petition for a writ of habeas corpus, filed on his behalf in Manhattan and asking a federal judge to return him to New York, is being fought by the government as interfering with the president’s conduct of war. As constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe argues, members of an enemy force with which a nation is engaged in armed combat may be held in military confinement for the duration of war. But the rationale for such imprisonment is narrowly defined, not, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would have it, to find out what the detainees know.

In recent months, there have been some positive signs as lower courts have sought to deny the government the fascist powers it seeks. But on its first opinion on the rollback of civil liberties, the Supreme Court on June 28 blocked a federal judge’s order to open immigration hearings for detainees to the public. The First Amendment, according to the federal judge, requires immigration hearings to be open. But the Supreme Court has sided with the government, which has adopted a blanket policy of barring the public and media from detention and deportation hearings. To justify secret trials, the government claims that sensitive intelligence information may leak out; however, adequate provisions are in place to protect sensitive information.

Across the nation, FBI agents are visiting public and university libraries, and checking up on the reading habits of people. The FBI does not require probable cause for a search warrant to conduct this type of inquiry under the USA Patriot Act. Bookstores can also have their records searched by the FBI.

On May 29, the FBI was “reorganized” to give it carte blanche to spy on speech and thought–libraries, the Internet, religious groups, political meetings, all will be subject to surveillance in cooperation with the CIA. Last year, federal and state police legally intercepted 2.3 million conversations and pager communications, not including secret surveillance done under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The FBI, without any court order, without any evidence of a potential crime, can now monitor chatrooms, political or religious meetings, and commercial databases that include subscriptions to publications, travel records, credit profile, and medical records. This takes us right back to the infamous days of COINTELPRO, the bureau’s program in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s to spy on radical and dissident groups. COINTELPRO infiltrated dissident groups to push them through agents provocateurs into unlawful actions, engaged in disinformation campaigns, and drove civil rights activists toward burnout and desperation.

An unknown number of detainees remain held in secret. The INS has been reorganized into an arm of the spy state. Visitors from certain countries will be fingerprinted and made to report their whereabouts with a registry. Colleges are singling out students on the basis of ethnic identity, asking them to carry special identity papers. Committees of local vigilantes are being encouraged around the country as legitimate militias to root out suspicious people.

Much of the fascist agenda is being implemented by back channel means. This is how the national ID card is being developed. The planned unique identifier will instantly provide cops with every possible information–credit history, student loans, welfare payments, drug arrests, minor traffic violations, not to mention citizenship status. If one is poor, one is by definition criminal and suspect, subject to harassment and imprisonment. If one so much as raises one’s voice or violates a traffic rule, the result could be jail.

Boston’s pleasant Logan airport is being transformed by an Israeli security chief into a nightmare of surveillance including biometric devices matching employees’ identity cards to their facial features or retinas, closed-circuit cameras that match the faces of terrorists and criminals, and wireless handheld computers that allow troopers patrolling terminals to instantly check a vehicle’s license plate or the criminal history, outstanding arrest warrants, or immigration status of anyone they choose.

The real reason for the war on terror is to suppress domestic political dissent and to fully realize the authoritarian state. Americans must be radically separated into the privileged minority and the oppressed majority. Nearly a century and a half after Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the civil war, historians single out this dictatorial act for condemnation. Bush has appropriated all the civil liberties violations of the past–the Alien and Sedition acts, the Palmer raids, the Japanese internment, McCarthyism–and added new technological twists that didn’t exist before.

American public schools look more and more like prisons. On June 26 the Supreme Court approved random drug-testing for high school students participating in any extracurricular activity. Precisely those participating in extracurricular activities are least likely to be involved in drugs, as dissenting Justice Ginsberg observed. The idea is to ingrain an absolute prison and surveillance mentality in all institutions of society.

Recently, Martina Navratilova said in the German weekly Die Ziet: “The most absurd thing about my escape from injustice [from Czechoslovakia] was that I simply exchanged one system which oppressed opinion for another.” Tom Cruise has said that he wouldn’t raise his kids in the U.S. because “the U.S. is terrifying and it saddens me.” These kinds of denunciations used to be reserved for the nightmares instigated by Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. The world is scared of the brutal fascist regime emerging in this land whose ruling elite is deluded of a pax Americana lasting for the next millennium, as recent articles in Foreign Affairs repeatedly testify.

Holding Jose Padilla and other citizens indefinitely on no charges, and monitoring citizens’ reading habits, is tantamount to creating thought crimes. Liberal cities like Northampton, Cambridge, Berkeley, and Ann Arbor are defying enforcement of the Patriot Act. But this only proves the point about two Americas: small oases of relative freedom for a few (but for how long?) and the surrounding garrison state for everyone else.

Anis Shivani studied economics at Harvard, and is the author of two novels, The Age of Critics and Memoirs of a Terrorist. He welcomes comments at:

Anis Shivani is the author of many critically-acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. His recent political books include Why Did Trump Win?, A Radical Human Rights Approach to Immigration, and Confronting American Fascism