Repeating history

BY TREVOR GARDNER

A period passed, and as a nation we slowly began to understand the harm caused by the witch hunt we today refer to as McCarthyism. The McCarthy era severed much of the left from the realm of the politically legitimate, for years effectively suppressing certain schools of political thought by damning them with the inaccurate label “Communist.”

A period passed, and as a nation we realized that discrimination against Asians and Asian-Americans was, in fact, racism. We realized that the rounding up and indefinite detainment of Japanese-Americans was, in fact a very, very bad thing, a policy that flew in the face of expressed American ideals and the very concept of civilization those imposing the detention allegedly sought to secure. Hell hath no fury like America frightened.

Yet, despite our remorse, our confessions, and our supposed repentance following these episodes, America again appears to have come full circle; once again we are willing to justify nearly any “wartime” action, with little regard for law or efficacy.

At least during WWII Japanese-Americans knew what was coming. In contrast, the Bush administration has been decidedly “p.c.” with its rhetoric, initiating what amounts to a public relations ploy. President Bush has been sent to visit mosques around the country; he has urged tolerance for “Muslim folk” in his addresses to Congress and the nation.

Meanwhile, Attorney General John Ashcroft detains hundreds of Arab and Arab-American males indefinitely on what Ashcroft has admitted to be trumped-up charges. These arrests have dramatically increased each time the Justice Department has put the nation on “High Alert,” with prisoners released soon after the alert expires. Ashcroft’s agency has also refused all inquiries as to the number of Arab and Arab-American males presently held around the country. The FBI has refused a Freedom of Information Act request filed by a coalition of 21 Arab-American and human rights groups demanding to know the names of the individuals jailed in connection with the events of September 11th. Many are being held indefinitely by the INS, while others have been shuttled from prison to prison around the country, in effect, preventing their attorneys from discovering their whereabouts. The hastily passed “Patriot Act” now allows the government to detain citizens for up to seven days without paperwork or contact with an attorney. This authorization is a perfect fit for the “High Alert” racial profiling sweeps that have occurred twice since September 11.

The party that purportedly abhors big government has led the charge toward establishing the largest, most intrusive government in America’s history with the passage of the “Patriot Act.” References to Big Brother that before seemed trite now feel terribly appropriate. Ashcroft has proposed authorizing government agencies to eavesdrop on heretofore privileged attorney-client conversations when the government believes the communication may produce information on terrorism. And, of course, the agency would be restricted from sharing that information with the prosecutors trying the client’s case (wink, wink).

The concept of secret military tribunals also seems suspect. What are the chances that an alleged al-Qaeda underling hears the words, “not guilty,” while awaiting the verdict?

It’s no secret that our Supreme Court has declared that civil rights may be curbed in wartime. Whether this allowance is paradoxical in light of the definition of a “right” should be secondary to the question of what event could possibly constitute the end of the wartime in this nebulous War on Terrorism. Clearly, bin Laden’s death will not suffice. U.S. government officials have initiated rhetoric preparing the global community for future military action against groups America deems Islamic-extremist. The targeted countries include Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran and perhaps even the Philippines.

Given the loose, yet largely unquestioned definition of the present war, America’s “wartime” status could continue until every alleged terrorist cell on the earth has been destroyed. But, common sense would suggest that America has never and will never exist without there also being pockets of individuals hoping to bring terror within its borders. The issue is one of response. How will America uphold what Professor Cornell West has referred to as “this experiment called democracy”? Will America’s conception of freedom continue to exist in light of this threat? More specifically, can it exist if America is in an everlasting state of “wartime”? I would venture to say that John Ashcroft and the United States Congress have done more to curtail the substantive freedoms of Americans than any terrorist action committed on United States soil.

We should not be easily convinced that the twisted acts that took place on September 11 have forced us to give up on this experiment called America. The ubiquitous displays of patriotism through American flags, to me, seems ironic since our politicians perceive the meaningful unity as consensus permitting them to take away the very rights Americans seek to defend and secure.

When America’s anxiety no longer allows it to rationalize a drastic expansion of the police power to counter terrorism, it will again face shame over its ineffective, hasty and highly hypocritical response to its own fear. We are a nation with many regrets and know sad stories quite well. Stories that aren’t fully understood until years after the fact. Stories that tell of perceived consensus and a cocky assuredness that nearly any action, no matter how incongruent with America’s expressed ideals, is justified in the interest of war. Another sad story in history is unfolding even as you read this line.

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