It can happen here

"Guantanamo," now playing in New York, warns that the liberties the U.S. government has taken abroad in the name of homeland security present grave threats to our own civil liberties.

Published October 12, 2004 5:34PM (EDT)

There's something happening here. And with apologies to the '60s rock group Buffalo Springfield, what it is, is exactly clear. In times of war, governments naturally seek to clamp down on dissent and disagreement. And people mostly support such clamping; loose lips, after all, sink ships. Only occasionally, at least in the early stages of a conflict, does significant dissent emerge. Fortunately, today buds of dissent are sprouting. One is coming up through the concrete of Manhattan -- and thereby, one can only hope, through the far harder stone of public indifference.

When a country is under attack, citizens "need to watch what they say," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told the nation on Sept. 26, 2001. There's nothing new about this belief: James Madison warned two centuries ago that "the means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home." Yet, during the recent political conventions, Americans reacted little when they heard -- if they heard -- how increasingly militarized law enforcers "kept order." Has anyone, other than a few ACLU types, objected to the police tactics in New York in particular, where the police practiced "preemption" on any assemblage that even looked as if it might become a protest?

It's not just at special events that the police and parapolice have moved into high-national-security mode. Earlier this year, I was walking along Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, Va., a Washington suburb, when I found myself sharing a sidewalk with three Men in Black -- black uniforms, that is. At least one of them had a machine gun strapped to his thigh. The men's look and gait were definitely intended to "shock and awe." But whom? And to what purpose, on a Saturday afternoon? Whatever security needs are being met here, I thought to myself, there's no doubt that some fetish needs are being met, too.

The kicker of this tale is that their badges read "WMATA," for Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. In other words, these were cops to guard the subway trains and buses of the nation's capital. It's important work, to be sure, but does it really require so much spit, swagger and firepower? One needn't be French philosopher Michel Foucault to see how uniformed testosterone can lead to overeager, even brutal, "law enforcement." As the Washington Post reported, D.C.-area subway cops have recently been using extraordinary force on citizens -- a pregnant woman was recently detained for allegedly talking too loudly on her cellphone, and others have been arrested for eating a French fry or candy bar in the subway system. Such policing may or may not keep trains running on time, but for now, at least, armed and armored cops seem to be more threatening to ordinary Americans than to al-Qaida.

These anecdotes, to be sure, are from the Washington area. But if America is the empire, then D.C. is Rome; if the barbarians are going to strike at the seat of power, then Washington is the obvious target. So maybe Beltway Romans should expect to dial down a bit on their civil liberties in return for greater security.

That's a convenient argument for head-in-the-sand ostriches, but the bright, shining truth is that a string of legal and political actions is affecting Americans' freedoms everywhere. We might consider this string in an ascending order of seriousness; the first two cases may seem farcical, but we should all know by now that the censorious exercise of state power is never a joke.

First is the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl halftime show on Feb. 1. The $550,000 fine levied on broadcaster CBS by the Federal Communications Commission might seem small enough, relative to the worth of giant parent Viacom, but it nevertheless sets a precedent. (By the way, am I the only one who thinks that the "nipplegate" brouhaha served as a convenient diversion from presidential politics, just days after John Kerry was gaining momentum in the wake of his New Hampshire primary victory?)

Second is the continuing censorship storm over Howard Stern. The notorious shock jock may devote most of his attention to sex gags and bathroom humor, but he speaks his mind plenty about political issues. So the incessant hounding and fining he has suffered at the hands of the same FCC merit more solicitude from civil libertarians than he has received. Stern's decision to abandon broadcast radio in favor of satellite radio may be a victory for a new medium, but it is still a defeat for free speech.

Third is the looming inquisition by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Declaring his intention to hold hearings to examine "procedures and mechanisms to protect the First Amendment," Barton is particularly exercised about the "Rathergate" flap concerning President Bush's National Guard service. Notwithstanding that CBS has already suffered enormous professional and financial damage from the case, Barton wants to pile it on -- and pile it on the First Amendment, too. Perhaps I am being too alarmist; after all, Barton pledges that the hearings will be "fair and balanced."

All these actions stand out against the general backdrop of the USA PATRIOT Act. (It's worth remembering that the law's sloganeering, stentorian title is an acronym for "uniting and strengthening America by providing appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism.") And let's not forget the administration's attempt in 2002 to bring back Iran-Contra figure John Poindexter to oversee the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Total Information Awareness program. In the firestorm that followed, Poindexter became too hot to keep his job, and the TIA program was downscaled. But who wants to bet that the same programs for profiling, data mining and "life logging" aren't continuing in some lower-profile precinct of the Pentagon?

Not since the Nixon years has there been such an assault on civil liberties as today, in the Age of Ashcroft. Back then, the White House, not satisfied with the considerable cooperation it was getting from the FBI and CIA, created its own rogue group, the so-called plumbers. And the same eager-beaver spirit trickled down, too. The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration provided local cops with money to buy such crucial police tools as armored personnel carriers. The LEAA was eventually laughed out of existence, but now it's back, pork-barreling away, in the guise of the infinitely larger and more permanent Department of Heimat -- oops, make that Homeland -- Security.

Another fond ambition of authoritarians through the ages is to cause enemies, and perceived enemies, to disappear. In the early '70s, one of Richard Nixon's hatchet men -- perhaps the great Charles Colson himself, in his pre-born-again mode -- might have labored over his copy of the "enemies list," dreaming of putting, say, newsman Daniel Schorr into a cell on some American Devil's Island. But back then, it never happened here.

Yet today, it is indeed happening here -- just 100 miles off our Florida shore. In the wake of the Afghanistan operation, the United States established a detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to hold "enemy combatants." That was a new category intended, by legal design, to circumvent the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. Of all the unilateral decisions taken by the Bush administration, this flouting of the law was perhaps the most breathtaking. That is, a few government lawyers sat down and dreamed up a category that would enable Uncle Sam, so they hoped, to skirt 150 years of evolving international law.

To be sure, few Americans seem to care about the fate of the some 600 individuals still held at Guantánamo Bay. Moreover, it's quite possible that many of the prisoners, perhaps most, are fighters, some with American blood on their hands. Yet even so, Americans might at least heed the pragmatic argument for good treatment of the detainees; the Guantánamo setup has done immeasurable harm to our international image, not to mention the potential harm to future American POWs.

These issues become clear in "Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom," a stage production first performed in London and now playing in New York's Greenwich Village. Co-creators Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo derived their script entirely from the letters and testimony of those incarcerated at the U.S. base in Cuba, as well as from the verbatim words of their families, lawyers and captors.

As a piece of theater, "Guantánamo" can't quite escape its agitprop roots. But to the extent that its message is true -- that the U.S. government has gone to great lengths to establish a Kafka-esque penal colony -- the production only reinforces the findings of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press about the depth of anti-Americanism around the world. Such sentiments make it all the more difficult for America to gain support for its policies, as well as for pro-American candidates to win free elections -- if such elections are, in fact, held -- in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, as the play emphasizes, Guantánamo is just one island in an ugly archipelago of penal colonies, reaching from "Gitmo" to Abu Ghraib in Iraq to Bagram in Afghanistan to an unknown number of sites in non-Marquess of Queensbury countries such as Egypt.

Still, most Americans probably don't care. The United States has "moral clarity," the administration assures us, and if the rest of the world is too blind to see the coming of "liberty century," well, then, too bad -- Uncle Sam will just have to go it alone. So even if the intelligence from Guantánamo Bay is, as the Observer reports, "hopelessly flawed" by a combination of carelessness in taking captives and zealousness in abusing those captives, it probably makes no difference in the court of American public opinion. After all, as the ninja cops in black strutting through Arlington on their way to save the subway remind us, much of the fun of "fighting terror" is dressing for the part and going through the motions. After that manly ritualizing, effectiveness is an afterthought.

So we come to the most powerful point of "Guantánamo": If it can happen at Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta, it can happen here. In the words of Gareth Peirce, a British solicitor representing one of the inmates, Guantánamo is a transferable tool of "social control." That is, once created, it can be replicated.

Think I'm exaggerating? Then consider, as a straw in the zeitgeist, Michelle Malkin's new book, "In Defense of Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling in World War II and the War on Terror." Malkin, increasingly styling herself as the raven-haired answer to Ann Coulter, has written a book defending not only profiling but also rounding up people by race, without due process -- or any process -- for indefinite confinement. It wasn't that long ago that President Reagan agreed that Japanese-Americans had been done a grave injustice during World War II; in 1988, he signed a law awarding compensation to those victims. And in 2000, a permanent memorial to these Japanese-Americans was dedicated on Capitol Hill. But now, just a few years later, the wheel is turning, back to a dark time of involuntary mass movements to remote camps.

Anti-liberty lightning struck America once, and it might soon strike again.

So "Guantánamo" stands as sentinel, reminding any who might care that our freedoms are at risk. The play, backstopped by the scrappy-lefty Center for Constitutional Rights, is at least a sprig of hope poking through the heavy slate of discipline and control.

In the play, Lord Johan Steyn adds a poetic flourish, recalling the 17th century meditation of John Donne: We all must be "involved in mankind" because the loss of any of us diminishes all of us. And so, Steyn concludes, "never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Those wonderful but oft-invoked words have become a cliché, but in these times, they are exactly the call to conscience that Donne intended.

By James P. Pinkerton

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abu Ghraib Guantanamo Homeland Security