John Ashcroft’s New America


WASHINGTON, D.C.—As part of the Bush administration’s promise not to send Arab Americans to concentration camps, the FBI has been holding sympathetic meetings with top Arab American leaders to guarantee speedy prosecution of any World Trade Center backlash hate crimes. “We have had a horrible relationship with the FBI,” says Abdeen Jabara, an Arab American attorney in Manhattan and past president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, referring to harassment in the past. “So this is a positive step. Now they feel they need the support and cooperation of the Arab and the Muslim communities.”

Nonetheless, with war fever running wild, Arab Americans—or anyone who looks like them—are easy targets. There have been 300 instances of attacks on Arab Americans since September 11, according to the Arab American Institute. Meanwhile, a special committee reportedly proposed to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta that airports be equipped with facial-recognition systems. As travelers go through security checkpoints, the systems would flash to law enforcement agencies, where they could be instantly compared to supposed terrorist profiles. Agents would immediately be dispatched to pick up any suspicious-looking persons. (In 1972, President Richard Nixon set up a task force called Operation Boulder. It required every person with an Arabic surname to undergo a security check before receiving a visa.)

This new security system might be coordinated through Bush’s new Office of Homeland Security. The office will try to pull together the functions of 40 federal, state, and local agencies under one czar, Thomas Ridge, who’ll be resigning his position as Pennsylvania governor to take the new cabinet-level post. The agency is also charged with developing plans to protect transportation, power, and food systems.

In order to combat terrorism, Attorney General John Ashcroft is asking Congress to let the government use wiretaps more freely, and arrest and deport people without warrants or hearings. There’s congressional opposition to the legislation, but that’s not stopping Ashcroft, who’s already operating as if the new rules were in place. By issuing an emergency order, Ashcroft will allow the Immigration and Naturalization Service authority to hold people 48 hours (the current limit is 24), so as “to establish an alien’s true identity.” And he proposes to go well beyond 48 hours in an “emergency or other extraordinary circumstance.” Thus, the INS could hold a person indefinitely without bringing any charges. Meanwhile, the government has stopped disclosing arrests of material witnesses in the World Trade Center attack, on grounds that it harms grand-jury proceedings. So the public will never know how many people in that category are being held. Initially, the Justice Department said it was detaining an estimated 115 people on immigration charges. When that figure was challenged by reporters, Mindy Tucker, the Justice Department spokesperson, told The Washington Post that the department will no longer issue any reports. Thus you could be held indefinitely on immigration charges and nobody would ever know it. And Bush himself, along with spokespeople for various departments, has introduced a basic information blackout on military operations.

The president’s declaration of war against terrorists last week wasn’t an official one. But if he were to make an actual declaration of war against Afghanistan or some other state, he could take steps to curtail civil liberties normally granted under the Constitution, principally habeas corpus. The only time this was previously done was by Lincoln during the Civil War.

“If there is a formal declaration of war, which there has not been, that does result in certain automatic powers to suspend civil liberties,” says Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union. “That’s why it’s noteworthy that when Congress was debating what became the joint resolution authorizing use of military force, they considered several variations in language, including two resolutions that would have been declarations of war. Congress opted not to go that route.”

“There are no limits on speech under the Constitution,” said Michael Ratner, of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Although, as a practical matter, this issue is determined by various courts. In general, they weigh the government’s needs, as, for example, revealing where our troops are, but not much beyond that.”

A declaration of war can grant the government power to seize “a wide range of businesses, manufacturing facilities, and obtain wire taps without any court order,” says Strossen. “A state of war could also grant a government power to restrict otherwise lawful activity.”

“Every time there’s a war, there’s a suppression of civil liberties, going way back,” says historian Howard Zinn. “Take just the 20th century. When World War I started, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which put 1000 people in prison. They prosecuted a couple thousand, and in general created an atmosphere of fear. At the end of the war, people were deported without trial, aliens were picked up. Which is exactly the kind of program called for by Ashcroft—giving the government the right to pick up aliens without a judicial review and ship them off.” The Cold War, of course, led to deprivations of civil liberties, such as loyalty oaths, people going to jail for refusing to talk to House committees, and the era of McCarthyism. Attempts to break the anti-Vietnam War movement resulted in conspiracy trials and the CIA spying inside the U.S.

Ashcroft’s proposals in Congress would give the government formal authority to arrest or deport foreigners who belong to non-terrorist groups that in the government’s view support a terrorist organization. In addition, Ashcroft wants the power to detain a foreigner by claiming the person is a threat to national security. That would include persons granted political asylum who are currently not subject to deportation. He wants authority to seize e-mail and voice mail. And his legislation would encourage greater cooperation between the CIA and FBI, quite possibly leading to CIA operations inside the U.S., which is currently barred under the law. The new legislation would make it easier for the attorney general to get a search warrant and allow the government to seize now private educational records.

Most people would recoil at the idea of repeating our treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. After Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment ran strong. “I’m for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska, and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps,” said congressman John Rankin. “Damn them! Let’s get rid of them now!” In February 1942, Roosevelt signed an executive order allowing the army to arrest every one of the 110,000 Japanese living on the West Coast without warrant, indictment, or hearing, and then incarcerated them in concentration camps. Three-quarters of these people were born in America to Japanese parents and were U.S. citizens. The Supreme Court upheld this incarceration on the grounds of military necessity, the logic of which went roughly like this: Some of the Japanese on the West Coast are good, some are bad. Since we can’t very well pick out the bad ones, let’s incarcerate the whole lot. It has only been in recent years that the U.S. government realized this forced imprisonment was wrong, and paid reparations to families of the people sent away.

Locking up more than 7 million American Muslims is a tall order. But the racial profiling that allows the government to keep tabs on this now suspect group may be the modern equivalent of a concentration camp.

Hollywood and pulp fiction have prepared us to view Arab Americans and Muslims as vile beasts—dirty, smelly people driven by an insane religion to commit bestial acts. In airplane, train, and bus waiting rooms, people scan the faces of their fellow passengers for anyone resembling the Muslim stereotype. In Minneapolis, a posse of passengers forced a Northwest Airlines plane to remove four suspicious (i.e., Arab-looking) passengers for fear they were terrorists. At Dulles Airport over the weekend, a flight crew refused to fly until a Saudi Arabian pilot was removed from the plane. He was flying home as a passenger because the Saudi airline had been grounded. (One suspects the crew might have also booted Najeeb E. Halaby, John F. Kennedy’s Lebanese American FAA administrator and onetime president of Pan Am.)

In a log kept by the Arab American Institute, 300 anti-Arab incidents were cataloged in the U.S. as of last weekend. Some examples:

A Sikh was shot to death in Phoenix. Students in Palmdale, California, stayed home when they discovered their names on a list stating the terrorist act would be avenged by a “massacre.” A man in San Francisco approached a 26-year-old Indian man peaceably walking up the street with a friend, called him a “dirty Arab,” and punched both men in the face, then stabbed the friend, who is now in critical condition. An Egyptian store owner in San Gabriel was shot to death. People hurled bags of blood with Osama bin Laden’s name on them at a San Francisco law office, apparently thinking it was a mosque. A bomb exploded outside an Islamic center in San Diego, forcing it to be evacuated. Men threatened to burn down Colorado Springs’ only mosque. In Chicago, a man with a two-foot machete attacked a gas station attendant he thought was an Arab. In Maryland, two adjoining buildings owned by a Palestinian were burned down. In Massachusetts, people tossed softballs inscribed with “God Bless America” through the window of a café owned by a Greek American. Others lobbed a Molotov cocktail onto the roof of a convenience store, to “get those Arabs for what they did to us.” In Boston’s Back Bay, a group of men stabbed a Saudi Arabian student at Boston University as he left a nightclub. Meanwhile in New Jersey, carloads of people drove through Arab neighborhoods yelling, “We’re going to bomb you when you sleep.” A Muslim working gas pumps in New Jersey was punched in the face by a motorist. Also in New Jersey, signs reading “Leave town” were posted on Indian businesses, and a Molotov cocktail was thrown into a Hindu temple. In New York, a 75-year-old man tried to run down a Pakistani woman in a parking lot at a shopping mall, then followed her into a store, threatening to kill her for “destroying my country.” An off-duty Philadelphia cop pulled a gun on a Pakistani convenience store owner.

The incidents get even weirder: The Montana highway patrol pulled over a caravan of “Arab-appearing” people after a caller to 911 reported a group of 15 to 20 people with olive-colored skin driving five cars and talking to one another on walkie-talkies. When they were pulled over, it was learned they were a group of Puerto Ricans on their way to start a church in Oregon. On the governmental level, says attorney Jabara, FBI agents have infiltrated mosques in an effort to pick up idle but revealing chatter.

Such incidents should concern the Bush administration as much as they concern the Arab American community. “We are going to be entering into a major alliance with Arab states,” notes Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “America cannot be a society that abuses its Arab and Muslim members. Otherwise it will be seen as being motivated by anti-Arab racism towards Islam. And that will mean that it will have no hope of success. It is a moral and strategic issue.”

• Liberals find themselves under attack these days, too. Right-wingers once described liberals as commie dupes. Now they’re gleefully renewing the attack with cries of “unpatriotic” and “terrorist patsies.” Criticism of Bush elicits attack. A Los Angeles Times reporter told NPR he got 900 critical e-mails after he called Bush “boyish.” Because of its active support of immigrants, the ACLU was getting blamed for the attack, Strossen said. “We have received some hate mail. Security is very tight.” Even in prison, anyone considered left-wing was singled out for special treatment. Phillip F. Berrigan, the antiwar activist who has three months left on his year’s sentence for violating parole in connection with an antiwar demonstration, spent 10 days locked down at the federal correctional institution at Elkton, Maryland. Aides to Maryland senator Barbara Mikulski told Berrigan’s wife, Elizabeth McAlister, that the Bureau of Prisons said he’d been segregated after the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon “for his own protection.”

• The government is reportedly considering the possibility of a national identification card. Oracle, a West Coast technology firm that has worked with the FBI and CIA, offered to give the government the technology for such a card.

• According to TV reports in San Francisco, the military will use a technicality implemented during the Persian Gulf War to keep known homosexuals from serving in the military. The military can try to hold onto soldiers coming up for discharge with a stop-loss order, to avoid losing people during armed conflict. But this time gays will not be included. Navy commander Zoe Dunning, who successfully fought to remain in the military when she came out as a lesbian, told station KPIX that she thinks the policy is foolish. “Here we have a need for qualified service members to participate in this crisis, yet you’re gonna continue to discharge fully qualified service members who violate ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”

• Don’t count on Congress to protect your civil liberties. John Conyers, the Detroit Democrat who chaired the House Judiciary Committee during the Clinton era, recently described how efforts to beef up anti-terrorism laws after the Oklahoma City bombing ended up a confused mess, with sweeping new limits on habeas corpus for death-row and other prison inmates and limits on people seeking asylum. “I sat through the hearings on this legislation and did not hear a single shred of evidence that proved that a single terrorist act could be prevented by limiting the ability of persons convicted in state court to obtain relief from unconstitutional convictions or by denying immigrants their due process rights.

“Many laudable provisions were dropped from the 1996 legislation at the behest of the gun lobby,” Conyers continued. “We tried to include a provision allowing for broader roving wiretaps, as has been recommended by Attorney General John Ashcroft, but the conservatives could not stomach this expansion of government power. We also failed in our efforts to ban dangerous ‘cop killer’ bullets, and to require that ‘taggants’ [tracer elements] be attached to explosive materials and that unregulated explosive material [such as the fertilizer used in Oklahoma City] be rendered inert. Instead, we were forced to settle for an ineffective study of these issues.”

Additional reporting: Ariston-Lizabeth Anderson