Ashcroft as AntiChrist Revisited. (11/29/2001)

I hate to be right when I make a truly ridiculous comparison between a senior public official and a non-existent religious fantasy used by radical Christian fundamentalist to frighten children into believing that God exists as a kind of Ur-Father looking out for their best interests. Even more disconcerting is the fact that William Safire, a columnist I usually find amusing in his attempts to keep a conservative point-of-view from falling away into irrationality, a struggle all of them face but never face-down, has managed to express in only a few words exactly what frightens me most in the ideology of Christian fundamentalism that has arisen recently (since September 11th) on the national political stage as the guiding force behind our collective slide into military totalitarianism. Paranoia springs eternal and do I or not sound as crazy as anyone else who fears the threat of an all-powerful Federal Government not only willing to sacrifice individual civil liberties in the name of National Security but already so far down that road in just 79 days that the Bill of Rights seems more a distant mythic memory than it does a fact of our enduring democracy.

Something to consider in this context is history. The US Government, even with the total acquiescence of the American people who elected it time and again, has always been quick to support and maintain right-wing military dictatorships wherever they have appeared in the world. Guatemala fell to that fate during the Republican reign of Eisenhower. 250,000 native Americans died as a result of CIA-sponsored death squads there before the dictatorship lost its right to murder anyone who objected to its methods. In Chile, during Nixon's reign of terror, the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by the military junta of Augusto Pinochet who murdered thousands of people there before he was driven from power. Reagan, and the first Bush, attempted to overthrow the democratically elected government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua by sponsoring an illegal and secret CIA war against the Sandinistas. Argentina lost countless thousands of people to the US-supported military dictatorship that flourished there after the death of Juan Peron. Both PRI presidents of Mexico prior to the election of Vicente Foxx have been credited with torturing and murdering thousands of people, mostly native Americans, in the last fifteen years.

This is only a short list of places where the US Government has lent aid and assistant to dictators who have turned out to be mass murderers. In the Middle East, where any number of people from Egypt to Saudi Arabia claim to hate all Americans, our government has used different, but no less destructive means, to secure what it calls our national interests. The government, of course, means petroleum when it refers to our interests in the entire region. What it has done there is support corrupt royal families who have ruled absolutely without granting any of their citizens any rights whatsoever. The wealth they accumulate from America's blind greed for gasoline, so each one of us (singly and alone) can drive back and forth from the Mall as many times a day as we please, is not equally distributed among the people of those countries but is reserved solely for the use of the families that control that wealth. Only as much spending on public needs are wasted there as are required to prevent mass resistance to those royalist regimes. America supports those families simply because they remain willing to sell petroleum products to this country and will kill, or sanction the killing of, anyone who threatens the stability of that status-quo. Our current war against terrorism, against Osama bin Laden, is nothing more than our latest effort to sustain the endless flow of energy into America's insatiable maw.

When George W. Bush and John Ashcroft came forward with their plan to try suspected terrorists in US military tribunals, claiming, on the one hand, the constitutional power to do so because America is at war, and that nothing about their plan differs from any other use of such courts in the past, on the other, both of which claims are essentially false, they crossed a line and turned a corner that places every American's civil liberties in jeopardy. Where, in the past, the government was content to deprive foreigners of their civil rights, if only by creating and maintaining military dictatorships abroad, Bush and Ashcroft have turned that time-honored tradition around, like a loaded gun, and pointed it directly at the heads of America's constitutional democracy. Against the claim that what they propose is no different than the way military justice is currently delivered, William Safire has pointed out that every lawyer employed by the US military is outraged by the claim that they have always done what Bush and Ashcroft say they do. Safire puts it this way:

"The Uniform Code of Military Justice demands a public trial, proof beyond reasonable doubt, an accused's voice in the selection of juries and right to choose counsel, unanimity in death sentencing and above all appellate review by civilians confirmed by the Senate. Not one of those fundamental rights can be found in Bush's military order setting up kangaroo courts for people he designates before "trial" to be terrorists." (William Safire, "Kangaroo Courts," NYTimes, 11/26/2001)

According to Safire's account, then, Bush's order simply guts every provision in the US Constitution meant to protect American citizens against unreasonable prosecution by their own government. Anyone can, of course, freely choose to believe that Bush and Ashcroft only intend to use the provisions of their military tribunals against foreign individuals accused of terrorism. One reason I suspect this may not be the case is that Bush has claimed his actions are the result, supported by the Constitution, of the fact that America is at war against terrorism. The problem with that assertion is that Bush never formally requested a Declaration of War from the US Senate. He did not do so because he could not do so. To ask for a Declaration of War, the president must be able to identify with reasonable clarity exactly who or what it is that constitutes a threat against America. Nations never declare war against individuals (Osama bin Laden, for instance) and can hardly mount a crusade against an organization (Al Qaeda) as loosely defined and as amorphous as the terrorist network Bush has targeted (hundreds of unidentified "sleeper" agents in sixty nations spread across the entire world). The way he characterizes the enemy is even less reassuring; that is, and in remarks he made yesterday (11/29/2001) to the US Attorneys Conference, "I like to remind people that the evil ones have roused a mighty nation, and they will pay a serious price." Everyone knows exactly who the "evil ones" are and we all know exactly where they live and what they look like.

Bush's Justice Department has been running wild trying to justify his executive orders that suspend civil liberties. Someone said the other day that military tribunals are necessary to protect Americans from retaliation by the "evil doers" if they serve on juries in terrorist trials in federal courts. The way to avoid that is to do away with juries altogether. Bush put the same idea differently when he spoke to the US Attorneys Conference:

"We must not let foreign enemies use the forums of liberty to destroy liberty itself. Foreign terrorists and agents must never again be allowed to use our freedoms against us."

That is surely a popular ideology. No one in America would disagree with the sentiment. The problem, however, is that "forums of liberty" do not exist for the innocent, for the un-accused, if he means trial by jury, they exist for the protection of the rights of people who are suspected of having committed crimes, even terrible and heinous ones. If you deny those people basic human rights, as Bush and Ashcroft plan to do, then you have destroyed that which you seek to preserve in the first place. The only way to prevent foreigners from using "our freedoms against us" is to eliminate those freedoms from our culture altogether. The accused have a right to speak. We have a right to hear them. Bush says no to that basic human right, one guaranteed in the First Amendment. His position is unconstitutional. That should not surprise anyone. How better to protect an election you did not win (neither popular vote nor Florida's recount measured out in Bush's favor) than to suspend the civil liberties of the people who did not elect you. That is exactly how Latin American military dictators seized control of their countries before they began to "disappear" their enemies by incarcerating them without trial and judicial review (appeal) before flying them out over the Atlantic ocean and dropping them out of airplanes. Keeping a detainee's name secret, locking him/her up without trial or judicial review, is just the first step you take before you drop them into the ocean from 30,000 feet. Bush and Ashcroft are already there.

Even as I say that, I hear you reply that such a thing cannot happen in America, that Bush and Ashcroft would never do such things, that there are too many safeguards in place to prevent such things from happening here. Let me give you an example of precisely how easy such a thing already is. True story. Two weeks ago I went to the State Department of Public Safety to get an ID card. My wife and I were going to fly west to visit children and grandchildren over Thanksgiving. I did not have a State ID card because no one had ever requested one as proof of my legitimacy but I knew, after September 11th, that I would not be allowed to board a commercial airliner without one. I presented my Birth Certificate to the clerk at the DPS and she said: "This Birth Certificate is not legitimate." I have been using it for 56 years to prove I am who I say I am-in three states (Missouri, Texas, Louisiana) and before every Federal agency that requires one-and no one has ever questioned its validity. I insisted. She said she would have to get a ruling from her superior before she could accept it. She disappeared into a closed office, came back five minutes later, and said: "Sorry, this Birth Certificate is not real."

While nothing beyond inconvenience occurred because of this bureaucratic muddle-headedness, the frightening fact remains (and I was momentarily terrified by the event) that I was reduced to the status of an illegal alien when the clerk and her superior decided that my Birth Certificate was illegitimate. I had no other document with me that was acceptable to the DPS as a means of proving I was an American citizen. I know that for a fact because everything else I had was also considered by them to be inadequate. In fact, I had nothing more nor less valid than the 19 hijackers of September 11th had with them when they boarded the flights they flew into the WTC and Pentagon. To say the least, and while I waited for the clerk to return with the official decision, not a few very frightening and uncomfortable possibilities entered my mind. Since I could not see into the superior's office, I envisioned him/her on the phone telling the INS or FBI that a very suspicious person was in their office attempting to obtain a State ID card with a fraudulent Birth Certificate. What could have happened to me if that call had been placed? Where would I be now?

The answer is somewhat unsettling. I not only could have been detained indefinitely, I would have suffered that fate if the call had been made. No one would even know what had happened to me because the government claims it is not required to release the names of the people it incarcerates as suspected terrorists. Denied counsel, with secret evidence admitted against the accused, and without recourse to appeal, I could be on my way to the death-chamber right now for the crime of having a Birth Certificate that a bureaucrat at the DPS could not recognize as legitimate because it was twice or three times as old as she was. It cannot happen here? It already has. For twenty-four hours I was an illegal alien without papers of any kind whatsoever that allowed or permitted me to be in the USA at all. That opinion of my status was delivered by a State police agency and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it-except disappear by my own choice in case they decided to put me away without a trial for the rest of my life as a suspected terrorist. I got the hell out of there as soon as I got my illegitimate documents back.

Put me on a jury. Part of my responsibility as an American citizen is to serve that function in a free society. Every time I have served I was placed at risk of being retaliated against by the person I judged. That has always been the case. We cannot allow our government to abolish that civil liberty, that civil responsibility, on the ground they are protecting us from terrorism. I'm not afraid of Osama bin Laden or his so-called terrorist network. What I do fear is that George W. Bush and John Ashcroft will be allowed by the American people to abolish our civil rights even as they make the claim they are protecting them from the threat of terrorism.

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