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FEELING THE UNTHINKABLE
Essays on Social Justice

by Donald Gutierrez

Part I - STATE TERRORISM—
MY COUNTRY MUST NOT TORTURE IN MY NAME
Chapter 7: American Middle Eastern Detainees and You

Americans should realize that the terrible experience of America's Middle East detainees affects their own lives and view of themselves as Americans. After 9/11, hundreds of males were treated by our Justice Department as if already guilty, a crucial violation of the Constitution and due process. Further, they were subjected to physical and extreme psychological roughing-up. According to the detainees, they were slammed against jail walls, deliberately tripped in their ankle chains by guards at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center, in some instances beaten and kicked, told they were going to die and placed in cells with violent criminals. Further, they had their afternoon prayers intentionally disrupted by guards and their cell lights kept on 24 hours a day. Labeled "Bin Laden Junior" by guards further exemplified these detainees being convicted before being tried.

Aside from this treatment, somewhat reminiscent of Stalin's gulags or the conduct of police in repressive regimes like Mynamar, Egypt, Iran, Syria, China and North Korea, these detainees were picked up suddenly off the street, on their jobs, in their homes and not allowed contact with their families, lawyers--anyone. Their destination or location was not disclosed to anyone, including family. One suspects that the enormous psychic stress and terror of such treatment did not register much, if at all, on the consciousness or conscience of the average American, still under the illusion that America is the land of the free. These "bad guys" were getting what they probably deserved, never mind the Bill of Rights or the fact that they were Americans.

This very American indifference has several causes. First, these detainees are Middle Easterners, Arabs, Muslims, surely a suspect group in our media-drugged minds before and especially after 9/11. Further, they are dark-skinned, which might incite a racist reaction among some lighter skinned individuals. Then, the White House had been pushing the panic button about this type continually, despite the Bush family's intimate financial connections with the Bin Laden family up to September 11, 2001 and President George W. Bush's avowal of respect for Middle Eastern Americans and Islam. Finally, these "foreigners" were convenient scapegoats for the brutish guards at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center and elsewhere.

Despite the fact that all of the detainees have since been cleared of serious violations or crimes, their "suspect" status beforehand rendered them vulnerable to the gross legal abuse of their person. They were also kept in the dark about when their incarceration would end and their future location or destination determined, what their legal rights were and when their physical and psychological torment by undisciplined, sadistic guards would end. In addition, some remained incarcerated for months after being found innocent.

The plight of these detainees, then, was aggravated by being suspect in the United States, despite its being their own country. In law, to be suspect does not mean one is guilty of some crime--that remains to be proven. Yet, as indicated above, some Americans have acted as if being regarded as suspect is tantamount to being guilty. This egregiously inappropriate judgment in its most violent, extreme form can be understood in historical context: In conducting foreign policy in the last half century, the United States government has either directly or indirectly been responsible for the death of enormous numbers of individuals in other countries regarded as "suspects"--not to mention innumerable people who were not even "suspect"--Indonesians, Congolese, Central and South Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, among many others. In one instance, people riding in a car in another country--a sovereign state--had their car bombed and all of its occupants killed by an American war plane. The car had been occupied by terrorist "suspects"--and nonsuspects.

Most alarming here is the extreme vulnerability of terms like "suspect" and "terrorist" to definition by the type of American political leadership prone to use these terms to win the nation's support for waging war abroad, and for waging it against American citizens. One such victimized American was John Walker Lindh who joined the Taliban before 9/11 to fight against the Northern Alliance, not against the United States. But victimization could apply as well to any American critical of Washington or engaged in activism to oppose and defeat the government's onslaught on the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, the environment.

The American philosopher Sidney Hook clearly differentiated dissent from treason in Heresy, Yes, Conspiracy, No, but the Bush Administration, abetted by the right wing media, had been transforming dissent by Americans into treason. "Traitor" in this process becomes a synonym for "terrorist." If one doesn't think this process can be effective and intimidating, he or she should recall the paralyzing impact of Attorney General John Ashcroft upon Congress when, late in 2001, he stated in an uncontested speech to that body that anyone critical of the president's policies towards designated terrorists would be aiding terrorists.

In the late l940s and the l950s, anyone "too" liberal could be labeled a Communist and have his or her job, family, reputation, freedom and health threatened. More recently, the same pressures have been applied to people designated "terrorists" or suspected of being such by criteria that are themselves dangerously broad, flexible and inclusive. Thus, even someone supporting Amnesty International or the Sierra Club--not to mention Kathy Kelly's organization Voices For Creative Non-Violence--could conceivably be labeled as supporting terrorist organizations and therefore a terrorist. And why not? Amnesty has aided dissenters detained and often tortured by Washington-backed repressive regimes that conveniently stigmatize dissenters as terrorists. And, as far as former President Bush and his friends in the extractive and energy industries were concerned, any environmentalist group or critic of those industries threatening their profits were surely terrorists.

The fact that America's energy corporations are undermining the nation's health and wealth with their depredations of the earth should of course mark them as terrorists. Such a blatant truth is, however, ignored by the media. This ravaging of American's natural resources--air, water, land--should convey the obvious: that the most deadly terrorists around have been the White House and its corporation intimates. Abroad, this state terrorism exhibits itself in an imperial United States invading much weaker, unthreatening nations and dropping quantities and types of bombs (such as cluster bombs) declared illegal by various conventions of war conduct.

So, who is the worst terrorist? That could be debated one way or another. What is less controversial is the domestic terrorism inflicted by former President Bush's "Military Order" established on November 13, 2001. According to Barbara Olshansky, assistant legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, "This new system radically abandons the core constitutional guarantees at the heart of American democracy: the right to an independent judiciary, trial by jury, public proceedings, due process and appeals to higher courts.…all of these safeguards against injustice are gone" (Secret Trials and Executions: Military Tribunals and the Threat to Democracy, 7-8). Under the "Military Order," Olshansky observes, Bush and Ashcroft became "rule-maker, investigator, accuser, prosecutor, judge and jury, sentencing court, reviewing court, and executioner [without any] provision for accountability to any other branch of government or to the people" (59-60).

Some might say that this extreme power by the executive branch of government only applies to Taliban prisoners of war, that American citizens have nothing to worry about. That outlook is questionable. The Lawyers Committee for Legal Rights, a New York based professional organization, observed, "The government can hold United States citizens as enemy combatants during war time without the constitutional protections guaranteed to Americans in criminal prosecutions, according to a fourth United States Circuit Court of Appeals" (LCLR website, Media Room, 1). This ruling applied to an American named Yasser Hamdi captured in Afghanistan in 2001. Holding Hamdi indefinitely suggested to the LCLR that this treatment could also be applied to other Americans. Further, the revelations that surfaced about a possible Patriot Act II, not long after the first Patriot Act became law, were grave. In the Patriot Act II proposal, citizen rights protected by the Constitution would be eliminated in the case of alleged supporters of alleged terrorist organizations.

Would American political and legal authorities treat American citizens with such authoritarian ruthlessness? They well might. American citizens who spoke up against World War I were fired from their jobs, beaten up and even tortured by patriot vigilante mobs. The Socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for years. In the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee caused widespread terror by accusing American progressives of being Communists. During the 1970s, anti-Vietnam War demonstrators at the University of California, Berkeley were tear gassed from helicopters by then Governor Ronald Reagan's orders, and concentration camps near Berkeley were being planned for these "rioters." Perhaps most egregious, during World War II, Japanese Americans were carted off to camps in the desert, their property confiscated by the government.

Totalitarian government sometimes proceeds step by step in consolidating full power and abolishing fundamental civil rights. One recalls the famous 1946 statement by Pastor Martin Niemoller, which begins, "First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist." Then they come for trade unionists and then for Jews, he goes on, and "I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. And then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me." The treatment of the Taliban fighters as "Enemy Combatants" instead of as prisoners of war, of innocent Middle Eastern aliens and Middle Eastern American citizens, and, more recently, of progressive activist Americans is following this pattern.

Even if the fate of innocent resident aliens means little personally to the average American--and that of Taliban imprisoned in Guantanamo, Cuba, even less so--linking the dots should make us realize that anyone's civil liberties being potentially dissoluble could thus very possibly include ours. Not only should we American citizens be outraged by the brutal, illegal treatment being accorded Middle Eastern American citizens and non-citizens in jails like the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center, we should also realize that in a society flinging more than 700 Americans a month into prison for social offenses, "detaining" Americans with names like Mary Smith and Bob Jones for political dissidence could be increasingly possible.1 Washington's paranoia about terrorism roots itself deeper and deeper in the psyche of America.

Debs's great cry of empathy quoted from Upton Sinclair's The Cry for Justice rings as true today as ever: "While there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."


1. The latest egregious step towards a fascist police-state America has emerged in the form of the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act). Signed by President Obama (with reservations that don't seem to amount to much and that can be discounted by future presidents), the Senators Levin and McCain sponsored law denies all Americans of due process and habeus corpus and thus of the right to defend themselves in a civil court. Instead, it imposes indefinite rendition on anyone that the President deems either a terrorist or a person supporting terrorism. Considering the enormous flexibility of the terms "terrorism" and "supporting terrorism," virtually anyone openly critical of the government can be charged as a terrorist or terrorist supporter and swept off any time to Guantanamo, Bagram or those terrifying black sites in unknown parts of the world run by U.S. Special-Forces types.

"American Middle Eastern Detainees and You" by Donald Gutierrez--Justice Xpress, Winter 2003.

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from FEELING THE UNTHINKABLE
© 2012, Donald Gutierrez   Table of Contents

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