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The Politics of Fear: Administration Rhetoric Sets Stage for Assault on Dissent

Who is the US government offering to defend, and who will be punished?
13 SEPTEMBER 2001, CHICAGO, IL— The sun was shining and the skies were blue -- a sky almost too beautiful to be believed if you knew what had just fallen out of it.

On WBBM-AM Radio on Tuesday at noon, a medic standing near the ruins of the World Trade Center sounded a darker note. Waiting for the critically injured to be removed from what had, until Tuesday morning, been a landmark of American commerce, he said that it was “like standing on the beach, waiting for a tidal wave.”

Most of the dead have yet to be recovered from the rubble that was once the World Trade Center, and the imagery of a thundering tsunami remains compelling -- in no small part because it evokes a rising tide of intolerance in the wake of Tuesday's devastation. In Thursday's local dailies, more than one commentator stated bluntly that it was time to 'choose sides' -- and that if you're not 'with us', you're 'against us.' The Chicago Sun-Times editorialized that 'this war must be waged long-term'. “Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended,” President Bush told the country Tuesday, while Secretary of State Colin Powell has spoken of a "long-term conflict" and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said that, since we've declared our intentions to hit back hard, he did not support pulling our punches now.

Whose freedom is our government offering to defend? And who will be punished?


In the last five years, the United States has seen important political shifts in key constituencies. The AFL-CIO has reversed its position on immigration and publicly declared its support for immigrant rights. Corporate greed has come to be acknowledged as a key threat to our environment and our well-being by mainstream labor unions, environmental groups, a wide array of economic and social justice organizing projects and the public at large -- and incredibly, this message is not always suppressed by the corporate press. Even the class divide has become an at least tepidly approved topic for discussion in the mainstream media; two years ago, the New York Times ran a stunning series on the burgeoning class divide in America. And despite being routinely tarred by the corporate media as an inchoate collection of hooligans, hippies and miscreants, the strongly left-leaning anti-globalization movement has continued to make significant inroads in its organizing and mobilizing.

But core constituencies of the anti-globalization movement have been outed by the corporate press as 'anti-capitalist' rather than just 'anti-globalization', particularly in the wake of Quebec City and Genoa. So it should come as no surprise that law enforcement and policy wonks have clearly stated that this segment of the movement is perceived to present a greater threat to the governmental status quo than the right-wing paramilitary groups thought to be part of the infrastructure that laid the groundwork for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

So guess who can expect to be fingered as folks on the wrong side of the line? The imagery of "America Under Attack" provides the ruling elite's pundits with an irresistible opportunity to connect activism, political opposition, or any form of 'dissent' to the searing memory of this week's horrors. The double bounce that this week's horrors present is irresistible -- tar the progressive movement for its disloyalty and for the danger it presents as an adjunct of our 'terrorist' enemies.

The Bush administration has primed itself to persecute perceived 'terrorists' at home and abroad -- while it's definition of 'terrorist threats' remains dangerously nebulous. Even the right-wing libertarian Cato Foundation concedes, "Most discussions of terrorism are surprisingly vague about the concept itself, and even prominent experts frequently fail to define the term." And although the President has spoken repeatedly of "whipping terrorism" ("This is now the focus of my administration," he intoned Thursday), he has declined to either define his terms or set limits to the parameters of vengeance. This semantic ambiguity leaves a wide opening for the sort of smear tactics and real repression that a government -- increasingly challenged by a growing activist movement -- cannot help but exploit.

Kim Holmes of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think-tank, has said, "This time it must be different. …The United States’ response must be, out of self-defense, a systemic and comprehensive war against all forms of international terrorism". Holmes is hardly alone in her thinking. As we write, the U.S. Congress is putting the finishing touch to legislation that may have grave implications for civil liberties at home and the very lives of peoples abroad.

"President Bush has automatically escalated this national tragedy into something it is not in order to justify a massive military attack abroad and an apparent crackdown on civil liberties at home," says attorney Francis Boyle. "We see shades of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which the Johnson administration used to provide dubious legal cover for massive escalation of the Vietnam War."

The anti-globalization movement fits neatly into the administration's declaration of war -- a word that Bush and his overseers have repeatedly invoked -- in their new full out assault on "all forms of international terrorism". The movement reaches across borders, involves coalitions among residents of many nations, and has been unflinching about declining to limit its forms of expression to the narrow mandates of law enforcement protest pits and letter-writing campaigns. And Washington's regime and their proxies have eagerly seized the opportunity that Tuesday's national trauma presented to vilify any group that dares to oppose their policies -- including the anti-globalization movement.

Puppeteers as transnational terrorists? You bet. The law enforcement mantra that for two years has beat the drum about the “terrorist threat” of anti-globalization protests is exquisitely poised for amplification.

And while the media trend has clearly been to heap the likely blame on Middle Eastern groups, others have cast a wider net. The Washington Post reported that Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) told the Anchorage Daily News that Tuesday's attacks might be related to protests against the World Trade Organization. "If you watched what happened in Genoa . . . and even in Seattle, there was some expertise in that field," Young told the Daily News on Tuesday. "I'm not sure they're that dedicated but eco-terrorists -- which are really based in Seattle -- there's a strong possibility that could be one of the groups."


Much of the American public, ill-informed about progressive activist campaigns and reeling from the seering images of New York and Washington, stand as appealing soft targets for the wholesale marketing of such characterizations. Formations like the Black Bloc, already commonly portrayed as violent thugs by the mainstream media, can expect the rhetoric to escalate, and the public -- in part out of paranoia and in part out of misplaced anger in the wake of Tuesday’s events -- is dangerously vulnerable to this kind of orchestrated backlash.

Federal law enforcement's characterizations of the left before Tuesday's attacks were sometimes almost laughable -- the FBI has recently submitted to Congress a suggestion that Reclaim the Streets, an international activist practice of holding parties in the streets, be considered a terrorist organization. We're not laughing today -- in no small part because the threat of real repression and suppression of civil liberties has been ratcheted up immensely in recent days.

"In the past we have responded to acts of terrorism by clamping down on basic civil liberties, by anti-immigrant actions, and by engaging in unjustified and widespread guilt by association," observed David Cole, professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Calls to tighten national security will take many forms. A number of 'security experts' have argued in recent days that the United States needs to expand wiretapping, electronic eavesdropping, and undercut the capacity of groups and individuals to access internet encryption technology -- one of the few effective blocks to COINTELPRO-style infiltration of activist groups. The likely casualties? Our already threatened basic rights, from freedom of speech to the ability to assemble in public spaces and speak truth to power.

Border restrictions are also high on our 'leaders' and 'experts' wish list of proposed new policies to undercut 'terrorist threats' -- a development that, in addition to compounding the hardships that confront undocumented immigrants, particularly those from the global south, will conveniently severely impede activists' efforts to travel to major convergences both within and outside of the United States.


While the impending attack on civil liberties will inevitably molest the largely white anti-globalization movement in North America, the consequences for Arab and Muslim peoples both here and abroad are potentially at least as lethal.

A number of disturbing attacks on Middle Eastern people in the metro Chicago area have already been documented. For two nights in a row, hundreds of angry whites have massed in mobs to march on a south suburban mosque. On Wednesday, a gas station attendant was first punched by one attacker and then later assaulted by a machete-wielding man because he looked 'Arab'. Thugs shot up a Gary, Indiana shop owned by an Arab merchant on Thursday. Two separate groups of Muslim and Arab students were verbally taunted by white students Tuesday on the University of Illinois' Chicago campus. A white man attacked a small group of Palestinians early Tuesday afternoon in front of a south side community center. Persons unknown threw a Molotov cocktail at another Arab site on the south side later in the day. Arab women wearing traditional headdresses have reported a string of verbal attacks on both the north and west side of the city, and attacks and vandalism at Arab-owned shops have been reported on Chicago's south and west sides.

Political commentators have been quick to parrot the Pearl Harbor analogy that was first cited by some relief workers and witnesses to Tuesday's plane crashes. And the Pearl Harbor analogy is rich with irony for both progressives and their opponents. Let us not forget that our government had foreknowledge of the events of December 7, 1941, and that our nation's response to the 'Japanese terror' included the shameful internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans simply for hailing from the wrong ethnic heritage.

Racism, in the face of this tragedy, is hardly an answer to Americans’ allegedly desperate yearning for security… but our vaunted leaders and experts have never been shy about calling upon carefully targeted whipping boys to channel public fears. And Israel's apologists have breathlessly declared that now Americans can finally relate in a visceral way to the 'terror' that Israelis face from the dreaded Palestinian hoards. Ironically, we may have the opportunity in the coming months to relate more intimately to both Palestinians and African Americans, as well, given both people's long experience with the terror that inevitably accompanies any occupying army; Bush, after all, has suggested that it might be in our best interest to consider deploying the national guard and army units in key cities.

While the mainstream media has admitted that it has censored some of Tuesday's more gruesome imagery, it has been less restrained in a stunningly jingoistic assertion of Palestinian 'glee'. Many news outlets reported that Palestinians were celebrating the assault they believed was committed in their name, tarring an entire people with terrorist complicity -- even though videotape 'documenting' this assertion shows precious few people dancing and firing guns.

Strangely, no reporters interviewed the jubilants about the reasons for their glee. Perhaps they were heartened to learn that the Pentagon -- which has sent Israel the Apache helicopters and fighter planes that rain down death on their homes -- had itself caught an unfortunate taste of its own medicine. Or perhaps, as a Brazilian college professor has claimed, the videotape actually records a 1991 celebration in the wake of the invasion of Kuwait, and the claim of sweeping Palestinian joy at Tuesday's terrorist attack is a lie.

Responsibility for Tuesday's attacks was initially laid at the feet of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, based on an anonymous tip to an Abu Dhabi TV station. NBC's Tom Brokaw reported this as fact, but before the towers of the World Trade Center even collapsed at 10 AM, the claim had been refuted.

“I emphasize that the story released on Abu Dhabi TV by an anonymous person is totally incorrect,'' Tayseer Khaled, one of the DFLP’s senior officers in Palestine, told Reuters. And local activists have strenuously argued that Palestinian groups lack both the motivation and the practical capacity to commit such an act.

And while we were weeping, Israeli troops have stepped up their assault on villages in the Occupied Territories, killing more than a dozen people under cover of darkness, including a nine-year-old girl. Israelis say the tank and bulldozer incursions were designed to prevent terrorism. Palestinians have accused Israelis of using the world's preoccupation with the attacks in the U.S. as a cover for a deadly escalation of Israeli terror that continues to indiscriminately murder civilians in their homes.

Meanwhile, Arabs in the states report that an old epithet they first heard hurled during the Gulf War has come back at them again from the lips of more than one non-Arab in recent days: sand nigger.


Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday in a Today Show interview that the US is willing to go to war for vengeance. NATO has declared its intention to consider the attack terrorism towards all of the organization's countries, invoking a never-used clause in the treaty that created NATO.

Charles Krauthammer, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote this week: "War was long ago declared on us. Until we declare war in return, we will have thousands more innocent victims." The question -- one few in the mainstream media are asking-- is not if we will go to war with the perpetrators of Tuesday's attacks, but who we are at war with, and why.

While no group has claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attacks, no one seems to have any idea why people might be just a little bit pissed at us, either. And implicit in the meta-message is the clear understanding that those who 'hate' us, who oppose our policies, who dare to carp from the corners, must somehow be connected to Tuesday's dastardly deeds. 'Why do people hate us?' the hand-wringers cry.

Consider the U.S. government's unremitting defense of Israel’s savage treatment of Palestinian Arabs. 'We' walked out of the UN conference on racism last week in South Africa over a proposal to decry Israeli discrimination against its native Arab population (and conveniently ducked out of any discussion of reparations for slavery in our own land). For most people in the Arab homeland, the U.S. government's sustained support of Israel's occupation of Palestine is nothing short of a naked embrace of a brutal apartheid state that serves U.S. imperialist interests in the region.

This disgruntlement with US foreign policy is decades old. Erna Paris, a columnist for the progressive newswire Common Dreams, has drawn a connection to a conference of third world countries in Bandung, Indonesia, in April 1955. "Delegates from 29 African and Asian countries (representing half the world's population) come to discuss racism, nationalism, and the struggle against colonialism…. An Arab-sponsored resolution against Israel is one of the few that everyone can agree on. Israel, the conference concludes, is a base for imperialism and a threat to world peace."

But the reasons for Arab nation's consternation at US governmental action do not end with Israel. Recall this government's decade-long sanctions and air strikes on Iraq -- a policy that has proven woefully incapable of dislodging Saddam but has consigned millions of Iraqi civilians to abject poverty and an early death.

We should also reflect on the atrocities that America imperialist intervention has caused around the globe in the past few decades. Consider the observations of University of California professor Ronald Steel: "The United States is the locus of power in a "new world order'' that would render irrelevant traditional faiths and even whole societies…. Naturally, the discontented of the world hold us responsible for their plight: their poverty, their ignorance, their weakness, their irrelevance."

One wonders by what measuring stick a nation is willing to declare entire ethnicities and nations "irrelevant." Professor Steel certainly is correct on one point: the discontented do hold us responsible for their plight, and with good reason. From Angola to Viet Nam, the U.S. government has for generations not hesitated to assassinate the opposition, undermine democratic elections, invade other people's lands, and impose their proxy rulers. The American government has also been heavily involved in "structural adjustment programs" that allow first world countries to quickly and easily bankrupt third world countries, and in the training and installment of destructive and brutal governmental regimes. Over and over again, in a pattern that has effected nearly every third world country in the world, the US government's actions have been both self-serving and vicious. Patrice Lumumba and Salvadore Allende are likely spinning in their graves hearing 'security' experts call for new U.S. government policies to 'legalize' the assassination of our opponents.

Given the long history of US hostility towards nations whose actions do not suit our purposes, the amount of compassion countries that have been attacked, embargoed, and vilified by the US have exhibited towards America are stunning. The North Korean government has expressed condolences and offered their assistance in rescue efforts, and Fidel Castro has appeared on television internationally to do the same.

But perhaps those countries have an ulterior motive as well. In response to the President’s remark that the government “will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbored them,” those who have been long-standing targets of US hostility may be seeking to remove the possibility of military aggression towards them by offering their partial allegiances to the American government.

Many an expert has suggested that if Osama bin Laden were found to be involved, the Taliban would be subject to attack by the US. A pundit who appeared on live television Tuesday announced that the US would expect moderate Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt to “abandon pan-Arab solidarity,” and become allies with America.

What the American press, government, and people seem to be ignoring is that terrorism is emotional, not rational; it is in effect a scream of pain. We have pissed someone off enough that they want to destroy us. And whether or not Arab people did this, it is no surprise that finally, after years of abuse of power by the American government, we are reaping what we have sown.




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