Culture » February 19, 2004
Every Breath You Take
On June 2, 1919, a bomber blew himself up on Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s doorstep. Neither the attacker nor his co-conspirators, who set off bombs in seven other cities that same hour, were identified. But after police found anarchist literature in the rubble, the Justice Department launched a massive roundup of foreign radicals.
The Palmer Raids—named after the attorney general but coordinated by a young bureaucrat named J. Edgar Hoover—detained as many as 10,000 alleged anarchists and Communists over the next year. Doing away with warrants and any semblance of due process, the government deported hundreds of non-citizens for radical beliefs or associations with supposedly seditious groups. Defending these excesses, Palmer said that when you’re “trying to protect the community against moral rats you sometimes get to thinking more of your trap’s effectiveness than of its lawful construction.”
Gripped with fear—two mail bombs had exploded the previous April and another 16 were discovered at the post office addressed to Supreme Court justices and senators—most Americans didn’t object to measures promising to protect them from bomb-throwing foreigners. Two days after the biggest raids in January 1920, the Washington Post editorialized, “There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberty.”
Despite the hysteria, none of those swept up in the dragnet were tied to the terrorist attacks. But the Palmer Raids established what Georgetown law professor David Cole calls “leitmotifs in the history of political repression in modern America.” The targets, Cole observes in his book Enemy Aliens, were people who “might pose a potential future threat,” not those who actually had committed crimes. All of the detainees were foreign nationals who didn’t enjoy the same protections as U.S. citizens. Officials pursued these individuals via immigration rather than criminal proceedings—denying them a public trial, counsel and the presumption of innocence. And the pretext for deporting these “radicals” was nothing more than “guilt by association,” with no evidence of any violent or criminal acts.
Sound familiar? The Palmer Raids bear an uncanny resemblance to the tactics used by the Bush administration to round up Arab and Muslim men after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The plot is almost identical, with John Ashcroft playing the Palmer role. As the attorney general told the Senate in December 2001: “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.”
Yet in times of national crisis, the gaze of the government inevitably turns not toward those guilty of carrying out terrible crimes, but to innocent outsiders: racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, political dissidents and immigrants. And like Palmer and Hoover before them, there’s every indication that Ashcroft and Bush too will find themselves on the wrong side of history.
In Enemy Aliens, Cole dismantles the arguments put forward by Ashcroft and others to justify the crackdown on non-citizens. In a scholarly but never somnolent treatise, he shows that the trade-off between the liberties of foreign nationals and citizens is an illusory double standard—which is not only counterproductive to national security, but morally wrong and constitutionally suspect. “What we do to foreign nationals today,” Cole writes, “often paves the way for what will be done to American citizens tomorrow.”
This point is especially distressful considering how foreign nationals—particularly those of Arab or Muslim descent—have been treated post-9/11. From the fingerprinting of foreign visitors to the indefinite incarcerations and unremitting interrogations of the Ashcroft Raids, the war on terrorism has been waged mostly via anti-immigrant measures.
Cole estimates that 5,000 foreign nationals have been detained in the Ashcroft Raids, yet not one has been charged with involvement in the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. (Remember that alleged co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested before the attack.) This doctrine of preventive detention appears to be a total failure. The Justice Department still refuses to release the official number of detainees, let alone their names, leading Cole to wonder whether the real concern about secrecy “may have been not that Al Qaeda would find out what was going on, but that the American people would find out.”
Harassing entire populations through abusive roundups and forced registration programs is no way to prevent terrorism. “If authorities have reason to believe there might be potential terrorists lurking in Arab and Muslim immigrant communities,” Cole argues, “it would make sense to work with the millions of law-abiding members of those communities to obtain their assistance in identifying potential threats.”
Instead, the administration continues to defend its prerogative to detain foreign nationals without due process and to expel them solely on the basis of political speech or guilt by association. What’s more, the president insists on the unimpeded right to declare any person at any time to be an “enemy combatant,” revoking constitutional rights at will.
It’s just a matter of time before the government’s invasive powers are extended to the citizenry. Already, the Patriot Act requires any institution or business to turn over records on individuals deemed relevant to a terrorism investigation. Authorities also have frozen the assets of a number of large Muslim charities—without a hearing or allegations of criminal conduct—simply because of their association with groups on the government’s blacklist.
Cole seems optimistic that the courts will curtail the excesses of the Bush administration. A recent string of court decisions already has called into question key provisions of the Patriot Act. This spring, the Supreme Court will decide whether the hundreds of foreign nationals held at Guantanamo have a right to challenge their detention in court. The justices also will consider whether—as in the case of American-born Taliban fighter Yasser Hamdi—U.S. citizens can be declared “enemy combatants” and imprisoned indefinitely. The case of Jose Padilla—the alleged “dirty bomber” captured not in Afghanistan but at O’Hare airport—almost certainly will be added to the docket. One only hopes that Cole’s superb book somehow finds its way into the Supreme Court’s inner sanctum.
Where Cole considers the constitutional implications of the domestic war on terrorism, Christian Parenti is more concerned with the sociopolitical consequences of government control. In The Soft Cage, Parenti examines much of the same history as Cole, but he comes at the issue from a more theoretical and cultural perspective. Through this prism, “9/11 looks less like a seismic shift from freedom to tyranny and more like an aggressive and opportunistic acceleration of this country’s long, slow decline into the soft cage” of ubiquitous surveillance.
What made Parenti’s previous book, Lockdown America, stand out was its melding of radical political analysis with on-the-ground reporting. There’s less shoe-leather journalism in The Soft Cage. But armed with a journalist’s instincts and a well-thumbed copy of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Parenti tracks the development of surveillance from the slave patrols to the modern digital revolution, in which “Americans have embraced their loss of privacy with patriotic vigor and pop-culture nonchalance.”
Parenti makes fine use of historical documents, digging up advertisements searching for runaway slaves and dusty ledgers filled with mug shots of Chinese immigrant “rogues.” He uncovers a pamphlet published in 1936 as part of an effort to fingerprint the entire population of Berkeley, California. In it, the Citizens Committee on Universal Registration in California declares, “Whoever so registers himself is proud of being identified with modern society and is willing to play the game according to the rules.”
The national drive for universal fingerprinting—started by (who else?) J. Edgar Hoover—was presented as a public safety issue. But Parenti argues its real purpose was controlling racial minorities, political dissidents and the poor. The claims that fingerprinting would reduce crime, prevent child kidnapping or help ID amnesia victims were implausible at best. The Berkeley police offered a more honest rationale: Fingerprinting would “bring about the identity of, and enable us to follow the movement and activities of, Communists, Anarchists and Radicals.”
Parenti seizes on Foucault’s notions of the “panopticon”—a circular prison dreamed up by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in which prisoners know they could always be watched and thus are forced to “internalize the gaze” of their captors. The panopticon is a metaphor for the modern state, the “perfect cage in which surveillance harnesses the captive to play the role of both ward and warden.” So it is that the state achieves much more power through surveillance than it ever could with brute force.
Following from Foucault, Parenti shows how technologies developed for different, even innocuous purposes expand to support a system of disciplinary control. As technology proliferated with the digital revolution, we gradually became more accepting of being under constant watch. Parenti explains: “The emerging architecture of the soft cage of total surveillance is perhaps most frightening because it is so mundane, decentralized and even convenient.”
Indeed, convenience is sold in exchange for personal information, tracking our taste preferences and travel plans. But along with credit cards, ATMs and automated tollbooths came “an unplanned, unexamined extension of state power and social discipline.” Those credit cards record purchases and movements. Most ATMs have surveillance cameras. “There are risks in social anonymity,” Parenti writes. “But the risks of omniscient and omnipotent state and corporate power are far worse.”
Parenti shows that the advance of surveillance technologies and the expansion of their reach can’t be separated from efforts to stifle dissent. The surveillance networks sprouting in major cities disproportionately target racial minorities; one recent study found blacks twice as likely as whites to be watched “for no obvious reason.” The closed-circuit cameras proliferating in schools, on street corners and outside government buildings are used by police to spy on political protesters. Today’s Pinkertons pack camcorders to intimidate striking workers. As Parenti notes, “surveillance has a politically chilling effect.”
Yet Parenti concludes that only “sustained protest” can establish limits on government and corporate surveillance. He discredits the idea that the innocent and law-abiding have nothing to worry about, arguing that privacy isn’t simply an individual “quality of life” issue. “The right to be let alone,” as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once defined it, is—or must become—a political issue as well.
There are a few hopeful signs that the public is beginning to recognize the fundamental threats to their inalienable rights. Popular outrage met John Poindexter’s data-mining schemes, thwarted efforts to institute a national ID card, and sunk Operation TIPS—which called on meter readers and letter carriers to spy on their neighbors. Dissenting voices have risen among librarians, conservatives like former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and even Democrats, who started clapping during the State of the Union when Bush mentioned that “key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year.” Most remarkably the New York City Council recently joined dozens of other locales in repudiating the Patriot Act.
You can be sure John Ashcroft is closely monitoring these developments.
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Craig Aaron is senior program director of the national media reform group Free Press and a former managing editor of In These Times.