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A growing authoritarianism

Published : Aug 17, 2002 00:00 IST

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Inside the United States: the empire's home front.

GEORGE BUSH first called it a "crusade", then a "War for Civilisation", then "A Task that Never Ends", then a "War against Global Terror", then a "Titanic War on Terror". The rhetorical inflation and the fudging of facts is infinite. It is supposed to be all about September 11 and the Al Qaeda, but senior officials of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have been quoted as saying that "Al Qaeda itself, we know, is less than 200." (Palm Beach Post, July 27, 2002) Two hundred, including those held by the Americans at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, they said! Undeterred by facts asserted by his own officials, Bush claimed at just about the same time: "We know that thousands of trained killers are plotting to attack us." Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, continues to speak of a war against "40 to 50 countries", down from 60 or so that Bush had estimated in September last year. Donald Rumsfeld intones that he has instructed the Pentagon to "think the unthinkable", that is, the actual use of nuclear weapons.

With dozens of new military bases and facilities established from Turkmenistan to the Philippines, the occupation of Afghanistan accomplished, the destruction of Palestinians going on and on, and a full-scale war against Iraq being predicted by the U.S. administration virtually every day, attention has been focussed quite rightly on the global nature of this perpetual war. (See author's essays on this theme in Frontline: "Responding with terror", October 12, 2001,and "Re-mapping the globe," November 9, 2001, and others on U.S. policies in regard to Palestine and the Philippines.) The focus here, however, is not on that but on the methodical shift of political power toward the Far Right inside the United States, also being accomplished under the guise of that same "Titanic War," which is beginning to resemble the 'Red Scare' of the 1950s which was used domestically to justify great growth of the war industries, suspension of democratic rights and silencing of dissenters by branding them closet Reds.

Four features of this process are notable. First, the rise of an authoritarianism so sweeping that many have called it dictatorial. Second, the unbridled militarism signified by the largest peacetime military budget in history, authorisation to develop sweepingly new weapon systems, including new and 'usable' nuclear weapons, and the demand that troops be allowed to be deployed on the streets of the United States, for the first time since 1878. Third, the creation of a regime of infinite domestic surveillance, with unprecedented powers to investigate, arrest and prosecute - even award the death penalty to civilians - without involving the regular civil judiciary. Fourth, an ideological offensive of immense proportions designed to maintain a broad-based war hysteria at a high level, which is then utilised to identify dissent with treason.

LET us begin with the issue of authoritarianism. Bush was always a candidate of what is the ultra-Right wing even within the Republican Party. However, the constraint on his ability to act on their agenda came from the fact that even his election was barely legal and his popularity ratings, low to start with, had kept declining. At the time of the September 11 events, that rating stood at 40 per cent. Popularity soared with his speech declaring a global "war on terror" and rose to over 90 per cent after the bombing of Afghanistan began on October 7. Permanent war hysteria has been used to maintain exceedingly high popularity ratings, which in turn have been used to implement that agenda. This writer has earlier cited Prof. Alain Joxe, head of CIRPES (the Paris-based centre for interdisciplinary research in areas of peace and strategic studies) as saying in Le Monde of December 17, 2001 that "the American leadership is presently shaped by dangerous right wing Southern extremists". ("Israel's colonial war," Frontline, March 1, 2002). These "extremists" are connected, in turn, with the fact that the American South is home both to a hard core of the evangelical Christian fundamentalist constituency which is represented by the Republican Right and the core of the military-industrial complex comprising the oil interests and the war industries.

Bush is connected with that whole constituency. He was the Governor of the oil-rich southern State of Texas and his family has been most closely associated with the oil interests. In addition, Kenneth L. Lay, chairman of the Enron Corporation, was a primary financial backer of Bush during the presidential campaign, and Bush played a key role in getting Enron to crack the tightly regulated Pennsylvania energy market. His brother was Governor of Florida, another southern State, when the vote count was probably rigged there in order to put George W. in the White House. As for the military significance of the South, CounterPunch of June 20, 2002, summarised it as follows: "The South represents only a third of the nation's population, but supplies 42 per cent of the country's enlisted soldiers - and 56 per cent of troops in the continental U.S. are stationed in the South. Southern politicians are Congress's biggest hawks, tilting U.S. foreign policy away from peace and diplomacy. 62 per cent of southern senators scored in the bottom fifth of the legislative scorecard for Peace Action, a non-profit watchdog. Anchored by defence boom centres in Virginia, Texas and Florida, the South produces more weapons than any other region, landing 43 per cent of U.S. arms contracts in 2001." Significantly, over two-thirds of the arms used by Israel come from southern arms corporations. These realities play an important role in the current drift into greater militarism and authoritarianism.

CONCERNS about this alarming increase in authoritarianism have surfaced not only among the Left and the liberal Left but also, at times, in the mass media. This can be illustrated briefly with reference to a very small sample of headlines and opinions that have appeared over a period of eight months in the most unusual places. The New York Times, for one, is as establishmentarian a newspaper as it is possible to be. Between September 11 and the beginning of the bombing of Afghanistan on October 7, for instance, it published not a single opinion column arguing against the military option, and when a peace rally was held in Washington D.C. on September 29 for which the organisers gave an estimate of 25,000 participants and even the police conceded a figure of 7,000, the newspaper described them as "a few hundred" in a story with the significant caption: 'Protesters in Washington urge peace with terrorists'. Yet, in November it published two highly significant pieces by its most prominent columnists.

William Safire, Richard Nixon's favourite speechwriter and spokesman of the conservative Right at The New York Times for more years than I care to recall, published on November 15 a column simply headlined 'Seizing Dictatorial Power' in which he wrote: "We are letting George W. Bush get away with the replacement of the American rule of law with military kangaroo courts... His kangaroo court can conceal evidence by citing national security, make up its own rules, find a defendant guilty even if a third of the officers disagree, and execute the alien with no review by any civilian court... On what legal meat does this our Caesar feed?" This by a veteran Republican about a Republican President.

Some seven months later, on June 7, another Republican luminary and once Nixon's presidential counsel, John Dean, was reported as saying that the United States was sliding into a "constitutional dictatorship". Anthony Lewis, who has been the in-house liberal voice at The New York Times for longer than I could recall even if I cared to, published a column two weeks later, on November 30, in which he commented on an executive order of November 13 as follows: "It is the broadest move in American history to sweep aside constitutional protections. Yet President Bush's order creating military tribunals to try those suspected of links to terrorism has aroused little public uproar... the Bush orders cover all noncitizens, and there are 20 million of them in the United States... And the Bush order could easily be extended to citizens, under the administration's legal theory. Since the Sixth Amendment [in the U.S. Constitution] makes no distinction between citizens and aliens, the claim of war exigency could sweep its protections aside for anyone in this country who might fit the vague definitions of aiding terrorism... It was an act of executive fiat, imposed without even consulting Congress. And it seeks to exclude the courts entirely from a process that may fundamentally affect life and liberty. The order says that a defendant 'shall not be privileged to seek any remedy... in any court', domestic or foreign."

Countless such headlines and columns have appeared across the globe, including one published in the Sydney Morning Herald on July 27 with the caption 'Foundations are in place for martial law in the US'. It recalled: "When President Ronald Reagan was considering invading Nicaragua he issued a series of executive orders that provided the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with broad powers in the event of a 'crisis' such as 'violent and widespread internal dissent or national opposition against a U.S. military invasion abroad'. Colonel Oliver North, made famous later by the Iran-Contra scandal, assisted the notorious FEMA in drafting its civil defence preparations during the period 1982-84 and the details got known only when the scandal broke out in 1987. The plans 'included executive orders providing for suspension of the Constitution, the imposition of martial law, internment camps, and the turning over of government to the President and FEMA.' " This story also cited another one which had appeared on July 20 in the Detroit Free Press titled 'Arabs in US could be held, official warns'. "The story referred to a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission who foresaw the possibility of internment camps for Americans of Arab origin. FEMA has practised for such an occasion." Such internments would of course be modelled on the ones in which the U.S. had interned 120,000 people of Japanese origin present on U.S. soil, citizen and non-citizen, during the Second World War. Nor is this idle speculation. Approximately 2,000 Arab and other Muslims in the U.S. were detained and interrogated there immediately after the September 11 events, in many cases disappearing without the knowledge of family, friends and employers, and Attorney-General John Ashcroft wanted to put over 5,000 people under surveillance exclusively on the basis of their Arab origin or religious affiliation. A much wider regime of repression is likely in case of a full-scale war against Iraq.

PROVOCATIVE talk about there being a real possibility of the imposition of martial law is wrong on three counts, however. First, there is too sturdy a constitutional framework and democratic structure to allow that as easily as Bush and his cronies might imagine. Second, numerous laws already exist, and many more are being enacted with alarming frequency, which render such a step superfluous. Third, a climate of opinion already exists, and enormously powerful ideological machineries are at work to promote and strengthen the opinion, which makes it possible to enforce far-reaching repressive measures against a very sizeable section of the resident population without any great difficulty. It is therefore more sober to speak, as Anthony Lewis does, of "the broadest move in American history to sweep aside constitutional protections," or, in Safire's words, "military kangaroo courts" and "executive fiat" which promulgate laws while ignoring the legislative branch and takes away judicial authority from civilian courts, without anything resembling a generalised martial law.

The first thing to be said here is that Bush is able to arrogate to himself what Safire calls "dictatorial powers" because he builds on structures that are already in place, from the times of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton - and also well before that, going all the way back to the 1950s. And, all the nefarious contingency plans to suspend the Constitution, impose martial law and so on were perfected under Reagan. Bush simply took all that to its logical extensions.

Furthermore, Congress itself gave Bush the authority to concentrate extraordinary powers in the office of the President, more or less indefinitely. Gore Vidal, the 76-year-old novelist and veteran commentator, described the U.S. legislature most aptly as "a supine Congress, the best that corporate money can buy." Immediately after September 11 this "supine Congress" passed a Bill, 420-1 in the House and 80-0 in the Senate, stating that "the President is authorised to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organisations, or persons he determines planned, authorised, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harboured such organisations or persons." (Barbara Lee, the sole congressperson who voted against the resolutions, received a massive amount of hate mail and numerous death threats.) This was a licence to wage war against not only Afghanistan but also any other nation that Bush saw fit to invade, but in bestowing such vast authority against even unnamed "organisations" and "persons" who even "harboured" the suspects, it also opened the floodgates for infinite surveillance and repression at home and abroad.

The draconian Act which Bush signed into law on October 26 was the direct result of this absolutist authority. It was expansively, and absurdly, called "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism" for the sole reason that the name could then be shortened as "USA Patriot Act". It gave the intelligence agencies unlimited powers to tap any telephone - his own, his friend's or neighbour's, or even a public phone - that the person under suspicion was ever likely to use. The agencies have also been given the power to gather a broad range of information from various public institutions - schools, hospitals, credit and other financial agencies, Internet communications, commercial establishments, and so on - without having to reveal to any court of law either a criminal charge or the purpose and scope of the investigation, so long as it has to do with the vaguest suspicion of "terrorism".

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) itself has been given wide powers in domestic intelligence-gathering since it is now empowered to designate persons who would be objects of surveillance; on the other, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which was established as a strictly domestic intelligence agency, is now active worldwide and maintains offices in numerous capitals, including New Delhi and Islamabad. The U.S. Attorney-General and the Secretary of State now have the power to designate any domestic group as a terrorist organisation and belonging to it would be considered a crime, even retroactively. The Act invents a new term, "domestic terrorism", which is so broadly defined as to include the use of a "firearm, weapon or other dangerous device... to cause substantial damage to property". Defence of all kinds of property thus becomes part of a fight against "terrorism", and a "dangerous device" could be just a brick that hits a parked car. Riot control thus becomes part of "war against terrorism".

This is not the place to spell out all the shocking clauses of such draconian laws. Strikingly, however, none of this applies to the military personnel of the U.S. who are declared to be above international law. Writing in Al-Ahram Weekly Online, Issue No. 558, Amira Howeidy revealed that "the US State Department - taking advantage of the frenzy and confusion that followed the terrorist acts - endorsed the American Service-members Protection Act (ASPA) on November 5. The legislation authorises the U.S. to use force to 'liberate' any U.S. or allied persons detained on behalf of the proposed International Criminal Court (ICC), which will be based in The Hague, Netherlands. It also prohibits U.S. military assistance to those states that ratify the ICC treaty except for NATO members and some major non-NATO allies." The law thus authorises the U.S. to invade the Netherlands, or indeed any other country where such detentions might occur under orders from the ICC.

All this was then followed swiftly by an executive order on November 13 which allowed for what Safire, the right-wing Republican, was to call "kangaroo courts" two days later. For, it said that any non-citizen who has engaged in acts designed to have "adverse effects on the United States, its citizens, national security or economy", and anyone who has "knowingly harboured" such persons, could be tried by special military tribunals which were to have summary procedures not covered even by the uniform Code of Military Justice. The executive order stipulated that the defendant would have no right to appeal in "(i) any court of the United States, or any State thereof; (ii) any court of any foreign nation, or (iii) any international tribunal" once he had been convicted by the ad hoc military tribunal.

Thus, the meaning of "terrorism" was now squarely broadened to cover the "economy" and any conflict of interest between "citizen" and "non-citizen;" in principle, any non-citizen who successfully competed in business against a citizen, with "adverse effects" for the latter, could be dragged before such a tribunal, tried as a "terrorist" and summarily executed. Thus, the U.S. arrogates to itself the unilateral right to impose the death penalty on a non-citizen without due judicial process and without the government of that person's own country having the right to try its citizens in its own court and under its own laws. The "kangaroo court" thus arrogates to itself a global jurisdiction.

A U.S. citizen may also of course get the same treatment if accused of "terrorism" or of "harbouring" a terrorist. It is only logical, then, that on October 5, two days before the massive bombardment of Afghanistan began, Deputy Defence Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz was reported in The Washington Post as saying that to enhance the nation's ability to counter terrorism, he strongly favours reviewing a legal doctrine that has kept the U.S. military from engaging in domestic law enforcement activities since 1878. Authoritarianism in any case needs a regime of infinite surveillance and necessarily thrives on militarism.

As for the enhanced regime of surveillance, just two items here should suffice to indicate the general drift. The veteran journalist Nat Hantoff, for example, wrote the following in the Village Voice of February 9, 2002:

During the congressional debate on John Ashcroft's USA Patriot Act, an American Civil Liberties Union fact sheet on the bill's assaults on the Bill of Rights revealed that Section 215 of the act "would grant FBI agents across the country breathtaking authority to obtain an order from the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court... requiring any person or business to produce any books, records, documents, or items." This is now the law, and as I wrote last week, the FBI, armed with a warrant or subpoena from the FISA court, can demand from bookstores and libraries the names of books bought or borrowed by anyone suspected of involvement in "international terrorism" or "clandestine activities." Once that information is requested by the FBI, a gag order is automatically imposed, prohibiting the bookstore owners or librarians from disclosing to any other person the fact that they have received an order to produce documents.

This is of course surveillance of the old, familiar kind, though taken now to new extremes in an otherwise democratic country.

As for the truly high-tech, New Age techniques of surveillance, an Associated Press report of November 21, 2001, for example, had this to say:

The FBI is going to new lengths to eavesdrop, building software to monitor computer use and urging phone companies to help make wiretaps more reliable. The FBI's "Magic Lantern" technology would allow investigators, via the Internet, to secretly install powerful software that records every keystroke on a person's computer, according to people familiar with the effort. The software is similar to "Trojan horse" programs already used by some hackers and corporate spies. The FBI envisions using Magic Lantern, part of a broad FBI project called "Cyber Knight", to record the secret key a person might use to encrypt messages or computer files. The FBI's existing monitoring technology, called the "Key Logger System", has required investigators to sneak into a target's home or business and attach the device to a computer. "It's an open question whether the covert installation of something on a computer without a physical entry requires a search warrant," said David Sobel, a lawyer with the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Centre, a civil liberties group. Earlier this month the FBI urged some of the nation's largest telephone companies to change their networks so that investigators can reliably eavesdrop on conversations using new data technology.

These examples are cited merely to illustrate the manner in which the events of September 11 have been used to strengthen greatly the regime of surveillance within the U.S., as an integral feature of enhanced authoritarianism. And those events were also a great boon for the war industries, as corportate America understood immediately. John Pilger reported in The Mirror on January 29, 2002: "The day the Wall Street stock market opened after the destruction of the Twin Towers, the few companies showing increased value were the giant military contractors - Alliant Tech Systems, Northrop Gruman, Raytheon (a contributor to New Labour) and Lockheed Martin. As the U.S. military's biggest supplier, Lockheed Martin's share value rose by a staggering 30 per cent. Within six weeks of September 11, the company (with its main plant in Texas, George Bush's home State) had secured the biggest military order in history: a $200 billion contract to develop a new fighter aircraft." And the "war on terrorism" which was announced soon thereafter was of course used to push through the National Missile Defence (NMD) programme and then the largest military budget in history, of close to $400 billion, the increase alone amounting to $50 billion and with clear allocations to inaugurate NMD-related research.

U.S. military technology is already a decade or so ahead of any other country's and considerably more ahead of, let us say, China's. What is planned now is a new generation of weapon systems in view of the projected permanence of global war. The U.S. is now developing an array of radar, imaging, vehicle and computer technologies that will afford its military the ability not only to find enemy armies in darkness, fog, dust, inside buildings and beneath foliage, but also to strike within minutes of detecting and identifying them. An enemy will find it more difficult each passing year to hide from spy planes and satellites and a host of airborne and land-based robotic vehicles. In 10 years' time the U.S. arsenal will be equipped with sensors and weapons far more rapid, more precise and more lethal than what we see today. Even existing weapons are being improved. The B-2 Stealth bomber, for example, will by 2004 be able to carry 80 500-pound JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) precision bombs that will be independently targetable so that 80 different targets may be struck on a single silent pass at 50,000 feet. All this - and much, much besides - is then capped by a whole array of policy statements and documents such as the "Nuclear Posture Review" which call for developing small nuclear devices for such purposes as deep earth penetration and smaller nuclear weapons that may be used against non-nuclear states.

A RELATIVELY brief essay such as this one does not permit the space to develop a detailed examination of this new phase of enhanced domestic authoritarianism or globalised militarism. Three points may be made in closing, however. One is that the authoritarianism is not an incidental but a necessary consequence of this kind of militarism. As the U.S. makes war against country after country, across the Third World, the immigrant populations within the U.S. which are drawn from those countries are bound to get restive at the thought of the destruction of societies in what were their countries of origin, and new forms of racism, surveillance and repression shall be required to contain their dissent. This need shall get aggravated by the anti-war sentiment that is bound to arise, at least in pockets, among the mainstream white middle classes as well, especially if growth in authoritarianism and militarism coincides with economic stagnation and bust, which current trends in the stock market, in corporate scandals and even currency valuations seem to presage. For example, at least some of the laws and actual acts of surveillance and repression, which are being legitimised by an ideological offensive against Muslims in general and Arabs in particular, seem designed to contain anti-globalisation protests and the growing dissent on elite campuses.

Second, the kind of military technology that already exists and which is sought to be made so very much more advanced and overwhelming, makes a military response to U.S. aggression so very difficult and even virtually unthinkable that desperate and unconventional methods of fighting back - in short acts of what is called "terrorism" - are likely to increase. China is virtually the only non-Western country that has a real chance of developing the means to defend itself powerfully enough to deter the U.S., regardless of the latter's designs.

And, there shall undoubtedly be numerous countries, the largest among them being India, which will seek refuge in American patronage itself. For the host of weaker countries that are currently targeted, especially in the vast regions of Central Asia, West Asia and North Africa, the military prospects are bleak. Armies shall become increasingly superfluous in the targeted countries, even where there is a will to fight back, and the burden of fighting may well shift to small, scattered groups of desperados which will be, in their own way, just as lawless and frightening as the U.S. war machine itself is. A barbaric civilisation that struts across the globe with such technological superiority in its killing machines is bound to increase the quantum of barbarism on the opposing side as well, at least in the foreseeable future.

Finally, almost the most frightening part of the enhanced authoritarianism and militarism in the U.S. is the incredibly widespread and enthusiastic support it has among a majority of Americans. That majority is gripped by a pathology of hatred wherein it hates the world because it has persuaded itself that the world hates it, and hates it unjustly.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 17, 2002.)

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