Sunday, May 15, 2011

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Informed Comment
Kolin: How the US Became a Police State
Andrew Kolin writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

To understand how the U.S. government became a police state, look no further than how it freed itself from colonial rule. For the American Revolution was, by and large, the result of a mobilization of the masses by the elites to liberate the colonized from a colonizer. It was the starting point of the myth of how the post- Revolutionary government would embody democracy.

The truth was that after the American Revolution, the thinking among economic and political elites was that America had become too democratic, especially as mass democracy expressed itself on the state level. The appearance and growth of democratic practices was perceived by elites as a threat to the expansion of state power. The government responded primarily through the use of force and violence, seeking to extend control over people and territory within North America through genocidal and ethnocidal measures against American Indians. Slavery was increasing in importance to the economy, in service of the expansion of state power. It is no coincidence that American Indians and slaves were the earliest groups defined by the government as political outsiders. Groups depicted as enemies of the state throughout U.S. history and described as “others” served as a convenient justification to enlarge state power at the expense of democracy.

Organized labor, especially its more radical elements, also challenged elite rule in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and political repression was turned loose against them. In surveying U.S. history, it becomes clear that the actions of the government in the end were intended to disrupt and eliminate progressive, mass- based political movements. The state viewed labor organizations as political outsiders, seen as seeking to subvert the government by forming an alliance with external enemies of the United States. Whether applied to organized labor, Socialists, Communists or terrorists, state ideology remained the same in perceiving the threat as coming from political outsiders, hence the need to employ emergency measures.

As police states are, by their nature, hostile to rule of law, political repression is accomplished through the use of essentially illegal measures, such as the Alien and Sedition Acts and the Espionage Act. This outlawing of political thought and alternative viewpoints persists as an ongoing theme. From the 1920s onward, in order to combat political outsiders, many state governments formed a partnership with local police officials with the goal of stamping out grassroots democracy. These Red Squads, a political police force, engage in surveillance, disruption, and, in many instances, the destruction of political organizations active in nonviolent political expression. The Red Squads acted in similar ways to the FBI, as agents of the state seeking to instill in American society social and political conformity.

The development of other essentially political police agencies within the federal government, to supplement the work of the FBI, such as the CIA, NSA, and a host of other intelligence gatherers on the federal and state levels, were an ominous sign. State repression was accelerating during the Truman administration with the passage of the National Security Act, and the growth of the CIA. Inside the federal government, there was an increasing subordination of the legislative branch to the executive branch., concentrating power in the context of a permanent emergency——and causing the government to become more determined to eliminate mass democracy. For instance, during World War II and in the name of a national emergency, Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese American citizens. This targeting of outsiders identified as an internal and external threat, continues to the present day; the alleged menace, was first Communism, and later, terrorism.

While mass democracy was being crushed in the United States, foreign policy in the postwar period remained consistent, extending control over more people and more territory, resulting in alliances with dictatorships so as to crush democracy overseas as well. After World War II, the military industrial complex became another key component in the twisted road to police state practices, based on the premise of permanent war making, with a cold war arms race, the sending of troops, and the establishment of military bases across the globe. This is another defining feature of a police state: a nation placed in an ongoing state of mobilization to prepare and fight wars throughout the globe. Police states, incorporate war-making into normalized state functions. Permanent war making translates into the global subversion of democracy. Supplementing the military in undermining democracy overseas, the CIA was one of many federal agencies during the second half of the twentieth century that was carrying out an essentially antidemocratic mission in the name of national security.

In assessing the successes and failures of progressive movements in the United States, in many ways, their limitations can be attributed to the intensive scale and scope of political repression, such as the FBI’s Cointelpro Program, which clearly diminished their effectiveness and in most cases, fundamentally undermined them. In many ways, Cointelpro was significant in paving the way for a police state, for progressive movements that developed after Cointelpro were much smaller and less effective in advancing mass democracy.

The ending of procedural democracy was yet another step toward the establishment of a permanent police state. The Constitution is supposed to place legal limits on the concentration of power within parts of government. Instead, with political repression of mass-based movements justified by declarations of national emergency, the government consistently stepped outside Constitutional legal boundaries. As a result, by the early 1970s, large- scale political movements were on the wane, in particular, as the events of Watergate unfolded, in many ways, a dress rehearsal for a police state. Watergate represented a political assault, not just on the supposed external threats to the Nixon administration, but political repression was extended to the government’s internal enemies. That meant taking action against the Democratic Party by seeking to rig an election, one of the most blatant attempts to destroy procedural democracy.

The concentration of power within one branch of government had been manifesting itself increasingly as an imperial presidency. Postwar presidential administrations define their power largely in relation to foreign policy initiatives. The foreign policies of post- Nixon administrations were outwardly anti- Communist and antiterrorist but in reality were driven by the maintenance and extension of a global American empire. Post-Watergate administrations were largely successful in finding various ways around the so- called Watergate reforms, seeking to enlarge the powers of presidents at home and overseas.

By the time we reach the presidency of George W. Bush, the executive branch had become a branch that saw itself as above the law while making law. The state came to embody the will of. Bush and his inner circle. The spark that ignited the transition toward the final form of an American police state was the attacks on the World Trade Towers in 1993 and 2001. In response, the government acted outside the Constitution by passing the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, and other measures, producing a direct assault on civil liberties.

The clearest indication of American police state practices is the use of preventive detention. In one example—extraordinary rendition—all the government has to do is accuse anyone of anything related to terrorism, sufficient reason to seize and ship individuals elsewhere to be tortured.

The twisted and extensive use of signing statements also indicates that an administration is functioning outside the law. In a distorted extension of the theory of a unitary executive, President Bush’s excessive use of signing statements resulted in dictatorial powers.

What is the future of the American police state? If history tells us anything about police states, it is that they all eventually crumble, in large part, because over time, they become dysfunctional. The same can be said of the police state of the Bush administration. During the second term, there were indications of a breakdown in how this police state functioned. Some of the clearest symptoms of this dysfunction were the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib, the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, and the large number of prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay. In addition, opposition mounted to the reauthorization of the Patriot Act and the Supreme Court ruling in the Boumediene case, which called into question the use of the Military Commissions Act. In the early days of the Obama administration, the trend seemed to point toward an American police state that will be modified, but not eliminated.

Andrew Kolin is Professor of Political Science at Hilbert University. This essay is adapted from his State Power and Democracy: Before and During the Presidency of George W Bush (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)



The American Police State
By Chris Hedges

A Dallas jury, a week ago, caused a mistrial in the government case against this country’s largest Islamic charity. The action raises a defiant fist on the sinking ship of American democracy.

If we lived in a state where due process and the rule of law could curb the despotism of the Bush administration, this mistrial might be counted a victory. But we do not. The jury may have rejected the federal government’s claim that the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development funneled millions of dollars to Middle Eastern terrorists. It may have acquitted Mohammad el-Mezain, the former chairman of the foundation, of virtually all criminal charges related to funding terrorism (the jury deadlocked on one of the 32 charges against el-Mezain), and it may have deadlocked on the charges that had been lodged against four other former leaders of the charity, but don’t be fooled. This mistrial will do nothing to impede the administration’s ongoing contempt for the rule of law. It will do nothing to stop the curtailment of our civil liberties and rights. The grim march toward a police state continues.

Constitutional rights are minor inconveniences, noisome chatter, flies to be batted away on the steady road to despotism. And no one, not the courts, not the press, not the gutless Democratic opposition, not a compliant and passive citizenry hypnotized by tawdry television spectacles and celebrity gossip, seems capable of stopping the process. Those in power know this. We, too, might as well know it.

The Bush administration, which froze the foundation’s finances three months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and indicted its officials three years later on charges that they provided funds for the militant group Hamas, has ensured that the foundation and all other Palestinian charities will never reopen in the United States. Any organized support for Palestinians from within the U.S. has been rendered impossible. The goal of the Israeli government and the Bush administration—despite the charade of peace negotiations to be held at Annapolis—is to grind defiant Palestinians into the dirt. Israel, which has plunged the Gaza Strip into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, has now begun to ban fuel supplies and sever electrical service. The severe deprivation, the Israelis hope, will see the overthrow of the Hamas government in Gaza and the reinstatement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has become the Marshal P├ętain of the Palestinian people.

The Dallas trial—like all of the major terrorism trials conducted by this administration, from the Florida case against the Palestinian activist Dr. Sami al-Arian, which also ended in a mistrial, to the recent decision by a jury in Chicago to acquit two men of charges of financing Hamas—has been a judicial failure. William Neal, a juror in the Dallas trial, told the Associated Press that the case “was strung together with macaroni noodles. There was so little evidence.”

Such trials, however, have been politically expedient. The accusations, true or untrue, serve the aims of the administration. A jury in Tampa, Chicago or Dallas can dismiss the government’s assaults on individual rights, but the draconian restrictions put in place because of the mendacious charges remain firmly implanted within the system. It is the charges, not the facts, which matter.

Dr. al-Arian, who was supposed to have been released and deported in April, is still in a Virginia prison because he will not testify in a separate case before a grand jury. The professor, broken by the long ordeal of his trial and unable to raise another million dollars in legal fees for a retrial, pleaded guilty to a minor charge in the hopes that his persecution would end. It has not. Or take the case of Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who in 2002 was spirited away by Homeland Security from JFK Airport to Syria, where he spent 10 months being tortured in a coffin-like cell. He was, upon his release, exonerated of terrorism. Arar testified before a House panel this month about how he was abducted by the U.S. and interrogated, stripped of his legal rights and tortured. But he couldn’t testify in person. He spoke to the House members on a video link from Canada. He is forbidden by Homeland Security to enter the United States because he allegedly poses a threat to national security.

Those accused of being involved in conspiracies and terrorism plots, as in all police states, become nonpersons. There is no rehabilitation. There is no justice.

“He was never given a hearing nor did the Canadian consulate, his lawyer, or his family know of his fate,” Amnesty International wrote of Arar. “Expulsion in such circumstances, without a fair hearing, and to a country known for regularly torturing their prisoners, violates the U.S. Government’s obligations under international law, specifically the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.”

You can almost hear Dick Cheney yawn.

The Bush administration shut down the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development six years ago and froze its assets. There was no hearing or trial. It became a crime for anyone to engage in transactions with the foundation. The administration never produced evidence to support the charges. It did not have any. In the “war on terror,” evidence is unnecessary. An executive order is enough. The foundation sued the government in a federal court in the District of Columbia. Behind closed doors, the government presented secret evidence that the charity had no opportunity to see or rebut. The charity’s case was dismissed.

The government has closed seven Muslim charities in the United States and frozen their assets. Not one of them, or any person associated with them, has been found guilty of financing terrorism. They will remain shut. George W. Bush can tar any organization or individual, here or abroad, as being part of a terrorist conspiracy and by fiat render them powerless. He does not need to make formal charges. He does not need to wait for a trial verdict. Secret evidence, which these court cases have exposed as a sham, is enough. The juries in Tampa, Chicago and Dallas did their duty. They spoke for the rights of citizens. They spoke for the protection of due process and the rule of law. They threw small hurdles in front of the emergent police state. But the abuse rolls on. I fear terrorism. I know it is real. I am sure terrorists will strike again on American soil. But while terrorists can wound and disrupt our democracy, only we can kill it.

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