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Civil Liberties and the Culture of War

by David Tykulsker

In protesting the deprivation of the most basic civil liberties of our South Asian, Arab and Muslim friends and neighbors, we must ask ourselves why these outrageous violations of domestic and international law have occurred. When members of our group posed this question to representative Congressman Anthony Wiener, he told us that it was simply an overzealous response to the events of September 11. But that relatively innocent explanation cannot explain the lies, the stonewalling and the renewed racial profiling that have accompanied these detentions. Rather, the true reason for what has occurred is that it is part and parcel of the Bush Administration's most important achievement, the massive intensification of the culture of war. And therefore to redress these wrongful detentions and prevent future detentions, it is imperative that we all seek to overcome this culture of war.

It is often said that truth is the first casualty of war. But civil liberties runs a very close second, especially in our own country. Back in our country's first decade, the Alien and Sedition Acts were used to imprison Congressmen, deport John Adams's political opponents and shut down newspapers in furtherance of the Adams administrations attempt to bring the country into war against revolutionary France. We would do well to remember to that this first attempt to limit the civil liberties of all, particularly immigrants, was ultimately defeated by a vital popular resistance.

As historian Eric Foner has pointed out, this pattern continued with subsequent 19th Century wars: "Although there had been sporadic persecution of the opponents of the Mexican war .... [in the Civil War] arbitrary arrests of by military authorities in the North numbered in the thousands, ranging from opposition newspaper editors and Democratic politicians to ordinary citizens."

Similarly in World War I, an official culture of war-making led to the pulverizing of the Wobblies, the suppression of periodicals like the Masses and Tom Watson's Monthly, mass deportations of non-citizens, and the banning of the speaking of German.

In the months prior to World War II, the most pro-labor President in our history Franklin Roosevelt routinely used the Army to smash strikes at war plants, invoking the need for preparedness. During that War, the government engaged in the infamous internment and dispossession of more than a hundred thousand Japanese-American citizens, as well as the less celebrated detentions without charges of thousands of Italian and German-Americans.

The banning of a legal political party and the criminalizing of dissent during the height of the Cold War are better known. In the 1960s, perhaps the time of greatest recent concern for civil liberties, J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO and similar local attacks on the anti-war movement as well as the anti-war affiliated groups among people of color ranging from the Southern Christian Leadership Council to the American Indian Movement shows the continuing link between war and an authoritarian state.

More recently, our government's role in the death squads of Operation Condor, that war of the Southern Cone military dictatorships against their own people, and the assassination in Washington D.C. of a U.S. citizen and a legal resident, continues to demonstrate that all civil liberties, even the right to live, are placed in jeopardy when a country is enmeshed in the culture of war.

But war also requires a government that lies, as we have seen from the debacle around the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Information. In a culture of war, loose lips sink ships. This government lies when it says that it is not releasing the names of the detainees to protect their privacy. This government lies when it says it cannot let Amnesty International into our local Brooklyn prison because it is treating the detainees humanely. This government lies when it says that it has secret evidence to show these men are "evil-doers".

A third casualty of war is tolerance, the acceptance of difference as a contribution to the vibrancy of civic and cultural life. Tolerance must be limited for the simple reason that in order to induce us to kill "the enemy" for simply being "the enemy", we must first be taught that the enemy is not like us, but is rather the "anti-us". Rather than empathetically understand that these others have much in common with ourselves, in a culture of war, the other must be depicted as non-human in fundamental ways. Thus, ethnic chauvinism, racial bigotry and intolerance become the order of the day. The deportation of immigrants, our domestic "other" during wartime has, as pointed out above, been an enduring theme of our history. The creation of hatred in the populace towards all things German in World War I and all things Japanese in World War II were principal points of the domestic war effort. Thus, it is no accident that this Administration continues to engage in ethnic profiling here at home, and the domestic war effort looks to stir up hatred towards Arabs, Muslims and South Asians.

There is an alternative to the culture of war, and that is a culture of justice. In a culture of justice, our government must meet the same norms to which we hold others and where the law, both domestic and international, is respected. In a culture of justice, those who perpetrate horrible crimes, like the taking of thousand innocent civilian lives to induce fear in the general population so as to achieve political ends (in other words terrorists), are arrested, confronted with the evidence against them and held to stand at a fair trial. In a culture of justice, the same standards are applied when these terrorist crimes are committed by crashing an airplane into a skyscraper as by sending military airplanes out to bomb with inevitable civilian casualties.

It is vital that the government immediately tell us the names of those it has held and is holding at the Metropolitan Detention Center, and to specify the charges on which they were detained. This is the most basic and first step to righting what appears to be a terrible wrong. But we owe it to ourselves, our children and the other inhabitants of this planet that we all seek to overcome the culture of war with a culture of justice.