Personalizing civil liberties abuses2:13 pm - 04/17/2012
It’s sometimes easy — too easy — to think, talk or write about the assault on civil liberties in the United States, and related injustices, and conceive of them as abstractions. Two weeks ago, the Editorial Page Editor of The New York Times, Andrew Rosenthal, wrote that ever since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has created “what’s essentially a separate justice system for Muslims.” That should be an extraordinary observation: creating a radically different — and more oppressive — set of rules, laws and punishments for a class of people in the United States based on their religious affiliation is a disgrace of historic proportion. Yet here we have someone occupying one of the most establishment media positions in the country matter-of-factly observing that this is exactly the state of affairs that exists on American soil, and it prompts little notice, let alone protest.
There are many factors accounting for the willingness to tolerate, or even approve of, this systematic persecution, most of which I’ve written about before. But one important reason I want to highlight here is that — as is true of America’s related posture of endless wars — its victims, by design, are so rarely heard from. As is true for most groups of humans who remain hidden, they are therefore easily demonized. This invisibility also means that even those who object in principle to what is being done have difficulty apprehending in a visceral way the devastation that is wreaked in the lives of these human beings who have done nothing wrong. Their absence from our discourse can confine one’s understanding of these issues to the theoretical realm, and thus limit one’s ability to truly care.
I spent the last week traveling to several cities where, without planning to do so, I met dozens of people whose lives have been seriously impeded or fully wrecked by the abuses carried out in the name of the War on Terror. This happens whenever I travel to speak at events, and it’s one of the reasons I do it. Meeting such people isn’t the reason for my travel. These meetings usually are unplanned. But the decade-long abuses carried out in the post-9/11 era are so pervasive, so systematized, that no matter what city I visit, it’s very common for me to end up meeting people — usually though not always Muslims — whose lives have been unjustly and severely harmed by these state actions. And it’s not only the targeted individuals themselves, but entire communities of people, whose lives are substantially damaged. Being able to meet and speak with people directly affected personalizes the issues for me that are most frequently written about here, and so I want to describe several of those encounters I had just in the last week.
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On Thursday, I was in Ottawa to speak at St. Paul University on civil liberties, secrecy and militarism as it affects the U.S. and Canada. Ottawa happens to be the long-time home of Maher Arar. Arar is the Canadian-Syrian citizen who was abducted by the U.S. Government (with the help of Canada) in September, 2002, at JFK Airport, when he was about to board a connecting flight back home to Ottawa after a vacation. After being held for two weeks in solitary confinement and denied access to a lawyer by the U.S., they “rendered” him not back to his home in Canada, but to Syria (where he hadn’t lived for 15 years). He was imprisoned in Syria for the next year, ten months of which was in extreme solitary confinement. As the U.S. knew would happen, he was continuously interrogated, beaten and tortured. Because (as everyone now admits) Arar had no involvement of any kind with Terrorism, he had nothing to tell his Syrian captors, which caused them to beat him ever more harshly. Once even the Syrians concluded that he was innocent, they released him back to Canada.
While the Canadian government publicly accounted for its role in this travesty, apologized to Arar, and paid him a substantial monetary sum for what was done to him, all of Arar’s efforts to obtain justice from the U.S. Government in American courts have been denied. The Bush and the Obama DOJ both insisted that allowing Arar’s claims to be heard in a U.S. court would risk disclosure of vital “state secrets,” and American federal judges — as they almost always do in cases involving Muslim defendants — meekly complied with the government’s directives. Arar continues to be banned from entering the U.S., thus ensuring he cannot travel to this country to speak about what was done to him.
When I met with him, Arar explained to me the lingering effects of being snatched away from your own life for no reason and being shipped halfway across the world to be brutalized and tortured without any charges of any kind and without any end in sight. At the time that happened, Arar was working as an engineer — he has a Masters degree in engineering from the University of Quebec — and he lived with his wife, a Ph.D in Finance who works as a college professor, along with their two small children. His wife, Monia Mazigh, wrote an incredibly moving book about the devastation this “rendition” wreaked on their lives and her battle to free him.
Since then, the stigma of what happened to him follows him wherever he goes. He found it difficult to resume his engineering career. He was reluctant to speak in any detailed way, but was clear that this horrific experience, even nine years later, affects him emotionally and psychologically in all sorts of profound ways. He spends most of his time working on an excellent online political journal he founded in 2010, Prism Magazine, where he and a group of writers report and comment on civil liberties and foreign policy.
He’s extremely smart, knowledgeable, articulate, passionate and engaged. He attempts to direct the anger over what was done to him into constructive causes: in particular, using his platform to highlight the dangers of untrammeled government power and the ongoing erosion of core liberties in the name of Terrorism. But it’s not hard to see that the severe abuse he suffered at the cooperative hands of the U.S., Canadian and Syrian governments — the complete loss of one’s sense of security from being arbitrarily snatched out of one’s life by unaccountable forces which, in the case of the U.S., continue to view him as some sort of threat — will be a central part of his identity and internal life probably forever.
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On Saturday, I was at the University of Chicago for an event to discuss humanitarian intervention and empire. One of my fellow speakers was Tariq Ramadan, the highly regarded Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford. He’s one of the world’s most accomplished scholars in his field. For almost six years — from 2004 until 2010 — Ramadan was banned from entering the U.S. In 2004, he had accepted a tenured position at Notre Dame University, but was forced to resign it when, nine days before he was to move with his family to Indiana, his visa was suddenly revoked by the State Department pursuant to the “ideological exclusion” provision of the PATRIOT Act. Ramadan had been an outspoken critic of violence carried out by Muslims against civilians in the name of the Koran, as well a vigorous opponent of violence carried out by the U.S. Government in the Muslim world; for the latter act, he was accused by the U.S. Government, with no charges or trial, of being a Terrorist sympathizer and a threat to national security. Only once the ACLU sued for years on his behalf and the State Department was ordered by a federal court to more fully justify the exclusion in 2010 was he granted a visa. After years of living with the cloud of “Terrorist sympathizer” over his head, he is now finally able to enter the U.S. again to speak and attend academic conferences.
One of the sponsors of that University of Chicago event was the school’s Muslim Students Association, and one of the undergraduate student leaders of that group is Ali Al-Arian. Ali is the son of Dr. Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian whose ongoing persecution by the U.S. Government is one of the most repellent and unjust of any in the post-9/11 era. I can’t begin to convey all or even most of the extreme injustices that have been imposed on him.
In 2003, while working as an engineering professor at the University of South Florida, he was indicted by the Ashcroft DOJ on multiple counts of “material support for Terrorism.” Al-Arian was an outspoken advocate for Palestinians and a steadfast opponent of the Israeli occupation. The U.S. government had been monitoring all of his telephone communications for more than a full decade, yet obtained no evidence that he was involved in any way in plotting any sort of violence. The indictment was all based on his alleged support for Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian group that has nothing to do with the U.S. or Americans, but is instead focused exclusively on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. While awaiting his trial, he was held for almost three years in extreme solitary confinement.
When his trial finally took place in 2006, the government’s evidence against him consisted almost entirely of his speeches, the list of books he read, the websites he visited, the magazines he edited, the rallies he attended: in sum, the U.S. Government — as it so often does with Muslims — tried to prosecute him as a Terrorist by virtue of his political views and activities. Even with a judge extremely hostile to his defense, the Central Florida jury acquitted him on half of the counts, and deadlocked on the other half (10 out of 12 jurors wanted to acquit him on all charges). This was one of the very, very few times a Muslim in the U.S. has been acquitted when accused of Terrorism. Rather than be subjected to a new trial that could send him to prison for life, he pled guilty to a single count of “contributing services” for the benefit of a designated Terrorist group (far, far less than what is being provided right this moment by a glittering bipartisan cast of Washington officials to the MEK, also a designated Terrorist group). In an extremely unusual move, the federal judge presiding over the case disregarded the prosecutor’s sentencing recommendations and sentenced him to a longer prison term than what the plea agreement called for: the maximum permitted by law.
That prison sentence was to end in 2007, after which he would be deported. Yet al-Arian was never released from prison. He continues, nine years later, to be denied his liberty by the U.S. Government, with no end in sight. Shortly before he was to be released and deported, he was subpoenaed to testify in a separate criminal case — one involving an Islamic think tank in Northern Virginia — by Gordon Kromberg, an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Virginia who is notorious for his bigoted anti-Islamic zealotry. Fearful that any testimony he gave would be seized on by Kromberg to prosecute him again, al-Arian refused to testify, and was then imprisoned on civil contempt charges for the maximum 18-month period permitted by law. Once that 18-month period ended, Kromberg, in 2008, indicted him on criminal contempt charges.
In response to this new criminal indictment, al-Arian’s lawyers, in 2009, asked the federal district judge to dismiss the criminal indictment. While the motion was pending, the judge ordered him confined to house arrest. That was 3 years ago. But the judge has simply never decided the motion. It just sits there, for years now, undecided. And al-Arian thus continues to be confined to house arrest, not permitted to leave without express permission of the court, which is rarely granted (he has left his small apartment only twice in the last 3 years, to attend the weddings of his two daughters). In the meantime, the criminal case for which he was subpoeaned to testify has been dismissed. But no matter. Al-Arian is in a frozen zone: denied his most basic liberties but without any ability to contest the charges against him. He’s now been imprisoned in one form or another since 2003, all stemming from extremely dubious charges that the U.S. Government, less than two years after the 9/11 attack, could not even get a Central Florida jury — with a very hostile judge — to convict him on. In reality, al-Arian has been persecuted for one reason only: because he’s a Palestinian activist highly critical of the four-decade brutal Israeli occupation.
It was al-Arian’s son, Ali, who drove me back to my hotel after the University of Chicago event was concluded. He recounted the harrowing details of his father’s plight, much of which I knew, but also explained, in stoic though very affecting tones, the ways in which the lives not only of his father but also his own and his brothers and sisters have been torn asunder by the ongoing persecution taking place. Dr. al-Arian’s five college-age children, all highly accomplished and educated in their own right, have worked steadfastly on the injustices to which their father is still being subjected, but there’s little they can do: each time it appears that his plight will finally be over, the U.S. Government concocts a new process to ensure that he remains a prisoner.
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Last night, I spoke in Washington at the annual event for the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, a group formed in late 2010 to work against these Terrorism-justified travesties that are now embedded in the American judicial system. Seated at my table was James Yee, the Muslim chaplin at Guantanamo who complained in 2003 about the treatment of detainees, and shortly thereafter was arrested, charged with sedition and espionage, and held in intense solitary confinement: in other words, subjected to the very same treatment as the Guantanano detainees to whom he had been ministering. Ultimately, the U.S. military decided to suddenly drop all charges against him, though to date has never apologized for what was done to him. He described the ongoing psychological harm from this ordeal, and the battery of medication needed to treat it. Adorning the wall of the event was an exhibit showing the names of dozens of people — mostly, though not all, Muslims — who have been prosecuted overwhelmingly due to their political views, not because of any violent acts they undertook. For the entire three-hour event, a Muslim male dressed in an orange jump suit sat alone in a tiny makeshift cell at the front of the room as a reminder of the hundreds of prisoners, held in indescribably oppressive conditions, who have been prosecuted “pre-emptively” in the post-9/11 era: due to their political beliefs.
On the afternoon before the event, I met with Gulet Mohamed’s brother, Liban. Gulet is the Somali-American who last year, at the age of 19, was detained in Kuwait at the behest of the U.S. Government, beaten and tortured while interrogated, and then blocked from returning home to the U.S. I still vividly recall, as though it were yesterday, calling Gulet on his illicitly obtained cell phone while he was in Kuwaiti detention and hearing the extreme levels of fear and confusion in his voice over why this was happening to him. His brother described to me the numerous ways that Gulet continues to be affected by that experience: all ones you would expect if you put yourself in the position of being 19 years old and having that happen to you. I then had the pleasure to meet Gulet himself at the event that evening, and he appears to be a normal now-20-year-old — except that he was detained without charges and beaten and tortured at the behest of his own government.
In both Chicago and Washington, I also spoke with several people, all American Muslims, who have been placed by the U.S. Government on its no-fly list. That means they are barred from boarding an airplane. None has been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crime. They were never notified that they were being placed on the list. They learned of it when they tried to fly and were denied boarding at the airport. They are unable to obtain any explanation for why they have been so barred. They have no idea who made the decision to place them on this list, what the basis was for that decision, or when they might be removed. For many of them, it means they cannot visit family members in other countries. They have simply been decreed as Security Threats by their own government with no explanation or transparency of any kind, and have no recourse to challenge the designation.
Those I spoke with were unwilling, at least for now, to speak out publicly by name out of fear that the U.S. Government will retaliate against them if they do. This fear is well-grounded given how many Muslims who have protested the government’s treatment of them have ended up being accused of unrelated crimes, or have had close family members similarly targeted. Just this week, a Pittsburgh resident, Kalifah Al-Akili, was scheduled to hold a press conference to complain that the FBI had introduced a dangerous and unstable person into his life in order to entrap him into joining an FBI-created Terrorist plot; once al-Akili refused, and sought to complain publicly, the FBI — on the day before he was to hold his Press Conference — arrested him on a completely unrelated and old firearm violation, thus ensuring his silence.
Then there’s the systematic infiltration of American Muslim communities, mosques and other groups by the U.S. Government. Just today, the Associated Press won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for exposing the pernicious surveillance program of the NYPD aimed at Muslims suspected of no wrongdoing whatsoever (except for being Muslim). Also today, The Washington Post has a very good article detailing the FBI’s chronic use of informants to target young Muslims and use every conceivable inducement — money, psychological manipulation, peer pressure — to cajole them into joining the FBI’s manufactured Terrorist plots. This is all done so that the FBI can swoop in at the last minute, praise themselves for stopping a Terror attack, keep fear levels among the American population high, and then send the targeted Muslim to prison for decades (and not just any prison, but usually to the uber-repressive wing at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana — “GITMO North” — a living, inhumane hell). The federal judge who presided over the most recent of these FBI-concocted cases — the tough-on-crime, former federal prosecutor Colleen McMahon — said in open court: “I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition.”
This constant government surveillance, infiltration, and use of informants — many who are paid large sums of money by the FBI and who themselves have a history of violent behavior and lying — predictably create extreme levels of fear and suspicion in American Muslim communities. They are instantly suspicious of any new person they meet. Because so many of these prosecutions have relied on the political statements and views of the accused Terrorist supporters, they are petrified to express their views about American foreign policy, let alone to engage in meaningful activism around those views. They fear speaking out when they are targeted or otherwise victimized by state injustices.
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In sum, these are American citizens whom the rest of us have allowed to be subject to such an intense, limitless climate of fear and intimidation that any Constitutional guarantees are purely illusory for them. And they know it: they know that if the U.S. Government acts unjustly against them — if government agents even utter the word Terrorist in their direction — huge numbers of their fellow citizens will automatically assume that there must be some justification for the accusations. As Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum recently explained, he simply assumes that when the Obama administration accuses someone of involvement in Terrorism that there must be some solid basis for the accusation — even if they don’t reveal what that basis is — because President Obama is too good of a person to be involved in the baseless, bad faith punishment of someone on Terrorism allegations.
Many of the Muslims with whom I spoke know that many of their fellow citizens — the ones who are never subjected to these abuses — “reason” in a similar manner. Most are wallowing in the authoritarian assumption that the U.S. Government, while not infallible, is well-motivated and honest. Many Muslims thus know that they will stand almost entirely vulnerable if they are so targeted; few others will object or even care. That the Obama administration — in concert with Peter King — has been repeatedly insisting that the primary threat is now “homegrown Terrorism,” and has thus been importing War on Terror framework onto U.S. soil, means that citizenship is no longer any shield from even the most egregious abuses. So they are afraid, and are tempted to avoid doing anything, including exercising their most basic rights of free speech and assembly, to avoid attracting attention.
As is always the case, the government abuses justified in the name of Terrorism have expanded far beyond the Muslim community to which they were first applied. Domestic peace activists have been targeted by abusive applications of the Patriot Act; American advocates of WikiLeaks have been legally harassed in all sorts of ways; and just last week I detailed the persecution of filmmaker Laura Poitras for the crime of producing documentaries that reflect poorly on U.S. policy.
But American Muslims have borne the brunt of these assaults for a full decade now, and — more than a full decade after 9/11 — continue to bear them in increasingly oppressive ways. And it’s worthwhile, really necessary, to be reminded of the very personal ways that these actions harm the lives of innocent human beings. Blame undoubtedly lies first and foremost with the U.S. Government for perpetrating these attacks. But it lies as well with the American citizenry that — convinced that they will not be affected — permits and even cheers them.