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Let's take away your freedom

by Dianne Donovan 

Chicago Tribune, 27 November 2001 

Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG),  globalresearch.ca,  4 December 2001

At least we know what we're fighting for in this shadow war against terrorism. Imagine living in a country where government agents can break into your home at any time, question you and haul you away from family and friends, deny you the right to a private consultation with a lawyer and then secretly put you on trial and sentence you to prison, perhaps for the rest of your life.

Turns out you don't have to imagine it at all; you're already there. Welcome to the U.S.A. of 2001, even though it sounds more like the Peru of Lori Berenson. She's the New York woman who was accused of revolutionary activity in Peru and sentenced to life without parole in a particularly nasty captivity by a secret military tribunal complete with judges in hoods. Berenson was at worst a criminal terrorist and at best an overzealous dupe. But I always thought she deserved a fair and public trial. So did the United States government, which helped pressure Peruvian officials to retry her publicly in civilian court (where her sentence was reduced to 20 years), as befits a civilized country.

Now, in this post-Sept. 11 world, Lori Berenson is a human lesson plan for U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft to model his anti-terrorist American justice system after. And whether Berenson is guilty or innocent matters not a jot, what matters is that suddenly it is legal in the U.S. to ape the heavy-handed excuse for "justice" that Americans have long considered abhorrent in non-democratic nations.

Under new laws passed by Congress, anyone accused of being a terrorist, or suspected of being a terrorist, can be detained by the government without formal charges, and those who are ultimately tried may be done so in secret tribunals separate from the American court system. They will not be allowed access to our federal judiciary system, and we aren't to worry our little heads about their fate. Poof, they're gone!

True, these are scary times But it is in times like these that a democracy shows its true mettle--not by abandoning its core principles but by tenaciously upholding them. President Bush can have Russian President Vladimir Putin over for barbecue and photo-ops at the ranch. But Bush had better be careful while he's doing all this squintin' and smilin' that he isn't turning the country over to the most pernicious elements in the Republican Party who were wondering until Sept. 11 what they were going to do except uphold that pesky Constitution and shake off the prairie dogs out in Crawford, Texas.

You remember the Republican Party? The party of small government, state's rights and individual freedom? I'm having a hard time matching up those core beliefs with our new brand of frontier justice. First Lady Laura Bush made a nice speech on the radio recently about women and human rights and Afghanistan. Maybe her next gig will be a defense of Arab women in this country who have been detained for no reason other than their ethnicity, or women whose husbands have been incarcerated without being charged, because they are Egyptian. Don't count on it, though.

Ashcroft is proud of his rallying cry, "The Constitution does not apply to terrorists." It played big in September. I expect it will play big for some time to come, but it's a frightening boast that blurs the lines between the U.S. and, say, Afghanistan. Because it assumes that he knows who the terrorists are before they are tried. Does that make you feel safer? Not me. You see, I gave money once at a bar called the Plough and the Stars in Boston. In hindsight, I'm sure it went right to the IRA, a terrorist organization. So I'm a little worried.

What do we as Americans say then? Should we ask what this law would have meant for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesting college students in the late 1960s? Should we say arrest whom you must, as long as it isn't me? Or my child? Should we say arrest whom you must but leave my friends alone? How about, do not destroy our freedom to save it?

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Copyright 2001, Chicago Tribune

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