December 15th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

Editorial: The Advent of Christmas

TESTIMONIAL: News Weekly - a variety of ideas and points of view

Canberra Observed: After the election: new look for both sides

BIOETHICS: There is no scientific need to clone embryos

Adult stem cell breakthrough

National Day of Action over banks' job cuts

Straws in the Wind: Insiders, celebrities and Tic-Tac men

Western Australia: Gallop's drug 'compromise'

Media: Parliamentary press gallery poll predictions

Letter: Roots of terror

Letter: History repeats?

Letter: Reinvention

Letter: Patrol boats

Letter: Doing what's right - Mary Whitehouse CBE

United States: Torture, assassination and the Death of God

Comment: Economic policy: how they got it wrong

TRADE: After Qatar: Australia’s limited options

BOOKS: 'Gallipoli', by Les Carlyon

BOOKS: 'Language and the Internet', by David Crystal

Books promotion page

United States: Torture, assassination and the Death of God

by Bob Browning

News Weekly, December 15, 2001

Following the terrorist atrocities on September 11, some previously unmentionable topics are being discussed openly. Bob Browning explains.

One in three Americans would back official torture of suspect terrorists, according to a post-September 11 survey. One in four think the use of nuclear weapons against states promoting and harbouring terrorists would be justified in certain circumstances. One in ten think chemical or biological weapons would also be justified in some circumstances (CSM/TIP survey, Christian Science Monitor, November 16, 2001).

Far from taking the lead in trying to moderate such public reactions, government and media have helped encourage them.

The CSM/TIPP survey followed an executive order by President Bush removing the 27-year US ban on assassinations. This gave US intelligence agents "double O" licences to hunt down and kill suspect terrorists and active associates. Executive orders are made without reference to the elected legislature, the US Congress.

Three out of five Americans now support assassinations to help win the war against terrorism.

By contrast, after President Ford issued his 1976 executive order banning any further US involvement in assassinations, a Gallup poll reported 82 percent of Americans saying they could never support political assassinations.

As for the media, the normally moderate Newsweek columnist, Jonathan Alter, for example, wrote (November 7, 2001): "In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to ... torture."

CNN commentator Tucker Carlson told viewers: "Torture is bad. [But] keep in mind, some things are worse. And under certain circumstances, it may be the lesser of two evils. Because some evils are pretty evil" (Washington Post, November 10, 2001).

Prior to the CSM/TIPP survey, President Bush also authorised military tribunals to try non-US citizens suspected of terrorism or harbouring terrorists. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is now able to appoint judges to expedite the trial of resident but foreign suspects. Appointees can conduct trials without the need of juries and without being delayed by appeals to any higher court. German saboteurs were tried and executed through such courts during World War II.

Bush’s new anti-terrorist tribunal judges will be free of other civil liberty restraints integral to the American criminal justice system. The military tribunals will not have to exclude hearsay evidence or evidence gathered without a warrant.

Bush has suspended further aspects of the US Bill of Rights to allow the FBI in certain circumstances to eavesdrop on client-lawyer conversations - for example, where it can be claimed that a suspect terrorist could pass information or instructions via the lawyer to a terrorist network. Baader Meinhoff terrorists did so in Germany during the period of Red Army-style terrorism during the Cold War.

Following September 11, the FBI has detained over 1,150 people in the US so far, mostly Muslims. Most have been held without charge for a prolonged period of detention. All but a dozen of the 600 or so still in custody are being held on immigration breaches or minor criminal charges unrelated to terrorism. Some of those released were freed on condition they leave the country. Others were simply let go, never fully understanding what happened to them.

No terrorism charges have been laid. None of the terrorist suspects has appeared before a court other than for a preliminary detention hearing. Many of the arrests occurred after national alerts and official warnings of possible new threats to US bridges, tunnels and landmark buildings. Tips poured in from a disturbed public, and police intercepted a variety of people taking photographs or videotapes. Questioning resulted in a number of visa and petty criminal charges being laid.

The few actual terrorist suspects in custody have refused to co-operate, frustrating FBI efforts to glean counter-terrorist intelligence. With the US Attorney-General John Ashcroft coming under increasing pressure to produce results, the FBI has begun canvassing the use of "truth drugs", such as sodium pentothal, to extract information from suspect detainees. Others have gone further, arguing for torture to be used in interrogations.

Along with Bush’s order for military tribunals came Ashcroft’s Justice Department’s announcement that it plans to question some 5,000 US resident non-citizens. They are predominantly Middle Eastern Muslims who have entered the US legally over the past two years. Ashcroft argues that sweeping interrogations may achieve the desired intelligence breakthrough regarding Al-Qaeda terrorist activities in the US.

The contrast between the progress of the investigation and Attorney-General Ashcroft’s repeated claims that these ethnic profile-style detentions are having "a profound impact on interrupting terrorist activity in the US" has led to charges that the Administration - itself under stress - is looking for ways to reassure an anxious public that it is responding effectively to the terrorist threat.

But some fear that the Administration is over-reaching itself in seeking such strong powers and greater secrecy through executive orders without recourse to Congress, justifying its actions by claiming the nation is at war.

Others note that much of the public anxiety results from the anthrax attack through the mail system, which may prove to be a home-grown anti-government criminal act of the Unibomber or McVeigh sort, rather than a Muslim terrorist threat.

Trust your government

Criticism of the Bush Administration’s anti-terrorist policies has been subdued in America. One of the few in the mainstream media to speak out so far has been William Safire.

Safire is a leading columnist normally noted for his strong support of US and Israeli hardline policies in the Middle East. He has accused the Bush Administration of bringing in a "dismaying departure from due process", without any congressional declaration. He decries Bush’s use of executive orders to create "Star Chamber tribunals" and falsely justify them as merely implementations of the lawful Uniform Code of Military Justice (New York Times, November 26, 2001):

"Military attorneys are silently seething because they know that to be untrue. The Uniform Code of Military Justice demands a public trial, proof beyond reasonable doubt, an accused’s voice in the selection of juries and right to choose counsel, unanimity in death sentencing, and above all appellate review by civilians confirmed by the Senate.

"Not one of those fundamental rights can be found in Bush’s military order setting up kangaroo courts for people he designates before ‘trial’ to be terrorists. Bush’s fiat turns back the clock on all advances in military justice, through three wars, in the past half-century...

"His advisers assured him that a fearful majority would cheer his assumption of dictatorial power to ignore our courts. They failed to warn him, however, that his denial of traditional American human rights to non-citizens would backfire and in practice actually weaken the war on terror."

Safire claims that "the tiny minority of editorialists on left and right who have dared voice constitutional, moral and practical objections to some of the measures being used in the war against terrorism" were being "derided as professional hysterics akin to antebellum Southern belles suffering the vapours, a buncha weepy sissies... The possibility of being accused, however, of showing insufficient outrage at those suspected of a connection to terrorists shuts up most politicians. And a need to display patriotic fervour turns Bush’s liberal critics into exemplars of even-handedism. Careers can be wrecked by taking an unpopular stand."

Those trying to suppress debate in a time of "war", who demand unquestioning support of the US Government as a patriotic duty - even in Australia! - would do well to remember the warning of America’s founding fathers: The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

The founding fathers did not think it inconceivable that, under stress, the United States could regress into undesirable propensities. McCarthyism and Jim Crow segregation are but two of the episodes of later American history that testify to the founding fathers’ perceptive understanding of the failings as well as the strengths and aspirations of human nature.

Since the Enlightenment, and certainly since the French Revolution, many Christian and other thinkers have feared the rise of utilitarian rationalism and secularism. They expected the new "isms" to erode the values underpinning the best aspirations and achievements of Western Civilisation.

In particular, they feared the erosion of what they saw as the centre piece value, respect for human life. They feared that value concepts like the sacredness of life, the dignity of the individual, and human rights would be replaced by utilitarian concepts once the religious foundations of human worth and meaning were marginalised.

When people come to be thought of as "human resources", they can be utilised rationally for "higher" purposes. Like any other resource they become valued for their usefulness and not for themselves. People become exploitable - and expendable - for the glorification of a nation and its power-wielding elites, the spread of an ideology, or the growth of an economy. The Pope, for example, constantly feels the need to remind the world that the economy exists for man, not man for the economy.

In the modern age, Western religious and conservative sociologists have been challenged by the secular maginalisation of religious belief and influence that, post-Nietzsche, is sometimes referred to as the "death of God".

Many have concentrated their concern on issues that indicate to them a decline in the institutionalised importance of human life. These issues range from genocide, killing fields, the gulags, concentration camps, and the reappearance of slave labour, to abortion, euthanasia and some forms of commercial genetic research and development.

Given the stress that global terrorism, prepared to use weapons of mass destruction, is now adding to societies and their deepest value systems, social thinkers may need to add newer issues to their list of concerns. These include officially-sanctioned torture and assassination - not to mention the politically opportunistic denigration of desperate refugees, under the cover of legitimate border control. Many refugees are themselves the victims of terrorism and counter-terrorism.

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