America’s “Talibanization”?

When President Bush launched the bombing attacks on Afghanistan, he termed the war against terrorism as “upholding and defending American values.” These “American values” were broadly defined as justice, freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. Conversely, he criticized the Taliban for their “intolerance, bigotry, absence of human rights, and lack of any democratic norms promoting the rule of law.”

However, in the past few weeks, with the Taliban on the run, it seems that some of the recent changes altering the character of the American state, particularly attitudes toward civil liberties and human rights, may be more inspired by a Taliban-like mindset than two centuries of tradition rooted in the American Revolution. A series of changes in U.S. laws have given unprecedented powers to the American President and law-enforcing institutions to violate constitutional rights and established legal traditions, with a Clinton Cabinet official, Robert Reich, expressing alarm that “we can find ourselves in a police state step by step” since “the President is by emergency decree getting rid of rights that we assumed that anyone within our borders legally would have.”

Recent actions that have caused understandable concern:

  • Some 1182 persons living in the U.S., almost entirely Muslim, continue to be detained without charges and without being told what their crime is since the September 11 attacks;
  • Under the USA Patriot Act, suspects can be indefinitely detained without charges for up to 6 months, with police and the FBI given wide-ranging powers to conduct searches of homes and offices, intrude into the privacy of financial transactions, and intercept phone, mail, and Internet communications;
  • Some 5,000 young men, between ages 18-33, who legitimately entered the U.S. from Muslim countries after January 2000 will be questioned by the FBI for possible connections with the terrorists who hijacked the 4 planes on September 11, thereby spreading alarm and fear since they could treated as suspects or even potential terrorists;
  • To top it all, on November 13, the day Kabul fell, President Bush, declaring an “extraordinary emergency,” decreed the establishment of special military tribunals to try non-Americans within the U.S. and overseas who allegedly are involved in committing acts of terrorism. These handpicked military courts, operating in secrecy and dispensing with constitutional rights, can impose a death sentence, without even the right of appeal.

The New York Times, on November 16, editorially criticized President Bush that with “the flick of a pen” he has “essentially discarded the rulebook of American justice painstakingly assembled over the course of more than two centuries … (with) a crude and unaccountable system that any dictator would admire.” Denouncing these proposed tribunals as “military kangaroo courts,” America’s premier conservative columnist, William Safire, otherwise a staunch Republican supporter, wrote on November 15: “non-citizens face an executive that is now investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury, and jailer or executioner.”

In the U.S., this is the third occasion in the past 60 years that such an atmosphere exists where constitutional guarantees and human rights can be thrown aside ostensibly for a higher cause. In 1941, after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the American entry into World War II, American citizens of Japanese origin were hauled up, arrested, and detained in special concentration camps set up for the purpose–on mere suspicion that these American citizens might be helpful to the enemy.

Another shameful chapter in contemporary American history was during the 1950s when McCarthyism was at its height; harassing, hounding, and hunting alleged Communists within the media, Hollywood, and the government. That witch-hunt destroyed careers and damaged the credibility of America’s judicial system that was unable to protect law-abiding American citizens from the bigotry of rightwing opportunists. Just as the cold war provided a conducive political ambience for McCarthyism to play on the fears of the American people regarding the threat from Communism, similarly the war against terrorism and the threat from al Qaeda are providing a pretext to take actions contrary to the spirit of U.S. laws and the Constitution. Actually, what is happening now is an action replay of those unfortunate events in American history, albeit on a larger and more dangerous scale, with almost unlimited powers given to the President and police to pursue those deemed as threats to national security.

What is surprising is not that this could happen in a country that can take justifiable pride in being a repository of freedom, but that there is so little visible opposition to this attempt to take police-state like powers that can and are being used in a whimsical, arbitrary, and autocratic manner. September 11 was an unprecedented crime, but the answer does not lie in making a whole community hostage to the campaign against terrorism or changing America’s democratic character.

Some feeble voices of resistance are emerging from American politicians to this emerging rule by diktat. For instance, on November 14, the Chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, while questioning whether the decree regarding military courts “fits under our Constitution and legal system,” significantly added his concern over “the international implications of the President’s Order, which sends a message to the world that it is acceptable to hold secret trials and summary executions, without the possibility of judicial review.”

Earlier, in another U-turn regarding freedoms, the United States had formally asked the Emir of Qatar on October 3 to “rein in” Al Jazeerah, the Arab World’s only independent media outlet, because its coverage of the war was at variance with American policy. In an ironic role reversal, the U.S. was complaining to a Third World ruler, in effect, urging him to curtail press freedom. In its annual report on human rights last year, the State Department had lauded Al Jazeerah for its “independent coverage.”

Three adverse consequences will flow from these actions. First, such powers assumed by the Bush administration in the name of combating terrorism not only violate universally accepted standards of fundamental rights, but they damage America’s image as a defender of freedom and human rights.

Second, these actions are tantamount to altering the democratic character of the American state. What kind of country will emerge from this Talibanization of the United States, where millions of citizens (at least the 7 million Muslims, for starters) would be living in constant fear of the midnight knock that can come any time? Fear and paranoia would extend to the citizenry at large, creating an almost permanent state of siege within the U.S.

Finally, the timing of these actions is a recipe for disaster for the American relationship with the Muslim World, given the perception of the actions as Muslim-specific. Given the war in Afghanistan, many Muslims, in the words of Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammed, would be led to believe that “it is beginning to look more and more like a war against Muslims.”