The Bush administration used the tragedy of September 11, 2001, to push forward an agenda that had been long in preparation. Most of the repressive provisions of the USA/Patriot Act had been broached before, with some dating back to the Nixon administration.
But with Sept. 11 the administration was able to create a national mood of anger and depression in which the American people could be persuaded to accept action, including curbs on the Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and association, and due process, restrictions that would have been indignantly denounced in other days. This made it possible to ram measures like the USA/Patriot Act through in an atmosphere of secrecy and without congressional debate and, to date, a number of repressive executive orders.
Soon, a year will have passed since those tragic events and the question can be asked: Where do we stand in regaining ground lost to the anti-democratic agenda of the Bush-Cheney-Ashcroft team?
In my opinion, there are signs that the tide is beginning to turn – despite Bush’s still-high approval ratings, public figures and a section of the mass media are beginning to find their voices and express objections and protests, sometimes cautiously, at other times in forthright and, even, courageous terms.
There are growing signs that the public is dubious about the possibility of the meter reader or TV repairman spying on them, and rejects Ashcroft’s Terrorism Information and Prevention System (Operation TIPS) program. Both the Post Office and the Postal Workers’ Union have announced that they will have nothing to do with any program that makes snoops and stool pigeons out of workers who deliver the mail.
With a few notable exceptions, the post-Sept. 11 attack on journalists and academics who expressed doubts about government policy has abated considerably. I know that in my own college courses, I have been able to talk about all of these things – war policy, targeting of Arabs and Muslims, and internal repression – without any flak whatsoever.
Important public figures and major organizations are also beginning to be more vocal in their criticisms of the Bush administration’s policies.
Organized labor is stirring and beginning to react with increasing anger and outspokenness at Bush’s effort to deny union representation to the 170,000 employees of the Department of Homeland Security. Union leaders and activists are challenging his implications that a government employee, who is also a union member, is somehow in cahoots with Osama bin Laden. And unions across the country have expressed outrage and organized demonstrations denouncing Bush’s threat to use force to break any strike or job action by West Coast longshore workers.
Virtually every major leader of the African-American people has denounced the administration’s policies on repression, with many comparing the USA/Patriot Act with J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program, which targeted African-American civil rights leadership as well as members of the Communist Party.
The tide of pubic opinion is also turning in the Latino and immigrant communities. Before Sept. 11, two of the most important issues affecting these constituencies were the struggles for the legalization of undocumented immigrants and ending the U.S. Navy’s bombing of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques – both muted in the aftermath of Sept. 11. But these battles are picking up steam again: The Service Employees International Union is going to deliver a million postcards calling for legalization to the government in early October, while marches, protests and demonstrations are the order of the day in immigrant communities once again. And the Navy has resumed bombing of Vieques, a development certain to lead to renewed protest. Although these developments may not be directly associated with Ashcroft’s repression policies, they send a message that people are overcoming their fear and are not going to surrender their rights of free speech and association without a struggle.
I do not wish to seem overly optimistic. There is still a lot of fear and even more confusion and misinformation among the body politic. If the United States attacks Iraq, there will be a tendency to rally ’round the flag in times of war. And another terrorist attack could set the struggle back disastrously.
But the fact that opinion leaders who ducked for cover a year ago are now willing to speak out makes it possible that grassroots public opinion will be turned around also. Our efforts can have a lot to do with the turnaround and we are helped by the administration’s heavy-handed mistakes. So let’s redouble those efforts.
Emile Schepers is the Program Director of the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights. He can be reached at email@example.com