Friday, June 12, 2009

Domestic terrorism

Just a little over three weeks ago, former Vice-President Dick Cheney and President Barack Obama gave "dueling" speeches on national security, terrorism and American compliance (or lack thereof, in Cheney's case) with the rule of law, both at home and abroad. Obama spent most of his speech attempting to persuade his supporters and critics that he would not back down from "foreign" terrorist threats; but neither would he "compromise" what he called "American values," which, in Obama-speak, can loosely be described as a hybrid between John F. Kennedy cold warrior toughness with a baby-boomer sensitivity to human rights, the rule of law and a belief that the United States cannot promote democracy if it stoops to the level of its enemies. The latter point is particularly important. A nation that wants to promote liberal democratic principles, which include not only a commitment to free and fair elections but an equal commitment to civil rights and liberties, must lead by deed as well as word. To emphasize the importantance of this latter commitment, Obama gave his speech at the National Archives, which houses the original Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

About a mile or so a mile away, Cheney gave a speech before a group of like-minded well-wishers at the American Enterprise Institute, an organization charitably described by the mainstream media as a "conservative think-tank." Twenty years in Washington has left me with a decidedly different impression of AEI. Not much thinking goes on over there. Rather, AEI functions as a disapora for right-wing propagandists killing time between Republican administrations. Lots of "serious" talk about the Framers' original intent, why free markets cure all problems, including bathroom mildew and funny car noises and, naturally, why war, or, at minimum, a "military response," is the solution to any sort of bad behavior by any country that either doesn't like us (Iran, North Korea, Canada) or network of "bad guys" that qualifies as a terrorist organization (al-Qaeda, SPECTRE, Nancy Pelosi-Barney Frank-Harry Reid). Since the November 2008 presidential election, the former vice-president, having spent a good deal of his two terms accusing anyone who didn't agree with him or the Bush administration of "treason" or indifference to "terrorism," has been touring the right-wing media or appearing before right-wing audiences like AEI to criticize the Obama administration's approach to national security, which, sadly, appears to sympathize far too much with the "terrorists" by insufficiently torturing them and suggesting that the United States should treat the world's Muslims with respect rather than as a 1.8 billion person sleeper cell.

I didn't read the full transcript of Cheney's speech until just recently. Dishonest, accusatory, replete with double-talk and shamelessly self-congratulatory, Cheney's remarks are so appalling on so many different levels that only what the brilliant political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow calls the "Rightwingoverse" can possibly ascribe any seriousness to them. But one passage caught my eye, perhaps because I had read Cheney's speech so closely in conjunction with the most recent terrorist attack perpetrated on American soil -- the murder of a Holocaust Mueseum security guard by an 88 year-old white Christian American-born terrorist. I'll get to that in a minute. But first, read Cheney's remarks:

To put things in perspective, suppose that on the evening of 9/11, President Bush and I had promised that for as long as we held office – which was to be another 2,689 days – there would never be another terrorist attack inside this country. Talk about hubris – it would have seemed a rash and irresponsible thing to say. People would have doubted that we even understood the enormity of what had just happened. Everyone had a very bad feeling about all of this, and felt certain that the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and Shanksvillewere only the beginning of the violence.

Of course, we made no such promise. Instead, we promised an all-out effort to protect this country. We said we would marshal all elements of our nation’s power to fight this war and to win it. We said we would never forget what had happened on 9/11, even if the day came when many others did forget. We spoke of a war that would “include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success.” We followed through on all of this, and we stayed
true to our word.To the very end of our administration, we kept al-Qaeda terrorists
busy with other problems. We focused on getting their secrets, instead of sharing ours with them. And on our watch, they never hit this country again. After the most lethal and devastating terrorist attack ever, seven and a half years without a repeat is not a record to be rebuked and scorned, much less criminalized. It is a record to be continued until the danger has passed. (Italics mine)

Along the way there were some hard calls. No decision of national security was ever made lightly, and certainly never made in haste. As in all warfare, there have been costs – none higher than the sacrifices of those killed and wounded in our country’s service. And even the most decisive victories can never take away the sorrow of losing so many of our own – all those innocent victims of 9/11, and the heroic souls who died trying to save them. (Italics mine)

For all that we’ve lost in this conflict, the United States has never lost its moral bearings. And when the moral reckoning turns to the men known as high-value terrorists, I can assure you they were neither innocent nor victims. As for those who asked them questions and got answers: they did the right thing, they made our country safer, and a lot of Americans are alive today because of them.

Less than two weeks after September 11th, 2001, Bruce Ivins, a research scientist at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland, which is located about 45 minutes north and west from the White House and about 20 minutes south from the presidential retreat, Camp David, began mailing anthrax to news outlets in New York and elected officials in Washington. By October 16th, the first victim to come into contact with an anthrax mailing died. By the time Ivins's terror campaign came to a close, six people died and dozens more were sickened. Naturally, the Bush administration assumed that the anthrax terrorist was somehow affiliated with al-Qaeda, and Cheney led the charge: "I think the only responsible thing for us to do is proceed on the basis that it could be linked [to the September 11th attacks]," adding that the United States had ample evidence that bin Laden's followers were trained in how to spread biological and chemical weapons.

Missed that one by a mile, didn't he? Bruce Ivins sat, almost literally, in the president's backyard, and the Bush administration couldn't figure out where and how a terrorist attack launched within two weeks of September 11th originated or who did it. The Department of Justice finally tracked the attacks to Ivins, who committed suicide in late July 2008 after he learned that the FBI was about to arrest him for the anthrax attacks. For four years, the FBI pursued another research scientist named Stephen Hatfill, who was exonerated in August 2008 and awarded a settlement of almost $5 million for the damage done to his reputation and career as a result of government's wrongful prosecution.

I remember well the immediate period after the first anthrax letter turned up in NBC's New York offices. Work-study students in our office were opening mail with sanitary gloves and surgeon's masks, as if that would have prevented anyone from getting sick or dying. Families in my neighborhood sealed their mail slots and left letters for postal carriers asking them to leave the mail in a cardboard box on the front steps. My children's public school no longer accepted any mail from "unofficial" sources. And the list goes on and on and on. Ivins's planned, thought-out and carefully calibrated decision to attack innocent citizens by mailing deadly germs in an envelope brought the Bush administration's repeated warnings that al-Qaeda would use "weapons of mass destruction" to kill Americans to life. But once the administration lost interest in pursuing the source of the anthrax terror attacks, largely because it couldn't pinpoint it, you ceased to hear the word "terrorism" associated with anthrax. An occasional article might refer to Ivins's anthrax mailings as an "act of bioterrorism." Since Ivins did not have an "al"- prefix attached to his name or hail from a Muslim country, he was more often classified as just good old-fashioned homegrown American nutcase.

* * * * * * * * * *

During the eight years of the Bush administration, from January 20th, 2001 to January 20th, 2009, approximately 105,000 Americans were murdered by someone wielding a firearm. By any definition, the decision of one person to kill another person is an act of terror. Let's go further and say that any person who rapes, robs, sexually assaults, sexually abuses or beats to near death another person commits an act of terrorism. Over the past twenty years or so, many state legislatures and even Congress have defined some of these acts as "hate crimes." Hate crime legislation generally has a two-fold purpose: (1) to gather information on "targeted" crimes, i.e., those motivated by "animus" on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, sex, etc. so that law enforcement agencies can better locate and police these crimes and (2) to permit government authorities to ask for harsher sentences for crimes classified as "hate crimes."

The Bush administration position on "hate crimes" legislation? It opposed every such bill submitted to Congress, including the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which would have authorized the federal government to pursue harsher penalties against the perpetrators of anti-gay violence.

On guns, the Bush administration continued the long-standing Republican tradition of supporting the right of Americans to arm themselves to the teeth. But Dick Cheney went an additional step that no other administration official, Republican or Democratic, had ever taken on guns: that the right to own a gun was guaranteed by the Second Amendment. In 2008, when the Supreme Court declared D.C.'s handgun control law unconstitutional on Second Amendment grounds, the Bush administration argued to strike the law down, but stopped short of saying that the Second Amendment guaranteed a right to own a weapon. Cheney was unhappy with the administration's more nuanced position, as reflected in Solicitor General Paul Clement's brief, so he signed on to brief submitted by over 300 members of Congress asking the Court to declare the D.C. law unconstitutional per se.

Indifference to the approximately 13,000 murders that take place in the United States every year is doing everything within his power to prevent terrorism? Or is American murdering another American not an act of terror?

* * * * * * * * * *

Think about that one for a minute. The vice-president of the United States freelances a legal position beyond the legal argument that his boss's Justice Department is taking before the Supreme Court. I looked to see if there was any precedent for that. There isn't.

* * * * * * * * * *

In late May, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, a 24 year-old man from Little Rock, Arkansas, once known as Carlos Bledsoe, walked into a local armed forces recruiting center and started shooting at soldiers in front of the building. Authorities determined that Muhammad had "political and religious motives" to kill personnel working at the center. He is being tried for first-degree murder and 15 counts of engaging in a terrorist act.

On May 31st, Scott Roeder walked into a Wichita church and shot Dr. George Tiller, a local physician who, until then, performed late-term abortions. Roeder's thought out, religiously and politically motivated decision to kill a civilian doctor was not the first time that someone opposed to legal abortion had taken a shot at a doctor who performed abortions. Since 1989, there have been 23 attempted murders or murders of persons who work at abortion clinics -- 24, if you include Roeder's murder of Tiller -- and thousands of attempted bombings, assaults, break-ins, acts of vandalism, anthrax hoaxes (which soared, by the way, after Ivins lanched his anthrax terror attacks through the mail). Not a single person charged in any of these crimes has been charged with commiting an "act of terror." That includes Roeder, who is being charged with first-degree murder and aggravated assault.

* * * * * * * * * *
Just to see what would turn up, I googled (that is a verb now, right?) "shooting day care center united states."  On the first three pages, I found shootings, some lethal, that had taken place at day care centers in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, a small town in Michigan, a town I had never heard of in North Carolina, a town in Alabama, another town in Texas and . . . and . . . more shooting in more cities and towns across the United States. I was going to google "shootings public schools United States" to see how often the Columbine scenario has played out across the country since that awful day in April 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold slaughtered 13 teachers and classmates and then killed themselves in an act of carnage that horrified and shocked the country. Eight years later, Cho Seung-Hui, a Virginia Tech undergraduate, turned his guns on 33 teachers and students before killing himself.  Neither massacre was described as a terrorist attack or an "act of terror." They were alternately described as "mass murders" and "mass shootings," which they certainly were.  But had the shooters been individuals of Arab surnames or self-identified with some "terrorist" group or cell, these events no doubt would have been labeled as "acts of terror." Since they weren't, they get demoted to "mass shootings" that "horrify and shock" the country, even though killing sprees like these have a long and ignoble history in the United States.

"American exceptionalism" is one of those manufactured myths that has a strong hold on the social and political culture of the United States.  "Exceptionalists" believe that the United States is somehow better than any other country at pretty much everything, with the exception of maybe soccer, ice hockey and designing and manufacturing cars, for no other reason than Americans say so.  The professed basis for American exceptionalism is our historic commitment to liberal democratic institutions, the protection of individual rights and the absence of formal constraints on economic and social mobility. The truth is much more complex and often not very pretty.  This is a topic deserving of its own post, and that day may well soon come.  For now, though, Americans can rest assured that their country stands at the top of the mountain in one place for all the world to see: the United States is by far . . . by far  .  . . the most violent democratic nation in the world.  For sheer volume, no other nation comes close to the annual rate of approximately 12,500 murders per year that we do. But there's more --  Americans kill each other at a higher rate per capita than in any other country in the world.

Exceptional, eh?

* * * * * * * * * *

So let the deep-thinkers of AEI nod their heads as the former vice-president huffs and puffs about his "success" in making the country safe from terrorism. Nod away, boys (and they are mostly boys, offset by the occasional female scholar who warns against the evils of feminism, affirmative action, Hollywood and judicial activism while extolling the virtues of the free market from a perch funded by institutional donors and wealthy benefactors and thus largely insulated from those very same forces), as you're about the only people left who still believe that the Bush administration did anything positive during the eight years it unleashed one disastrous policy after another on the country. Let Dick Cheney take all the credit he wants for "preventing" people with Arab surnames or Islamic sympathies from entering the United States to kill innocent Americans.  The ownership of language is a privilege that accords with political power.  Now that the Bush administration is just an unfortunate memory, albeit one that has and will continue to have terrible consequences, perhaps we can now disengage the word "terror" from the convenient and stilted definition that the Cheneys of the world (and their enablers in the mainstream media) gave it and recognize the word for what it really means and the broad range of horrific, violent acts right here at home to which it equally applies.

No comments: