Civil liberties trampled by the tsunami of fear

Images of the devastation occurring in Japan in the wake of the cataclysmic Honshu earthquake are both mind-boggling – when looking at the enormous level of destruction taking place; and awe-inspiring – when looking at how well the Japanese people are able to cope with such a horrific event. It is a catastrophe of this magnitude that puts a society to a test in both its physical as well as its emotional state of preparedness.

As we identify with the pain being suffered by our brethren in Japan, we cannot help but feel a little jealousy in the US as we recall how a recent disaster, Katrina, was handled by our different levels of government: local, regional, state and federal; and the thought that such failure in civil defense might happen time and again, in community after community throughout this land. 

But as unprepared as our political leaders might keep us against natural disasters, homeland security in all its patriotic splendor and wide political support is making sure America is kept “safe” from acts of terror, at any cost. This homeland security, as much as we may look at it as a buffoonish expression of George W. Bush’s legacy to this nation, grew its roots well over a century before as the United States was emerging as a world power; and how it exercised its early target practice against a then-defunct power with few friends, Spain, in the Spanish-American War (1898), a precursor of yet another conflict of convenience, the Iraq War.

We look at the recent Peter King hearings in the House of Representatives, putting American Muslims’ loyalty to question, no matter how we phrase the proceedings, as a problem that needs to be aired. 

On September 11, 2001 we had our political cataclysm which was followed by creating a tsunami of fear, instilled by a government hell-bent in using this event to rationalize before the international community any behavior it saw fit; and we can truthfully say that that tsunami has been kept active, and is being kept active, ever since.

Whether or not there is radicalization within the American Muslim community, it is an issue that should be addressed by the executive branch of government in a discreet fashion, and always under the scrutiny of the judicial branch. That is, assuming that such a problem is deemed to exist, rationally and not just politically. Allowing our legislative branch, Congress, to conduct public hearings on such sensitive matter is no better than yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre. 

Presumably, Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is holding the hearings to demonstrate that the Muslim community is not cooperating with the different law enforcement agencies, a claim for which there was no evidentiary support presented by witnesses this past week. Nonetheless, rest assured that this political stage will be kept alive with non-stop performances that little by little, with the support of the mainstream media, will have a way of influencing the population into a vilification of Muslims in general and American Muslims in particular. 

Sadly, many of our politicians get much political mileage from hate. And that’s where the radical – and not so radical – Right exploits the situation trying to show homegrown terror as an overwhelmingly Islamic phenomenon; that it is not only a violent jihad we should be fighting, but a cultural jihad as well; and of our insufficient criticality of what they term as un-American Islamism. 

This King’s hearing has been compared by many to the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 when communism was evil, and dissenters in thought to the mainstream were willy-nilly tabbed as communists by Senator McCarthy during the period 1950-4. His defamation backfired, however, and he was censured by the Senate that same year. I personally don’t quite see a parallel. But where I do find a parallel, however, is in the examples of loss of civil liberties that can be found in America of 1917-8 as President Wilson took this nation into war.

In order to mobilize American society, the government felt compelled to enact legislation (Espionage Act; Sedition Act; Trading-with-the-Enemy Act) and enforce it in such a way that you were made a criminal not just for what you did but for what you thought. Even the Supreme Court unanimously consented to that idea, and Congress was allowed to regulate speech, something asserted as a good thing by best-known American jurist, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (Schenk vs. United States), when the country faces “a clear and present danger.”

Although much of a positive nature has happened since then – let’s call it devolution of our constitutional rights – the old theme of “a clear and present danger” is rationalized at times to take our civil liberties away, by Democrats as well as by Republicans… you need not look further than The Patriot Act.

Unfortunately, many American politicians will continue to keep in motion the tsunami of fear which has been going on for a decade; this time at the expense of an American Muslim population in which they see a clear and present danger.