18 January 2004

The New Inquisition

Common Sense
John Maxwell

THE Jamaican government is buying wholeheartedly into the United States' War on Terror.

The latest announcement that the Americans will be funding a new $135-million system to track foreign visitors is probably necessary because of the incompetence of our constabulary; the new Anti-Terrorism Act is not. The Anti-Terrorism Act is designed to cure democracy and Freedom, both, hitherto considered incurable.

On Wednesday in Los Angeles, the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council that the US government intended to make sweeping changes to mobilise the country for what appeared to be an unending War on Terror. According to Cheney, the US faced in al-Qaeda, an enemy "unlike any other that we have ever faced.[who are] plotting to kill on an ever larger scale including here in the United States."

This will justify a 21st century version of the Inquisition, in which all of us will have to undergo rigorous examinations into our faith in capitalism, Cheney/Bush style.

Cheney said weapons of mass destruction were a major priority, because "instead of losing thousands of lives, we might lose tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives as the result of a single attack, or a set of co-ordinated attacks". This no doubt explains the war on Iraq and the fact that the United States has all but abandoned its crusade against al-Qaeda in its home-base, Afghanistan.

The former US Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill, however, puts a somewhat different slant on things. He says that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was the number one priority of the new Bush Administration from Day One. O'Neill, quoted in a book, The Price of Loyalty, paints the Bush administration as a cynical cabal, obsessed with political power and ideolog to the exclusion of almost everything else. O'Neill paints Dick Cheney, his former friend and associate in two earlier Republican administrations, as a calculating manipulator of the president, part of a Praetorian Guard who protect Bush from serious engagement with the public interest.

Ignorance and Freedom

According to the old saying, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. The problem is that in much of the world, and particularly in the United States, the designated watchmen of the public interest are asleep at their posts.

The current campaign to find a Democratic Party candidate to oppose President Bush in November is a case in point. Until very recently, most of the Democratic candidates were afraid to criticise President Bush on almost any subject. It is only since it became clear that such criticism resonated with ordinary people that some candidates have found the guts to attack him on any of his multiple vulnerabilities. The reason is simple: they risked being labelled and libelled as unpatriotic. Only Governor Howard Dean and congressman Dennis Kucinich had the courage or temerity to beard the lion in his den. As a result, the climate is changing, but slowly.

It is obvious from the television networks that Bush and his advisers and supporters fear Howard Dean more than any other possible Democratic presidential candidate. The result is a carefully executed strategy to keep his message from reaching the people. Dean is criticised for being hot-headed, for being leftist and for all kinds of characteristics which would seem to disqualify him for the presidency were they true. His attitude is the issue, not his message.

It was instructive to watch Paula Zahn on CNN a few days ago, refusing to deal with what Howard Dean had actually said, preferring to quote a partial excerpt from a speech to make him seem an irresponsible gossip monger. It was also instructive, a day or so later, to watch as she prevented a lawyer friend of Michael Jackson's from speaking about the absolute worthlessness of the case against the entertainer, preferring to concentrate on whether Jackson was not damaging his case by responding publicly to his army of well-wishers, especially in view of his injured shoulder.

The whole point of the mainstream press in the US these days is to avoid the substance and to deal, in detail, with the shadow and its reflections. And Michael Jackson and other peripheral stories provide perfect cover for Bush/Cheney.

Duplicity and Deceit

It was revealed a few days ago, that Vice-President Cheney had gone on a hunting trip with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. No details of their discussions were made public, of course, but it is to be presumed that they carefully considered the proper way to skin an elk and the right sauces to serve with venison.

Meanwhile, the vice-president is deeply imbroiled in several cases before the Supreme Court, not the least of which is an attempt to get him to disgorge records of his Energy Task Force which he set up shortly after the Inauguration. It seems to me that a good guess as to why these documents are so secret is that they will reveal that the task force's answer to the American energy problem was a simple one: Take Iraq.
As O'Neill testifies, that was item number one on the Bush agenda. The question was how to find an excuse to embark on it. September 11 provided the fortuitous answer.

Cheney is involved in other legal matters, among them a criminal investigation by a French judge into bribery and corruption in a oil deal in Nigeria when the VP was head of Halliburton. And, of course, Halliburton is under criminal investigation for its sweet deal in Iraq, in which the company charged the US Army twice as much as another Pentagon agency paid for oil brought into Iraq by the same means used by Halliburton's suppliers.

As some of us were vainly protesting last year, there should be no blood shed for Iraqi oil. Next week in Britain, the report of the Hutton enquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly will probably shed some light on what really happened. We do know, however, that the British intelligence agency, MI6, was for years before the war, engaged in a public relations campaign to portray Iraq as a dangerous state, threatening world peace with its weapons of mass destruction.

This Way to The Egress!

It would appear that the Bush White House, unlike any other in history, is ruled by what used to be called, a "Press Agent". Before the invention of Public Relations, people who wanted to sell snake oil and other universal remedies employed press agents to get their names ballyhooed about. These press agents would invent all kinds of stunts and use all sorts of gimmicks to attract public attention so that the 'medicine man' had an attentive audience for his pitch. One lovely example of fairly harmless press agentry was PT Barnum's labelling the exit to his freak show, "This way to the Egress", to get his less literate customers out of his tent as fast as possible, so that he could pack more suckers in. It was Barnum who said "There's a sucker born every minute" and he appears to have some ardent acolytes in the Bush White House. Perhaps there are Weapons of Mass Destruction on Mars, which might explain the latest Bush initiative.

The United States has not only frightened the wits out of its own populace who are suffering from terror-alert-fatigue. It has frightened a number of foreign countries as well. Under the PATRIOT Act, the US has managed to curb an impressive array of civil liberties. And President Bush demonstrated this week, how determined he is to restrain others, when he went over the heads of Congress to appoint a racist, former KKK advocate as a Justice of a Federal Court of Appeals.

This continues the relentless campaign of the administration to ideologically skew the justice system in the United States as part of the campaign to undo and reverse a century of democratically ordained US public policy. Al Gore, the man who got more votes than Bush in the last Presidential election puts it this way:

"In almost every policy area, the Administration's consistent goal has been to eliminate any constraints on their exercise of raw power, whether by law, regulation, alliance or treaty - and in the process, they have in each case caused America to be seen by the other nations of the world as showing disdain for the international community.

"In each case they devise their policies with as much secrecy as possible and in close co-operation with the most powerful special interests that have a monetary stake in what happens. In each case the public interest is not only ignored but actively undermined. In each case they devote considerable attention to a clever strategy of deception that appears designed to prevent the American people from discerning what it is they are actually doing. Indeed, they often use Orwellian language to disguise their true purposes."

It seems that this tendency is what environmentalists, might call "cross-border pollution." Armed sky marshals are to be put on planes all over the world, databases will track all travellers and we will all end up in the electronic filing cabinets of some right-wing ideologue in some underground bunker somewhere.

TIME magazine's latest issue contains a wrenching story by one of its own reporter-interns. "Time reporter Aatish Taseer, a British citizen raised in India, experienced the new procedure for visitors to the US who require visas when he returned to New York City last week from a vacation in India and Pakistan."

In his account, Taseer reflects on the multiple characteristics he shares with other people - terrorists - which could be misinterpreted, his colour, his citizenship, his birthplace.

"It's unnerving to think that basic facts about my life - facts that belong to me - could, in others' hands have the power to land me in trouble."

Other journalists have landed in trouble for no other reason than they were journalists because, as watchmen of the public interest, they cannot be trusted by the US government to report its version of the facts. Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, a Pakistani who has worked for a number of American media, has vanished in Pakistan and it is suspected that he is being tortured somewhere.

As I've previously reported in this column, I got into trouble with the Americans a long time ago. In 1966, on my way to Germany on a trade union fellowship, I was separated from all the other Lufthansa passengers in Miami and put in a waiting room by myself. In 1991 exactly 25 years later, the US Embassy here told me that they had orders from Washington to deny me a visitor's visa on political grounds which they could not specify. This was while Gorbachev and Trevor Monroe were making regular visits to the US.

Because of these apprehensions, I have decided that I will not voluntarily travel again to the United States. Despite my age (70 next birthday) and the fact that my only sister is seriously ill in New York, I cannot take such a chance with my life or my liberty.

Incidentally, this is my 400th column for the Observer.


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