What About Our Safety?

by Toby O'Ryan

Revolutionary Worker #1206, July 6, 2003, posted at rwor.org

I'm on the subway. A 30-ish Black man wearing a green bandana says he's worried when he sees soldiers with automatic weapons patrolling the streets. He wonders aloud "if we're on a slippery slope to fascism." An older, nicely dressed white woman says "but 9/11 changed everything-- we need to be safe against terrorism." I get a feeling that the same basic conversation is going on, in different ways, all over America.

And while we talk, the government seizes over a thousand immigrants and holds them without access to lawyers or family for months, and secretly deports many of them. Some are beaten and held in solitary for months; one man dies in custody. They are all suspects in 9/11, we are told--though none are ever charged with that. Then the government forces tens of thousands more immigrants to report for "registration"--and now threatens to deport one of seven who showed up. Thus do entire groups of people lose their rights to due process and even their freedom simply because of the country they come from or the religion they profess...but it's all for our safety against terrorism.

Then the federal and state governments pass new laws that drastically expand their power to tap people's phones and secretly break into and search people's houses. Attorney General Ashcroft proclaims the right of the government to secretly infiltrate political meetings or even religious services, without any probable cause to suspect criminal activity. Police departments in different cities either deny permits to antiwar marches, or videotape everyone attending, or make wholesale arrests of people engaged in lawful activity, or beat and even use rubber bullets against protesters. They compile dossiers on demonstrators. Thus are people who dare to disagree with the government deprived of their privacy, their political rights and even their freedom...but it's all, no doubt, for our safety against terrorism.

Then it leaks out that the Pentagon has set up a program called Total Information Awareness to delve into every detail of everyone's life--from health records to travel to job or school history right down to their daily purchases. Government officials all the way up to Bush himself call on all citizens to report "suspicious behavior." The press calmly discusses the possible benefits of torturing "terrorist suspects." The FBI interrogates librarians and booksellers to find out which people are reading what books--and forbids them to tell anyone of it. Thus are the norms and practices of a police state insinuated into society...but it's all, to be sure, for our safety against terrorism.

Then the Justice Department drafts a bill that enables the president to strip people of their citizenship if they "materially support terrorism"-- which, by the definitions and procedures of the bill, could have applied to someone who sent a printing press to the fighters against the apartheid government of South Africa in the 1980s or who traveled to Northern Ireland and met with Catholic activists. Thus could it happen that people who organize political support for struggles abroad could be stripped of their citizenship based on the unappealable decision of a president--but it would all, you can bet, be for our safety against terrorism.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration draws up lists of countries for regime change and institutes a policy of open-ended war, as the whole rest of the planet smolders in anger at the "new Rome." Oh yes, but that too is all for our safety.

And so we find ourselves with a host of new repressive laws, with the police spying on and suppressing oppositional political activity, and with computer programs that track everything from the books we read to our daily routines of work and play and home. We feel the hot breath of xenophobia and the chilled pressure to "watch what we say." We see the courts, the laws, and the due process protections of centuries overruled by the strokes of a presidential pen. We see U.S. troops occupying Iraq, "training" in the Philippines, and getting ready to go who-knows-where next. But it's all, every last bit of it, can't you see, for our safety against terrorism.

I know the woman on the subway is frightened; she watched from her window when the towers came crashing down. She is not alone; millions are shook up by every new emergency press conference or orange alert. The Bushes, Ashcrofts, and Ridges make a cold calculation: the more measures they take "for our safety," the more the fear grows; the more the fear spreads, the more new measures they can force through. "Safety" becomes a button they can push to serve a sinister agenda that has precious little to do with safety and a whole lot to do with closing off the political and cultural space for dissent and resistance.

But if people are to be scared--and there is scary stuff out there--shouldn't they at least learn to fear the right thing? Do people remember, or did anyone ever even tell them, that the very government we are now supposed to trust absolutely imprisoned over 100,000 Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War 2? That it hounded tens of thousands of people out of the unions, the schools, and the arts during the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s because of their political beliefs? That it conducted wholesale spying, disgusting harassment, and phony prosecutions against civil rights activists in the 1960s, going so far as to murder Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark as they slept in their beds? That it even compiled "enemies lists" to go after other high government officials and mainstream political opponents during Watergate? That it hounded church people who provided sanctuary to Central American immigrants in the 1980s and knowingly shipped immigrants back to certain death at the hands of death squads in El Salvador or Guatemala? That today it holds over 2 million people in prison, the highest number of any country, with more than half of them Black, Latino, Native American, or immigrant? That it did all this without the extraordinary and unprecedented new powers it has now seized for itself, and without the science fiction technology it can now deploy? And that this particular regime is headed by a president who came to power by trampling on people's right to vote and overriding the actual election results; that it has an attorney general who, among other things, lauds the principles of the slave- society confederacy; that all its reasons for invading Iraq are now exposed as lies?

This government has a track record of using its power in horrendous ways, of caring for nothing and no one beyond their own power and profit. Now they offer us a bargain: "trust us, cooperate with us, agree not to resist us as we arrogate yet more power and ride roughshod over yet more countries, and we will make you safe."

For a promise of safety, we're supposed to look the other way and forget about everyone else. But who suffers in such a bargain? Who will be made unsafe - in Baghdad and New York, in the West Bank and Los Angeles, in Manila and Dearborn--in the name of such "safety"? What is being given up? To whom? For what real purpose? And where is the safety in silence, blind faith, and historical amnesia?

More--who put people in harm's way? And what will come of following them with all their "shock and awe" and threats of unending war?

I think again of the guy in the bandana and the woman on the subway. There is a conversation going on, often in whispers, among 300 million people. These questions must find their way into the dialogue. How they are answered will shape the history of our times.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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