Velvet Banana, Part Three: An Attack on Freedom
by Jack Rabbit
One: The Coup d'etat of 2000
Two: The Era of Good Stealings
Four: The Velvet Dictator
Mr. Bush's first statement concerning the September 11 attacks
called the events "an attack on freedom." When a man no brighter
than Bush uses a word imbued so many different meanings as
"freedom," the tendency is to dismiss it as rhetorical. What,
if anything, does freedom mean to him. Lately, we may have
come to wonder whether the word means anything in particular
to him. In recent days and weeks, many of the acts of the
administration could be characterized by the same term: an
attack on freedom.
Since a banana republic dictator would probably be defeated
if he allowed free and fair elections, he cannot allow them.
Rigging the election isn't always enough. Repressing the opposition
is also in order. In a banana republic, there are no guarantees
of civil liberties.
If one were to have been asked on September 10 to give one
word to describe the Bush administration, a good answer would
have been: crooked. Bush has stolen an election, used the
power of his office to turn over a vast budget surplus to
his wealthy and powerful supporters, turned a blind eye while
some of these same friends of his fleeced California with
outrageous acts of market manipulation, has allowed and encouraged
his subordinates to conduct policy meetings in secret with
only industry leaders who stand to benefit attending, allowed
his communications staff to spread lies and slander about
those who served in the previous administration and abrogated
several international agreements without regard to public
opinion at home or abroad.
On September 10, the only thing that distinguished Mr. Bush
from a banana republic tyrant was his inability to repress
Many said the world changed on September 11. In many ways,
they are wrong. The theft of the election is still theft,
the looting of the budget surplus is still looting and a spoiled
frat boy did not become a wartime leader with a Churchill-like
stature. But he came closer to possessing an ability to repress
the opposition and discard the Bill of Rights.
However, America cherishes its tradition of individual liberty;
therefore, this descent into banana republic-style tyranny
must be handled with a velvet glove, not an iron fist.
To date, there have been two areas that have been of concern
to civil libertarians: freedom of the press and criminal justice.
Let us examine this attack on freedom.
The area of press censorship should be of particular concern
to Americans. It should be of greater concern that this aspect
of Bush's present assault on the Bill of Rights has been handled
with particularly smooth velvet. It's easy when multinational
corporations own both the media and the administration. The
TV network news outlets on October 8 ran a videotaped message
by Osama bin Laden. This would seem proper; when Osama speaks,
it's news. However, Mr. Bush's national security advisor,
Condoleezza Rice, called five network executives in a conference
call on October 10 and requested that they not broadcast Osama
messages. The executive represented ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News
and NBC. After 20 minutes, they agreed to Dr. Rice's request.
To quote from the story
in the BBC Online: "[The executives] denied that they
had come under pressure from Ms Rice or that the White House
intervention amounted to censorship."
The reasons given for this request was that the messages
might contain incitements to do harm against Americans or
coded messages. We don't need Dr. Rice to tell us about the
incitement to do harm to Americans. Osama bin Laden issued
a fatwah in 1997 urging all Muslims to kill Americans and
their allies - civilian and military - wherever they can be
found. It's hardly a secret that Osama urges the killing of
Americans. An English translation of the fatwah can be found
There's nothing coded in that message. It's quite blunt.
As for the other point, it is so ridiculous that one should
be surprised that a woman of Dr. Rice's intellect would insult
herself by repeating it. Those who handle sensitive intelligence,
as is Dr. Rice or any past White House National Security Advisor,
are trained to say nothing about sensitive intelligence. Therefore,
if she had any reason to think that bin Laden is passing coded
messages and she said something about it, she would be guilty
of a security violation. Any of her subordinates could be
fired for that. The more likely possibility is that she made
The networks may refrain from calling it censorship if they
like. A White House advisor requested that they not broadcast
news and they consented. They have voluntarily submitted to
a self-censorship. It's a velvet censorship, but censorship
During this time the administration was attempting to export
its brand of press censorship. On October 4, Secretary of
State Colin Powell asked the Emir of Qatar to "rein in" al-Jazeera,
the editorially independent television news station that broadcasts
from Qatar. Although al-Jazeera has granted interviews to
administration figures, including Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld and Dr. Rice, Powell expressed his displeasure at
al-Jazeera giving airtime to anti-American points of view.
The Emir refused. However, the US might have had the last
word on al-Jazeera's habit of providing balanced journalism
by dropping a 500-pound bomb on the station's bureau in Kabul.
The Pentagon, of course, denies al-Jazeera was a target. If
it were a target, then that would be a rather brutal attack
on the freedom of the press.
The threat to individual rights the criminal justice system
began almost immediately. In this case, the difference between
the velvet glove and the iron fist is simply that the administration
is denying rights to non-citizens, not citizens. At least
for the time being.
Since the September 11 attacks, the federal government has
taken into custody about 1200 foreign nationals, mostly of
Middle Eastern of South Asian origin. It's hard to say exactly
how many, since the Justice Department is no longer saying.
We don't know exactly who they are or with what they are charged
or to be charged. On October 29, the Center for National Securities
information about the detainees from the Justice Department
under the Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately, Attorney
General John Ashcroft has instructed agencies to be less co-operative
with freedom of information requests, assuring them that he
will support denials. The Justice Department formally reject
the Center of National Securities Studies request November
In banana republics, there is a word for those who detained
by the government in this way: desaparecidos, those who have
disappeared. Our desaparecidos are lucky; at least, we assume
that they are alive. The Justice Department has also determined
that it has the right to listen in on conversations between
the detainees and their attorneys, a violation of the Sixth
The most ominous development to date has been an executive
order signed by Mr. Bush on November 13 providing for the
trial of anyone suspected of terrorist activity before a military
tribunal. This document specifies that the defendant shall
have no right of appeal before any other court of international
However, the record of the proceedings shall be submitted
to Mr. Bush for review and final decision. This is the same
George W. Bush who, as Governor of Texas, oversaw 150 executions;
this is the same George W. Bush who said that it is wrong
to execute the mentally retarded and then had to do so equivocal
acrobatics when it was pointed out that six of his capital
punishment victims had IQ's under 70; this is the same George
W. Bush who allowed the execution of Gary Graham, stating
that just because Graham's attorney slept during key prosecution
testimony was no reason to say Graham was denied a fair trial.
A press release from Amnesty International says the organization
is "deeply troubled" over the institution of these tribunals.
Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union,
is "deeply disturbed." Ms. Murphy further
states that the Administration has failed to show that
the constitutional jury trial system does not allow for the
prosecution of those accused of terrorist activities and that
the decision is "further evidence that the Administration
is totally unwilling to abide by the checks and balances that
are so central to our democracy."
Not all of the criticism is coming from the left. "We are
letting George W. Bush get away with the replacement of the
American rule of law with military kangaroo courts," said
New York Times columnist and former Nixon White House speechwriter
Of course, this is directed at non-citizens, so the rest
of us should have nothing to worry about, right? Even if that
were only true, it would still be unacceptable. Unfortunately,
the administration may have more in mind. Folk singer Ronnie
Gilbert, formerly of the Weavers, the same group that also
featured Pete Seeger, wrote in the November issue of The Progessive
that for the second time in her life, a group to which she
belongs is under investigation. The first time it was the
Weavers during the McCarthy era; now it is a group called
Women in Black, a peace organization that protests violence
in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The group was nominated
for the Nobel Peace Prize this
Also in The Progressive, former nun and anti-war activist
from the Vietnam War Elizabeth McAlister reports that her
husband, former priest Philip Berrigan, was placed in solitary
confinement and denied visitation privileges recently for
no apparent reason. Berrigan is serving a short sentence in
a federal prison in Elkton, Ohio for hammering on a military
aircraft. Senator Barbara Mulkuski investigated
the situation on behalf of Ms. McAlister and got several
different answers from different bureaucrats.
Finally, on November 1, Green Party activist Nancy Oden was
at the airport in Bangor, Maine for a flight to a Green Party
conference in Chicago. She was picked to have her bags searched;
this was apparently in the computer as she checked in. She
was told the selection was not random. This led to an encounter
with a rude national guardsman who seemed to know exactly
who she was, although how he knew is not clear. When the encounter
was over, Ms. Oden was denied her seat on her flight on the
grounds that see was uncooperative.
These stories suggest a disturbing pattern. We can hope there's
nothing to them, but nothing is beyond this administration.
Perhaps this is the real beginning of an attack on freedom.
Congressional oversight of the administration's recent activities
is in order. In fact, it is desperately needed. Senator Leahy,
who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee has expressed concern
about the administration's "unilateral" approach Congressman
Conyers of Michigan has called for hearings on a number of
concerns raised by the administration's moves. While Congress
may be seen as attempting to hamper the administration during
a national emergency, we should not forget that this is not
a legitimate administration. Mr. Bush is not owed more deference
than past occupants of the White House; indeed, given the
manner in which he seized power, he is owed less. It was a
grave mistake for Congress to have granted extraordinary powers
to an unelected president, even in this emergency. Bush may
be the commander-in-chief by default, but that does mean that
this one should not be kept on a short leash.
As for Mr. Ashcroft, if the Attorney General cannot find
a way to fight a war on terrorism and respect the rights of
all Americans, then he should resign.
Somewhere down the road, civil disobedience may be in order
over this issue. The administration has attacked freedom,
and we must defend it.
to Part Four: The Velvet Dictator