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WHAT WE THINK
Another stage in the administration's war on civil liberties
The new McCarthyism

March 18, 2005 | Page 3

FOR HIS second term in office, George W. Bush is making it clear that our civil liberties are on the hit list.

As has been the case since the September 11 attacks, Arabs and Muslims remain the most convenient target. Like Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, a U.S. citizen arrested in 2003 in Saudi Arabia after Washington made wild accusations that he was plotting to assassinate Bush. Washington's Saudi allies tortured Abu Ali and kept him in solitary confinement for months at a time.

Now, the Justice Department has brought Abu Ali to the U.S.--but he isn't accused of a murder plot any more. Instead, he's charged with giving "material aid" to terrorists--by buying a laptop computer and several books, allegedly for al-Qaeda. Abu Ali's family isn't allowed to visit him--unless they agree to "special administrative measures" that would allow an FBI agent to be present.

Abu Ali is an all-too-convenient scapegoat for the Bush administration. So is Lynne Stewart, the veteran civil rights attorney who was convicted last month of "materially aiding" terrorists--by doing her job as a defense lawyer and keeping her client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, in the media eye by releasing one of his statements.

Government lawyers couldn't come up with a single instance where Stewart's actions resulted in violence taking place, but she was convicted anyway. That's because the trial was about making an example of Stewart--and sending a message to anyone who might want to fight back. Meanwhile, antiwar activists have reported "visits" from the FBI--which are designed to intimidate and harass.

The attacks on our rights aren't just being carried out by the government, either. In recent weeks, a confident right wing has gone on the offensive against academic freedom on college campuses. Left-wing college professors Ward Churchill and M. Shahid Alam are two victims--both of whom came under fire from Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly.

And there's the 10 professors at Santa Rosa Junior College in California who recently found red stars--and a copy of a state Education Code section prohibiting the teaching of "communism with the intent to indoctrinate or to inculcate in the mind of any pupil a preference for communism"--posted on their office doors by College Republicans.

It isn't a coincidence that this assault on our rights has picked up on all fronts in recent weeks. At their heart, these attacks all have the goal of intimidating progressives into silence. By making examples out of prominent activists and openly shredding civil liberties, the Bush administration hopes to usher in a new era that--like the McCarthy period of the 1940s and '50s--squelches dissent.

Those anticommunist witch-hunts targeted thousands of people--who were fired from their jobs, spied on by their neighbors and harassed in every area of their lives. For U.S. rulers, the fight against the "red menace" was an excuse to attack radicals, union activists and immigrants. Today, it's being done in the name of "war on terror."

Unfortunately, the right's assault takes place amid a wholesale political retreat by liberals. The pro-war, pro-corporate campaign of John Kerry last year set stifling limits on progressives devoted to electing "Anybody But Bush." Meanwhile, the Democrats continued giving up ground to the right wing on every conceivable issue--and that process has only accelerated in the post-election period.

Following the Republican victory in November, some on the left accepted the media's conventional wisdom and concluded that the U.S. is too conservative to mobilize an effective opposition. But giving up the fight because the country is "too right wing" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unchallenged, the Bush administration and its right-wing allies will only gain the confidence to go for more.

One of the most important lessons of the 1950s witch-hunt period is that we can't afford not to fight back. Ultimately, the key to pushing back against the government's witch-hunts was the civil rights, free speech and antiwar movements that gained momentum during the 1950s and increasingly in the 1960s.

Today, we need to keep up the fight for the right to dissent--by building a grassroots struggle that doesn't rely on Democrats. With polls showing majority opposition to Bush's war on Iraq, the audience exists to renew the fight to protect our civil liberties. Thousands across the country have rallied to defend the civil liberties or Arab and Muslim detainees, and to protest the conviction of Lynne Stewart.

The Bush administration began its assault by targeting the most vulnerable--Arabs and Muslims--following September 11. But their ultimate goal is to widen the assault and silence anyone who would oppose their agenda. We have to revive the old slogan of the labor movement--an injury to one is an injury to all--and take a stand against this attack on all our rights.

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