State of fear

April 25, 2013

The tragedy of Boston will be used as a chance to tighten the grip of the security state.

HOW LOW will they go to whip up fear and hatred? That's a question we find ourselves asking daily about the political and media establishment in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

In just over a week, the front-page headlines jumped from reports blaming a "Saudi national"--who turned out to be an innocent victim of the attack--to a Brown University student who was tragically missing, to the endless speculation about every tidbit of information about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

There doesn't seem to be anything the media won't sink to. One day, a picture of the widow of suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, wearing a hijab and dodging reporters, is splashed across the front of the New York Post, with the headline: "Did she know?" The next, the claim is that the bombing "mastermind" received welfare benefits, and the Boston Herald screams, "What nerve."

The leaders of American democracy followed suit. At a memorial service in Boston for a slain police officer, Joe Biden wasted no time invoking the horror of September 11. "Whether it's al-Qaeda central...or two twisted, perverted, cowardly, knockoff jihadis here in Boston, why do they do what they do?" asked the vice president.

Heavily armed police search a family's home in locked-down Boston
Heavily armed police search a family's home in locked-down Boston

At this point, anyone who claims they know what motivated the two suspects to commit a barbaric crime is being dishonest. There isn't any real evidence. But this didn't stop the Washington elite from rushing to their own anticipated conclusion: for the sake of public safety, it's time to tighten security, no matter what the cost to civil liberties.

From almost the moment the second brother, Dzhokhar, was found and captured, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was seeking out every television camera in Washington, D.C., to demand that the 19-year-old not be advised of his Miranda rights to not answer questions and request a lawyer--a hard-won legal safeguard against suspects being coerced into confessing. "The last thing we may want to do is read Boston suspect Miranda Rights telling him to 'remain silent,'" Graham said.

Graham didn't need to worry. The Obama administration had already jumped to the same decision, claiming it was a matter of public safety--though no one at any level of government could explain what threat to public safety the severely wounded suspect posed at this point.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote in the Guardian:

Tsarnaev is probably the single most hated figure in America now. As a result...not many people will care what is done to him...But that's always how rights are abridged: by targeting the most marginalized group or most hated individual in the first instance, based on the expectation that nobody will object because of how marginalized or hated they are. Once those rights violations are acquiesced to in the first instance, then they become institutionalized forever, and there is no basis for objecting once they are applied to others, as they inevitably will be.

Anyone who thought the government would stop at revoking Miranda rights needs to pay closer attention. Suddenly, all kinds of repressive measures--ones that would cause a frantic outcry if they came from a Republican White House--are on the table, from increased border security and background checks for immigrants coming to the U.S. to greater surveillance via video cameras and other means.

America's political elite is exploiting what most people view as a tragedy as an opportunity instead--an opportunity to tighten the grip of the security state, to impose greater restrictions on behavior and rights, to increase surveillance and to shred legal protections.

People around the U.S.--and the world, for that matter--understandably felt fear and sorrow and outrage about the Marathon bombings. But those powerful emotions are now being used to ratchet up state repression. The result won't make anyone's life safer--but they will make the lives of many much worse.

COMPARISONS OF the Boston Marathon bombings to the September 11 attacks a decade ago should be made with care for a number of reasons. For one, there is no evidence linking the Boston bombing suspects to any organizations or networks that have carried out other such attacks. Plus there is the sheer size and human toll of the 9/11 attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Nevertheless, there are important lessons about September 11 that need to be remembered today.

Despite its rhetoric about sympathy for the victims, the Bush White House primarily used the tragedy to push through policies the unpopular administration could not have imagined beforehand. Calling for a "war on terror," George W. Bush succeeded launching wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here in the U.S., his administration waged a war on dissent and freedom of speech.

As a member of 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows--a group of relatives of the September 11 victims who opposed the "war on terror"--told Socialist Worker in 2004: "From day one, we realized that the 9/11 attacks and the deaths of our family members were going to be used as soon as we went into Afghanistan. It became clear that there was a utility to these deaths that was going to be taken advantage of."

The "war on terror" drive to curb civil liberties is a continuation of U.S. government policies that date back many decades. The U.S. government has a long history of squelching dissent in the name of "protecting" the public.

During and after the First World War, there was the scapegoating of immigrants and leftists, plus the Sedition Act of 1918 that criminalized opposition to U.S. wars. The aftermath of the Second World War brought McCarthy-era surveillance, harassment, jailing and deportation of radicals in the name of "fighting the Communist threat"--Black Power, antiwar, Native American and socialist groups were infiltrated and attacked.

September 11 offered a new opportunity for the U.S. government security state. A new face of fear was introduced: the shadowy enemy of "radical Islam," which could strike anywhere at any time. This served as the justification for a "war on terror" in which the U.S. government has claimed the right to intervene anywhere at any time around the globe--and to take away rights at home, from any one at any time.

We may never know the motivations of the two young men accused of the Boston bombings. But we do know that the U.S. government's "solution" will be worse than the problem.

Among the many complaints of the get-tougher-on-terrorism politicians is the claim that the FBI dropped the ball with Tamerlan Tsarnaev. He had actually been questioned by U.S. authorities in 2011, but they didn't follow up.

But what if they had followed up? Recent experience has shown that law enforcement is less focused on preventing violence or protecting the public and more obsessed with "results"--in the form of arrests at any cost, including entrapment.

So, for example, it's been revealed that the FBI might have helped a young Somali-born man plot to construct and set off a bomb in downtown Portland, Ore., in 2010. It's doubtful this "terrorist" attack could have been attempted without the help and encouragement of those whose mission is to stop terrorist attacks.

More "security," imposed with the iron hand of the U.S. government, doesn't mean a safer world. It means more law enforcement, more surveillance, more entrapment, more torture. It means making the U.S. a country with less freedom, less democracy and fewer rights.

No, a more powerful state makes the world more dangerous. It leaves far greater numbers of people--especially communities of color and the most vulnerable in society--at the whims of law enforcement. As we have seen already, the U.S. state has the potential of inspiring more violence committed by the powerless--senseless and violent acts in reaction to a senseless and violent society.

THERE'S ANOTHER difference today compared to September 11. More than a few holes have been poked in the veneer of the "war on terror." A growing number of people are frustrated--or at least questioning--the assault on civil liberties and human rights that has come in the name of security.

A Pew Poll taken about a week after the Boston bombings showed that the percentage of people who were "very worried" about another attack was barely higher (23 percent) than in November 2010 (21 percent). Less than half of people thought the government could do anything about it.

Polls after the Marathon bombings have not shown an increase in the willingness of people to give up personal freedoms in order to protect themselves against terrorism. That's a sharp contrast with the period after the September 11 attacks.

Before the bombings, in February, a poll of voters for The Hill showed that a majority of people believed Obama was no better or was worse than Bush when it came to balancing national security with the protection of civil liberties. Over one-third said Obama was worse than Bush--15 percent said he was "about the same."

Last week, after one suspect in the Marathon bombings was killed and another captured, the media focused on officially encouraged celebrations of Boston residents--very, very white from the looks of them--who embraced the media- and politically generated patriotic fervor and racist message against Muslims.

But there were other events, not as well covered in the media, in which people expressed a different message--embracing solidarity instead of Islamophobia and organizing to defend Arabs and Muslims against attack. Some 600 people turned out for a vigil in Malden, Mass., to stand in solidarity with Heba Abolaban, a Palestinian doctor who was verbally and physically assaulted while walking with a friend and their children following the bombing.

Actions like these show the kind of response we can build on--in order to create a climate of solidarity and unity, instead of fanning the flames of fear.

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