Terrorism in the Land of the Free

By Levine, Burton | The Humanist, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Terrorism in the Land of the Free


Levine, Burton, The Humanist


Repression and Incarceration in the Name of National Security

Nasser K. Ahmed was arrested in April 1996 and held in jail with extended periods in solitary confinement for more than three and a half years. Since he was not serving a sentence for a specific crime, his jail term could have been endless. The government claimed he was associated with a terrorist organization but kept its evidence secret, showing it only to the presiding judge at hearings from which both Ahmed and his lawyer were excluded.

Ahmed doesn't live in Afghanistan or Iran or a country without civil liberties. He was a prisoner in the United States and his case was not an exception. He is one of two dozen Arabs the Immigration and Naturalization Service has arrested since 1996 and is trying to deport using secret information.

Using the INS to police and repress political activity among immigrants isn't new. Today the INS targets people from Arab or Muslim countries, claiming they are terrorists. In the past the same techniques were used by government against anarchists, communists, and labor activists from Europe. According to David Caute's The Great Fear, the United States deported about 900 politically active immigrants to Europe from 1917 to 1921. During the "red scare" after World War II, the United States deported 163 people it claimed were communists. At the same time, about twice that number were arrested and spent years of their lives defending themselves against government deportation attempts.

When the Cold War ended, the United States might have moved away from this ugly heritage. Instead, as James Dempsey and David Cole discuss in their 1999 First Amendment Foundation book, Terrorism and the Constitution: Sacrificing Civil Liberties in the Name of National Security, the U.S. government's repressive machinery merely found new targets--Arab and Muslim immigrants like Ahmed. Dempsey and Cole focus on the bad and very scary Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, legislated by Congress and President Bill Clinton in the hysteria wrought by the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings. The law rejects and repudiates the best parts of American legal tradition.

First, the law punishes people for their ideas rather than their actions and restricts people's rights to free association. In foreign affairs, it instructs the State Department to return to its Cold War practice--ended in 1990--of refusing visas to people with unpopular political opinions. Similarly, the INS now must deport non-citizen residents if they have the wrong opinions. In domestic affairs, the law repealed the FBI First Amendment Protection Act, which was enacted in 1994 to restrict the FBI to investigating groups and individuals only for criminal acts. Now the FBI can investigate a group because it advocates nonconformist ideas.

Second, the law uses guilt by association. If the State Department labels a group as terrorist then all of its members and supporters, even if they were never involved in any act of violence, can be excluded or deported from the United States. Citizens are prohibited from giving material support--even for nonviolent, humanitarian, social welfare programs--to groups on the State Department's list. Dempsey and Cole point out that, under the 1996 act, giving money to the African National Congress during Nelson Mandela's speaking tours in the United States after his release from prison would have been a crime because the State Department listed the ANC as a terrorist organization at the time.

Third, the act takes away from immigrants their rights to a fair trial and to confront their accusers. It allows the INS to arrest and deport immigrants and alien residents of the United States without due process of law--without showing them the information against them or telling them the source of that information. …

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