Indefinite Detention and Other Tales from the New America. (Human Rights Watch)

By Niman, Michael I. | The Humanist, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview
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Indefinite Detention and Other Tales from the New America. (Human Rights Watch)


Niman, Michael I., The Humanist


When I lived in Central America, I found international borders to be particularly disturbing. It's not the bureaucratic hurdle one faces entering a country, though, it was the difficult pass to leave that scared me. "Are your papers in order?" "Did you overstay your welcome?" "Can we collect more fees?" Any problem, and you become, in effect, a prisoner unable to leave.

In other countries, such as Cuba, citizens can't leave except under special and rare conditions. It's actually quite easy to enter Cuba. It's when it's time to depart, however, that border guards give you the hairy eyeball, scrutinizing your papers and your accent, making sure you're who you claim to be and aren't just escaping Cuba.

All of these borders also have an authoritarian aura provided by an ambient military presence. Hence, as much as I enjoy traveling, I'm always happy to come home to the United States. I can deal with arrogant developing world bureaucrats because I know they only pose a temporary passing indignity--not part of my regular life as an American. And at least in the United States, for all its faults, you're free to leave any time you damn well please.

Of course, this all changed since George W. Bush's team took over the White House. The United States now has "exit checks" at Canadian borders, often snarling traffic at borders as agents question folks as they attempt to leave the country. Usually white people in late-model cars are waved through while people of color are inappropriately and invasively asked to explain who they are, where they are going, if they have a job, and what they intend to do while in Canada. Neurosurgeons and Wal-Mart clerks alike theoretically have the same right to play bingo or visit one of the excellent Chinese restaurants just across the border. The questions these Customs agents are asking, like those of their developing world counterparts, are all about power--a petty bureaucrat exercising his or her power of the minute over average citizens.

Don't be fooled. This is in no way part of any real or perceived fight against terrorism. There have been no arrests of terror suspects heading to the Canadian beaches. In no way do these checks make Americans secure, either in reality or perception. What they do is strip away that comfort and dignity we had as free Americans. We're learning to accept invasive questions and submit to random searches. We're learning to obey and fear government officials. And we're learning, in this globalized race to the bottom, that there is no refuge from oppression.

These recent changes on the U.S. border, however, are just the most obvious of an insidious and unprecedented war against our civil liberties and way of life as Americans.

Protesters at recent demonstrations against corporate globalization discovered their rights to free speech have been curtailed. More and more, the new norm is that peaceful protesters are being segregated away from populated areas and corralled into what are known oxymoronically as "free speech areas." Here, and only here, usually surrounded by hostile police and kept far from public view and media, they are allowed to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to dissent. Many California municipalities are now designating such zones in what may soon be a national trend. Exercising free speech outside of a police-designated free speech area can lead to arrest.

Most frightening, however, is the recent and severely underreported suspension of the Bill of Rights--most clearly exemplified with the arrest of New York native Abdullah al Muhajir. Muhajir, whose family hails from Puerto Rico, was born as Jose Padilla, later changing his name during a conversion to Islam. His case is particularly frightening since he is now being held for indefinite detention with no charges filed, no trial scheduled, and absolutely no due process.

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