I felt like writing down some responses to a letter I found on the Project for the New American Century website. I think I will continue to revise it in public so to speak.
In 2004, after the terrible acts at Beslan school No.1, an open letter was sent to the heads of the European Union and NATO from The Project for the New American Century, signed by 100 prominent US politicians and political thinkers. After a brief note of sympathy for the victims, the letter proceeds to warn that Vladimir Putin has used the incident as an excuse to erode democratic values within Russia. The letter states that:
He has systematically undercut the freedom and independence of the press, destroyed the checks and balances in the Russian federal system, arbitrarily imprisoned both real and imagined political rivals, removed legitimate candidates from electoral ballots, harassed and arrested NGO leaders, and weakened Russia’s political parties. In the wake of the horrific crime in Beslan, President Putin has announced plans to further centralize power and to push through measures that will take Russia a step closer to authoritarian regime.
I find it difficult to read these words without a certain amount of irony. For although it is certainly the case that Putin is systematically repealing what little liberal sensibility there was in Russia, it seems that the US has, in using a horrific event to repeal civil liberties, a lot in common with its former Cold War rival.
Let me explain. By using the fears set out by the 100 signatories of the letter we have a set of criteria with which to examine the US. A number of ‘democratic’ values (I use scare quotes as these are not really democratic but rather liberal values) are undoubtedly under threat in Russia: freedom of the press, (b) the checks and balances of the federal system, (c) freedom of political expression/freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, and (d) free elections. Using some of these points we can now talk about how America is shaping up in the wake of 9//11.
Freedom of the press in the United States is a tricky subject to tackle, mainly because to even voice the question ‘are the press completely free?’ goes against all accepted wisdom. Of course the press are free in the United States, it is after all the country of the fourth estate, the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal. Media freedom has been demonstrated by Watergate and by the Vietnam War, two examples of asking hard questions and documenting hidden facts that brought about great shifts in power (although I have sympathy with Baudrillard’s position that Watergate was the anomaly that reinforced a misguided vision of purity in American politics).
Nonetheless events such as Watergate demonstrate how the press in the past have been courageous and critical. But arguably the media landscape we are presented with now would be mostly unrecognisable to journalists from that era. As I see it this change comes from a few significant developments such as the emergence of 24-hour news channels, the changing sensibility of news coverage and the framing of debate.
A report by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) stated that on the run up to the second Iraq war, out of almost 400 interviews conducted on major news outlets, only 3 were with anti-war activists. How can this be the case?
One factor was the out-pouring of patriotic sentiment that came after the 9/11 attacks and the overwhelming tendency of mainstream media outlets to stop asking questions. This climate was maintained not only by government officials but also in the news media itself, and an ‘us and them’ mentality was seen to develop. On MSNBC’s Hardball programme in September 2002, the hosts refer to World Bank/IMF protesters in Washington DC as hating America, which is indicative of much of the coverage protest received:
“Those people out in the streets, do they hate America?” “Yes, I’m afraid a lot of them do. They hate America. They align themselves with Saddam Hussein. They align themselves with terrorists all over the world.”
The debate was thus framed in terms of good and evil, with us or against us. This is what the geographer Derek Gregory refers to as ‘opposing’: “reducing the complex roots of political violence to an opposition between Civilization (always with that imperial capital, and almost always meaning a particular version of the United States as somehow the universal civilization) and the rest, savage, barbarian others”.
In the climate generated by the press, freedom of expression becomes not a question of clumsy state censorship, but much more dangerously of self-censorship. In the face of overwhelming patriotic support for a war framed by the good and evil, Civilisational rhetoric from not only the state but also your peers, it takes an incredible amount of courage to stand out and ask difficult questions. Those who did, such as former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, were demonised by the news media: Paula Zahn from CNN put it to him that “people out there are accusing you of drinking Saddam Hussein’s Kool-Aid”. This would be acceptable if pro-war interviewees were posed similar questions. But as an Iraq war media timeline produced by FAIR and a documentary by Amy Goodman show, such critical questioning was distinctly lacking. To stand out as a commentator was media suicide, to protest as a private citizen was to be ignored. In environment so hostile to dissent, how can we in all honesty talk of freedom of the press?
The Civilisational conflict theme extends to our next point: freedom of political expression/freedom from arbitrary imprisonment. To a large extent I believe that the framing argument can be extended to cover freedom of political opinion, the most glaring example being the demonisation and subsequent banning by many radio stations of the Dixie Chicks after they protested America’s plans for war. As such I would like to focus on freedom from arbitrary imprisonment. But first a disclaimer: the examples I am about to cite are not examples of US citizens. However this does not mean they should be discounted, as they are both display frightening arbitrariness of action: they are seemingly random, causeless and meaningless. They have little or no logical rational basis. And once the wheels of the procedure are set in motion the question of citizenship becomes irrelevant.
The first example is of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen born in Syria who subjected to ‘extraordinary rendition’ (a wonderful piece of what Steven Poole calls ‘unspeak’): put more plainly he was deported to Syria, kept in solitary confinement, tortured for 10 months and forced to sign false confessions. The second example is of Ms. Ghuman, a music scholar from the UK. She was also detained while passing through an American airport, interrogated and deported – although luckily back to London and not Damascus. However, Ms. Ghuman’s career as an assistant lecturer in the US has been ruined and she still does not know if she can ever return to the US.
Maher had ‘suspected links to terrorism’ (which all proved to be false); Ms. Ghuman’s was simply a case of mistaken identity. Both of these people were denied any rights or access to lawyers. Maher, like the detainees at Guantanamo Bay that have dropped so resolutely off the media radar, was for 10 months reduced to a state of bare existence: he was ‘opposed’ and as such became a nobody, a non-entity. For a few chilling hours Ms. Ghuman also experienced the same denial of being, dropped out of civilized modernity into barbarism. How long before US citizens with Middle Eastern ethnic backgrounds are subject to the same treatment? Their white Anglo-Saxon friends?
Speech and elections
Finally, a recent incident in the press highlights both issues concerning freedom of speech, but also those of governmental checks and balances and free elections. After running over his allotted time while asking presidential candidate John Kerry why he did not contest the 2004 election results, a student at Florida University was forcibly removed by police. When he refused to leave the police used a taser to subdue him and he was taken into custody.
The question he was asking is valid, and his treatment – even if he was acting up – was excessive. Election results have been questioned before. The documentary film “American Blackout” (2006) has detailed instances of crossovers (where Republican voters turn out to vote for a more sympathetic democratic in democrat controlled areas), systematic redistricting, problems with voting machines and lists of felons (who are not eligible to vote) being used erroneously to restrict the black vote – who historically vote democrat. McKinney herself became the object of media slander when comments she made about 9/11 were taken out of context by media outlets, and she was cast as a conspiracy theorist. If the events in the documentary are true, they amount to systematic disenfranchisement and deserve mainstream debate. But this debate would strike at the core of America’s national confidence in its freedom, and I wonder if the comfort that comes with knowing will ever be willingly replaced by the discomfort of questioning.
However, I think it is now possible to ask the Project for the New American Century a question. Have the 9/11 attacks led to the erosion of liberal values in the United States? As soon as liberal values are taken for granted they run the risk of being lost. It may be worthwhile for the US to look at Russia and engage in a little soul searching.