inside the glass house
by thalif deen
25th November 2001
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Lankan Muslim family in US had midnight knock on door

NEW YORK - The United States, described as one of the freest countries in the world, is teetering on the edge of political paranoia.

Like any country under terrorist attack, the US has a legitimate right to safeguard its national and security interests.

But what is being challenged is the extra-ordinary administrative and legislative measures now being undertaken to combat terrorism including electronic wire-tapping, military tribunals and even that dreaded midnight knock on the door, Latin American-style. 

Herman Schwartz, a Professor of Law at the American University hints that the Bush administration is exercising new powers to protect itself from scrutiny. "What this really looks like is soft authoritarianism," he claims.

But the new security measures also have their lighter moments. Ever since the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush has continued to make public appearances rallying the nation for a battle against terrorism.

At the same time, Vice President Dick Cheney, who is next in line of succession, has rarely been seen in public but is being moved from one "secure (underground?) location" to another as a protective measure in case the president is under attack.

The extreme secrecy of his whereabouts has prompted one comedian to joke that Cheney is really hiding in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan.

Perhaps Cheney is as difficult to track down these days as Osama bin Laden, the most wanted man in America.

Meanwhile, the far reaching police powers exercised by law enforcement officials have prompted a rousing debate over the erosion of civil liberties vis-a-vis terrorism.

As one writer to the New York Times said last week, "We become like terrorists when we adopt their methods and forsake the rule of law for military justice."

The other extreme is the argument, also advocated by some rightwing newspaper columnists, that the US should even resort to torture to extract confessions from the over 1,000 suspects, mostly of Middle Eastern origin, who are now in custody.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Justice Department are now at loggerheads with local police in various states which are refusing to cooperate in some of the investigations.

The police chief in Detroit and the acting police chief in Portland have refused to question immigrants particularly when they are not suspected of a crime.

"We're standing with the fundamental rights of individuals under the constitution and the state constitution and our municipal law," says Chief Charles Wilson of the Detroit Police Department.

The FBI has listed 83 people in Detroit for questioning, but Wilson has said his police officers will not "go out and treat people like criminals or even go out and find these people."

The Attorney General John Ashcroft sent a memorandum early this month announcing plans to "find and interview" 5,000 men, mostly from Middle Eastern countries, as potential suspects.

This is over and above the 1,000 who are already in custody but mostly with no charges framed against them.

Described as a melting pot, the US was a country built on immigrants British, Dutch, French, Irish, Italians, Greeks and other Europeans, who came in an early wave. The only native Americans of the country are the American Indians.

Between 1820 and 1979, the US admitted over 49 million immigrants of which 73 percent were from Europe. The rest were mostly from Africa, Latin American, Asia, Australia and Canada.

The metaphor of the "melting pot" was subsequently changed to the metaphor of a "salad bowl" because the mixture was so varied and colourful.

The US was also a country which was a magnet for foreign students. In the academic year ending June 2001, there were 547,667 foreign students studying in American educational institutions: a 6.4 percent increase over the previous year.

Although these students and their families brought in about $11 billion into the US economy every year, there is a move now to scrutinize more carefully all student visas and enforce rigid restrictions.

On Friday, the New York Times ran a story about some Middle Eastern immigrants, after being shaken by the new racial profiling, are seriously thinking of going back to their home countries.

In the new climate in America, they say, the old country looks a little better.

Sri Lanka has not been an exception either. Last month at least one Sri Lankan Muslim family in New Jersey experienced that midnight knock on the door when three FBI agents arrived unannounced at about 1 am at their backdoor.

The federal agents not only searched every crevice in the house perhaps looking for terrorist hideouts but also checked the refrigerator to see whether there was food in excess of what was required by an average family of four in that house.

The terrorists, after all, have to be fed, even if they are on the run. The search, however, drew a blank.



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