On The Front Lines of a War on Dissent

Students prepare to protest anti-terrorism agenda as Bush and friends move to quash criticism of war.

NINETEEN-year-old Naureen Shah has been called a “Taliban,” a “Nazi” and “un-American.”

Three of her classmates at Chicago’s Northwestern University have been questioned by the FBI since the enactment of the Patriot Act, the U.S. government’s anti-terrorism legislation.

“I’ve been called all kinds of names,” says Shah, a second-year journalism student. “But I think it’s the Patriot Act that’s un-American. I think broadening the war to a place like North Korea is un-American.”

Her experience reflects an anti-dissent environment being fostered by law-enforcement agencies, the Republican administration and its right-wing friends in their robust campaign to quash criticism of the war on terrorism.

Shah will jump on a bus this week and travel with fellow students to Washington for the first major American protest against the war on terrorism and the U.S. role in the Mideast crisis.

Organizers expect “tens of thousands” from across the country to march on the White House Saturday to demonstrate against a wider war on terrorism and what they call the “Bush-Sharon war against the Palestinian people.”

Just as a university student-based opposition to the war begins to gel — more than 150 campuses in 40 states have held rallies urging U.S. military restraint — it’s becoming clear that there’s also a war in America against dissent.

And it’s being waged not just against students and professors, although universities are where the major skirmishes are taking place. Journalists, business people, even retirees have been targeted for speaking out. Some have been fired from their jobs, received hate mail or been made social outcasts for exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of speech.


  • Barry Reingold, a 60-year-old retired telephone company worker in San Francisco, recently had two FBI agents visit his home to question him about criticism of the war on terrorism he voiced while working out at his local health club. The agents filed a report on him.
  • Journalists Jackie Anderson of the Sun Advocate in Price, Utah; Dan Guthrie of the Grants Pass Daily Courier in Oregon; and Tom Gutting of the Texas City Sun have all been fired for writing columns questioning the war. In Washington, some senior White House and Capitol Hill reporters have been “frozen out” by lawmakers for expressing similar sentiments.
  • The Houston Art Car Museum had a recent visit from FBI and Secret Service agents who cited “several reports of anti-American activity going on here.” The museum was showing Secret Wars, an anti-war exhibit set up before Sept. 11.
  • A.J. Brown, a freshman at Durham Tech in North Carolina, says two Secret Service agents knocked on her door to question her about “a report that you have un-American material in your apartment.” They asked about a poster on her wall opposing the state of Texas’ death penalty.

The campaign against dissent is being led by President George W. Bush, who has said repeatedly that “you’re either with us, or you’re against us.” His press secretary, Ari Fleischer, has warned: “Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do.”

Attorney-General John Ashcroft, the FBI’s boss, told Congress: “To those … who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists — for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of goodwill to remain silent in the face of evil.”

More than 90 per cent of Americans support military strikes in Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But a CNN-USA Today Gallup poll found that only a slim majority of Americans — 52 per cent of those surveyed — favour broadening the war to Iraq, North Korea or Iran, the nations that make up Bush’s “axis of evil.” Forty per cent of respondents prefer their government to target specific terrorist groups, rather than entire countries.

Given that Bush has stated his intention to broaden the war (“inaction is not an option” he said in regard to Iraq) and continue it through the remaining 2 1/2 years of his term, his government and its supporters are working hard to avoid a massive build-up of student opposition similar to the anti-Vietnam War movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Warned Bill Bennett, head of the right-wing Empower America organization, at a recent Washington news conference: “Professional and amateur critics of America are finding their voices. They’re finding their voice on campuses, in salons, in learned societies and in the print media and on television.”

Anti-war protests are nothing new in the U.S., which has always had its dissenters. But it wasn’t until the Vietnam War that student radicalism in America hit its peak, culminating in the May 4, 1970, riot at Kent State University in which Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four student demonstrators.

These days, however, it’s unfashionable to be an anti-war crusader on U.S. college campuses. There has been virtual unanimity on the need to eradicate Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist group from Afghanistan, but students are beginning to mobilize against Bush’s pledge to fight the war over several more years, in several countries, in the name of stamping out terrorism.

Bennett, a staunch Republican who served as education secretary in the Ronald Reagan administration and “drug czar” under George Bush Sr., has joined former CIA director James Woolsey and Reagan assistant secretary of defence Frank Gaffney in founding Americans For Victory Over Terrorism, a group that intends to visit campuses and conduct pro-war “teach-ins.”

Meanwhile, Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice-President Dick Cheney, has helped organize a group called the American Council on Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), which cites a “blame America first” bias among hundreds of professors and is monitoring their anti-war statements.

In what many professors view as a threat to their academic freedoms, ACTA is sending mass mailings to alumni of schools where “offensive” comments have been made, urging donations be cut off and pressuring university trustees to take action. One Florida professor, who didn’t have the protection of being tenured, has already been fired.

“It’s your constitutional right to criticize,” Bennett told educators. “But when you criticize, you take the consequences for your words. Your words may be responded to and your words can be interpreted in such ways that they hurt the national resolve.”

Bennett’s warning about “consequences” is already painfully clear to University of Texas journalism professor and activist writer Robert Jensen.

Jensen wrote a piece in which he urged Americans to confront some of the “ugly truths” about their country’s history of targeting civilians in war as a way to understand why some fundamentalists hate America. After a Texas newspaper published the column, more than 4,000 e-mails flooded in, many demanding he be fired and announcing intentions to stop donations to the school.

University president Larry Faulkner publicly branded Jensen — who has tenure and thus cannot be fired — as someone who should be ignored because he’s “misguided” and his work contains “a fountain of undiluted foolishness.”

In an interview with The Star, Jensen responded, saying: “Do we live in a society where free thought is being marginalized? Yes. Is it being suppressed in a social sense? Yes.

“The president of my university said I was a fool who shouldn’t be taken seriously. It sends a signal to the university community that, if you want to get along and get all the perks that come with the job, you’d better keep your comments within acceptable limits.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and other national organizations have decried the Bush administration’s Patriot Act for giving the FBI vast powers to intercept Americans’ conversations, cellphone calls and e-mails, even to eavesdrop on talks between lawyers and their clients.

Of course, the FBI has a long history of pushing the privacy envelope.

In the mid-1950s, the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover launched COINTELPRO, an enormous domestic surveillance program to monitor the Communist party in the United States. Within a decade, it was expanded to include the Socialist Workers party, the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam groups and eventually most of the community and religious organizations that became known as the New Left.

“Whatever kind of intellectual climate we have is, I think, being slowly starved,” says Jensen. “It’s like we’re saying to people, `You shouldn’t think. You should listen to the people in power and, if they say we should go to war, we should go to war.’ That’s what disturbs me.”

Bush, he adds, has “announced an unlimited war against a potentially endless enemy. Do they understand the consequences of a war the secretary of defence has said has no `exit strategies’ and will be a `sustained engagement that carries no deadlines?’”

Jensen says Bennett’s organization and Lynne Cheney’s ACTA seem to believe universities are still run “by leftover hippies, some pot-smoking intellectual commies. But there’s nothing further from the truth.

“The sense one had that, in the ’60s and ’70s, universities were centres of intellectual engagement has largely been lost. I’d call that a threat to democracy.

“All over the world, in Canada and in Europe, people are dealing with these complexities. But here, we’re just not.”

Back at Northwestern, Shah has high hopes for Saturday’s march on the White House.

“This is the first protest that is going to unite several different causes,” she says.

“Our opposition to the war is no joke. It’s based on facts. We want to draw together concerns about globalization issues, the Middle East and NAFTA, to make the connections to the war on terrorism. We don’t feel that’s been properly done until now.

“I don’t see the possibility of a larger student movement unless we begin to understand how the war affects us all directly. But the basis is there. It might happen yet.”

Author: William Walker

News Service: Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

URL: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines02/0414-01.htm

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