ABC News reported on March 18 that "the government will begin detaining dozens of suspected Saddam Hussein sympathizers in at least five US cities this week.
"According to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, 'Iraqi state agents, Iraqi surrogate groups, other regional extremist organizations and ad hoc groups, and disgruntled individuals may use this time period to conduct terrorist attacks against the United States and our interests either here or abroad.'"
Saddam Hussein has rejected President Bush's ultimatum to leave Iraq. At home, the Department of Homeland Security raised the terror alert to orange, indicating a high risk of attacks. When history's deadliest one-day display of air power hits Iraq, thousands of Iraqis will be shocked, awed and killed and President Bush will be well started on his road to empire building.
What will happen to the US anti-war movement when the bombs start falling on Iraq?
As Paul Loeb and Geov Parrish recently wrote, before the 1991 Gulf War "major protests surged through American and European cities, hoping to stop the war before it started. But once the war began, mainstream debate over the wisdom of war quickly became supplanted by the insistence that anything other than relentless cheerleading was disloyal to the troops -- and to the country."
If massive protests continue after US bombs start pounding Iraq, expect the anti-war movement to be lambasted by President Bush's pro-war minions. Radio and television pundits will crank up the volume, labeling protests un-patriotic and anti-American. Some may equate dissent with treason. Expect long-winded one-sided debates on the Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN focusing on the nature of treason.
With even the mildest Congressional condemnation of war with Iraq stifled, the Bush administration will take advantage of a jingoist climate and try and rush through the Justice Department's newly drafted "Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003," a.k.a. PATRIOT Act II. This draconian measure would expand the government's powers to gather intelligence on the home front; increased surveillance and the prosecution of American citizens could become the order of the day.
Over the past few months, as the US moved closer to war, pro-war columnists and radio and television gas bags began a campaign to demonize protesters, labeling them anti-American, Communists, or apologists for Hussein. Religious people and groups speaking out against the war, Hollywood celebrities, dissenting academics, "human shields" in Iraq, people committed to non-violent civil disobedience, and the all-too-few-but-gutsy politicians have all come under fire from pro-Bush critics.
For quite some time, the Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly has been saying that dissent reflects America's freedom of expression before the advent of hostilities -- but after the war starts, anti-war protesters should take their signs and go home.
On a recent edition of his nightly program, O'Reilly said that "Once the war against Saddam Hussein begins, we expect every American to support our military, and if you can't do that, just shut up. Americans, and indeed our foreign allies who actively work against our military once the war is underway, will be considered enemies of the state by me.
"Just fair warning to you, Barbra Streisand and others who see the world as you do. I don't want to demonize anyone, but anyone who hurts this country in a time like this, well, let's just say you will be spotlighted. 'Talking Points' invites all points of view and believes vigorous debate strengthens the country, but once decisions have been made and lives are on the line, patriotism must be factored in."
In early March, Fox News reported that Senator Lindsay Graham had asked Attorney General John Ashcroft "to provide him with a legal assessment of those Americans headed to or already in Iraq to offer themselves as 'human shields.'" Graham compared Americans acting as human shields with John Walker Lindh.
"It is my opinion that any American who voluntarily engages in conduct to impede a potential American military operation, and who thereby endangers the lives of our nation's men and women in uniform, is participating in a program designed to weaken the power of the United States to wage war successfully. I strongly believe efforts to impede a potential military operation against Iraq should be strongly dealt with and I am seeking your assistance in this matter."
A recent column by conservative columnist Michelle Malkin echoed Senator Graham's sentiments: "What color is a human shield?" Malkin writes. "Crayola needs to invent a new hue weaker than lemonade and paler than jaundice: Traitor Yellow." Malkin says that the human shields are as "willfully treacherous as American al Qaeda enemy combatant John Walker Lindh. The only place that's fit for these stateless turncoats to call home is a detainee bunk bed at Guantanamo Bay."
In "An Open Letter To The Hollywood Bunch" dated March 4, the Nashville-based country western singer Charlie Daniels wrote: "Sean Penn, you're a traitor to the United States of America. You gave aid and comfort to the enemy. How many American lives will your little, 'fact finding trip' to Iraq cost? You encouraged Saddam to think that we didn't have the stomach for war."
As demonstrators were preparing for the February 15th anti-war rally march in New York City, the conservative New York Sun ran an editorial referring readers to Article III in the Constitution which says, "Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court." The editorial suggested that "'anti-war' protesters -- we prefer to call them protesters against freeing Iraq -- are giving, at the very least, comfort to Saddam Hussein."
The website of Michael Savage, host of a popular daily talk-radio show and a weekly television program on MSNBC, features a banner headline: "The Sedition Act -- Time to Act. Time to Arrest the Leaders of the Anti-War Movement, Once we Go To War? We Must Protect Our Troops! Sponsor The Paul Revere Society!"
Although right wing hectoring has not deterred the anti-war movement, you can bet that folks like Richard Perle, the Pentagon adviser who recently labeled journalist Seymour Hersh "the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist"; Ann Coulter, whose new book -- set to be published sometime this spring -- is called Treason; and talk-radio's Rush Limbaugh and Savage will crank out the vitriol. In the name of "patriotism," their goal will be to silence dissent.
And while the Bush administration has repeatedly portrayed anti-war protests as evidence of our very freedom, the US has in equal measure a history of suppression of dissent. Between 1917 and 1919, Congress passed legislation aimed at suppressing all forms of dissent.
The Espionage Act of 1917 made it a crime punishable by a fine of $10,000 and 20 years in jail to "convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies and whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal to duty."
Read Section 3 of the US Sedition Act of 1918 carefully:
"Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States, or to promote the success of its enemies, or shall willfully make or convey false reports, or false statements or incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, or shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States or shall willfully display the flag of any foreign enemy, or shall willfully urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production or advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any of the acts or things in this section enumerated and whoever shall by word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war or by word or act oppose the cause of the United States therein, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both."
Section 4 allowed the Postmaster General to instruct postmasters at any post office to refuse delivery of mail construed to be in violation of the Act. Said mail was to be stamped "undeliverable ... and all such letters or other matter so returned to such postmasters shall be by them returned to the senders."
According to The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001, these laws were "vaguely worded and broadly interpreted, [and] they resulted in over 2,000 prosecutions, mostly against radicals and the radical press."
Eugene Victor Debs, president of the American Railway Union and founder of the American Socialist Party, was arrested in 1918 for opposing World War I. He was convicted under the Sedition Act. In his "Statement to the Court Upon Being Convicted of Violating the Sedition Act" Debs said: "I look upon the Espionage Law as a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with democratic principles and with the spirit of free institutions ... "
The Supreme Court upheld the Sedition Act in 1919 but the law was repealed in 1921. The Espionage Act remains in force, although later courts protected speech and activities that did not present a "clear and present danger." A mid-March report by United Press International pointed out that "The most contentious provisions in the draft [of PATRIOT Act II] would allow the government to collect DNA from suspected terrorists or other individuals involved in terror investigations, and the power to revoke the citizenship of, and deport, naturalized citizens suspected of terror activities or of providing 'material support' to terrorist groups."
Robert Higgs, a senior fellow in political economy at the Oakland, Ca-based Independent Institute told UPI, "In my mind, if that doesn't absolutely epitomize totalitarianism I would like to know what does. They can categorize the most innocent action -- from signing a petition or making a charitable contribution -- as an act of terrorism."
Americans who care about democracy and civil liberties need to make sure Higg's nightmarish vision does not become reality. Silence will be our biggest enemy.
Bill Berkowitz is an Oakland-based free-lance writer covering the Religious Right and related conservative movements. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact members of Congress at 202-224-3121 to raise concerns about PATRIOT II or other issues. This originally appeared at workingforchange.com.