Guantánamo in New York City
Since 9/11, the Department of Justice has prosecuted more than 500 terrorism cases, yet there remains scant public understanding of what these federal cases have actually looked like and the impact they have had on communities and families. Published by The Nation in collaboration with Educators for Civil Liberties, the America After 9/11 series features contributions from scholars, researchers and advocates to provide a systematic look at the patterns of civil rights abuses in the United States’ domestic “war on terror.”
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Oussama Kassir received a four-month punishment for saying “As-salaam alaikum” to another prisoner. Forbidden from talking to other inmates or corresponding with anyone but his immediate family, Kassir was held in solitary confinement and denied access to the outdoors or even to direct sunlight. To protest his conditions, he went on a hunger strike and was force-fed at great pain, according to his lawyer.
But Kassir was not being held at Guantánamo. He was being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, where he spent eighteen months in pretrial detention under these draconian conditions. Kassir, a Lebanese-born Swedish national, faced eleven charges stemming from his connections with an attempt to establish a terrorist training camp in Bly, Oregon. The Swedish government had investigated several of the charges but dropped them all for insufficient evidence. The Czech Republic, where Kassir was apprehended, would extradite him to the United States only on the condition that Kassir would not be sent to Guantánamo. So he was sent to New York, where he nonetheless encountered serious abuses of his human rights, but no public outcry.
For the vast majority of Americans, there are few (if any) names that jump to mind when it comes to federal terrorism defendants. By and large, their cases are known by the gimmicky phrases attached to them when the indictments are announced: “Herald Square bomber,” “dirty bomber,” “underwear bomber.” Media coverage follows a typical pattern: first, sensationalized top-of-the-news coverage of the initial arrest—often with lurid details about “thwarted plots” and the suspect’s alleged “radicalization” taken without question from the indictment—accompanied by relief that the bad guys are being nabbed. This is followed by months, if not years, of media silence and, finally, coverage during the trial, which is usually limited to general courtroom observation with little critical analysis of the pretrial conditions, the nature of the evidence, or the pattern of government conduct across these cases.
Twelve years after 9/11, there have been more than 500 federal terrorism prosecutions, but Americans have little sense of what these cases look like in the aggregate. Nor do we know the impact they have had on communities and families. So we end up with a lasting national consciousness of a “dirty bomber” who was never even indicted for—much less convicted of—having a dirty bomb. Or the “Herald Square bomber,” who actually told his government handler days before the alleged plot that he would need to check with his mother before doing anything. Or the “Liberty City Seven,” allegedly dead-set on bombing the Sears Tower—who, in reality, were so poor that they couldn’t finance a trip to Chicago or buy weapons of any kind, and didn’t even have the money for a camera to take photos of “targets.” (They wound up using one provided by the FBI.)
According to a yearlong study by Mother Jones and Trevor Aaronson of the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley: “Once terrorism defendants have been indicted, a charge is virtually certain to stick.” This near-perfect conviction rate—the kind of figure that, seen in the context of China’s legal system or those of other foreign regimes, would be an immediate red flag—here is typically used to demonstrate how “successful” the federal system is in prosecuting terrorists.
One of the most unfortunate myths of the past decade, propagated by both liberals and conservatives (though for different reasons), is that the federal system is relatively fair and incorruptible, and thus the United States had to go outside the law to abridge the rights of suspects and treat them inhumanely. This is not true. Alongside the inhumanities occurring at Guantánamo, Bagram or Abu Ghraib are the inhumanities that happen right here, in lower Manhattan and Minneapolis, in Virginia and Colorado, which follow from a long history of using the criminal justice system to punish dissent and contain unwanted or “dangerous” populations.
This trust in the federal courts has produced blinders. As a result, few people have looked closely at what happens to people accused or suspected of terrorism in the federal system. The prison at Guantánamo Bay was treated as the problem, not a symptom of it. So the parallels between the treatment of terror suspects at Guantánamo and at home have gone largely unexamined, and the particular tools available under federal law to abridge the rights of suspects in national security cases go largely unscrutinized.
It is time to shift our focus to these federal cases: to the assumptions of radicalization and pre-emptive prosecution that drive US domestic counterterrorism, to the deference accorded by federal courts to the government’s assertions of national security, and to the pattern of rights abridgment and the conditions of detention on US soil. When we look more closely, this is what we see: a pattern of intrusive surveillance, entrapment and government-instigated plots; overreaching “material support” charges; the use of prolonged solitary confinement and so-called special administrative measures; classified evidence; and the criminalization of Islamic speech and association.
Edward Snowden’s release of NSA documents has galvanized national attention and spurred an outcry over domestic surveillance. Yet this uproar has largely focused on what is being done to all Americans, missing the fact that certain Americans have borne a much heavier burden. Over the past decade, as documented in a Pulitzer Prize–winning series by the Associated Press, the New York Police Department has infiltrated Muslim student organizations, restaurants, bookstores, community organizations, weddings, camping trips and mosques. In 2008, the FBI modified its guidelines to allow the surveillance of mosques and political gatherings without any evidence of wrongdoing. As of 2011, according to Trevor Aaronson and a report by Muslim Advocates, the FBI had 15,000 informants and, according to Aaronson, 45,000 unofficial ones, most of whom were tasked with providing information on Muslim-American life and association. Informants are regularly instructed by their FBI or NYPD handlers to listen and probe for anti-American sentiments.
Surveillance leeches onto dissent and disrupts community mobilization. We must examine the targeting of dissent and the policing of national boundaries. Claims of national security have led to the denial of citizenship and a drastic expansion of immigration detention and deportation, as well as harsh sentencing and inhumane conditions for so-called domestic terrorists—environmentalists, animal rights activists, Muslims, black radicals. (Former Black Panther Assata Shakur was recently placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List.) We must take a broader look at who is being targeted on national security grounds.
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