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Bruce Shapiro | The Nation

Bruce Shapiro

Author Bios

Bruce Shapiro

Contributing Editor

Bruce Shapiro, a contributing editor to The Nation, is executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a global resource center and think tank for journalists covering violence, conflict and tragedy.

He has been described as one of the most "sharp and thoughtful" (Washington Post), "perceptive" (Slate) and "nuanced" (Village Voice) analysts on the contemporary American scene.

Shapiro began his career on the fertile journalistic and political terrain of Chicago in the 1970s, where he was a founding editor of the radical magazine Haymarket. He was later co-founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, a weekly newspaper devoted to innovative grassroots muckraking. From 1991-1995 Shapiro was director of The Nation Institute's Supreme Court Watch, a civil liberties watchdog.

Shapiro has written extensively on civil liberties and human rights. For The Nation, Shapiro has reported since 1981 on subjects ranging from the psychopolitics of cults to the privatization of public schools, and dissected national events from the nomination of Clarence Thomas to Bush Administration war crimes.

Shapiro is co-author of Legal Lynching: The Death Penalty and America's Future, with Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (New Press), praised by Washington Post Book World for "intellectual clarity" which "might convince even the strongest supporters that the machinery of death has run its course." His most recent book is Shaking the Foundations: 200 Years of Investigative Journalism in America (Nation Books), called "vibrant and pertinent" by Columbia Journalism Review.

Since 1994 Shapiro has taught investigative journalism at Yale University. He contributes a weekly report on American politics and culture to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Late Night Live.

Articles

News and Features

The US Supreme Court's stunning 5-4 stay Saturday of the Florida
undervote count--less than 24 hours after the equally stunning Florida
Supreme Court decision ordering that same count--illuminat

Noncitizens in the United States face an increasingly harsh Ashcroft-run Justice Department.

Viewers of the old spy spoof Get Smart will remember the Cone of Silence--that giant plastic hair-salon dryer that descended over Maxwell Smart and Control when they held a sensitive conversation. Today, a Cone of Silence has descended over all of Washington: From four-star generals to lowly webmasters, the town is in information lockdown. Never in the nation's history has the flow of information from government to press and public been shut off so comprehensively and quickly as in the weeks following September 11. Much of the shutdown seems to have little to do with preventing future terrorism and everything to do with the Administration's laying down a new across-the-board standard for centralized control of the public's right to know.

The most alarming evidence of the new climate emanates from the Justice Department. Investigators still hold in custody 150 of the 800 people rounded up in the aftermath of the attacks. (One detainee died in custody in New Jersey.) No charges have been filed, no hearings convened. The names of nearly all those still held remain classified, as do the reasons for their incarceration. Lawyers for some of the hundreds cleared and released have told reporters of questionable treatment of their clients--food withheld, attorneys blocked from access. Of the 150 who remain detained, only four presumed Al Qaeda suspects have been publicly named. FBI agents frustrated at the lack of progress in their interrogations of those four now mutter in the Washington Post about using sodium pentothal, or turning the suspects over to a country where beatings or other torture is used. The government's stranglehold on information about other arrests makes it impossible to know just how far agents have already gone down that road, or whether the dragnet was mainly a public-relations exercise.

Just as damaging as these detentions is an October 12 memo from Attorney General John Ashcroft reversing longstanding Freedom of Information Act policies. In 1993 then-Attorney General Janet Reno directed agencies to disclose any government information upon request unless it was "reasonably foreseeable that disclosure would be harmful." Ashcroft reverses this presumption, instead calling on agencies to withhold information whenever the law permits: "You can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions," he writes. Ashcroft is in effect creating a "born secret" standard; in the words of the Federation of American Scientists, the order "appears to exploit the current circumstances" to turn FOIA into an Official Secrets Act.

One after another, federal agencies are removing public data from their websites or restricting access to their public reading rooms. Caution is understandable, but OMB Watch and Investigative Reporters and Editors have both documented egregious examples that seem at best tangentially related to terrorism and more likely designed as butt-coverage for mid-level bureaucrats. The Energy Department has removed information from its web-posted Occurrence Reporting Program, which provides news of events that could adversely affect public health or worker safety. The EPA removed information from its site about the dangers of chemical accidents and how to prevent them, information the FBI says carries no threat of terrorism. More relevant than Al Qaeda, it appears, was hard lobbying by the chemical industry, which found the site an annoyance. The FAA pulled the plug on long-available lists of its security sanctions against airports around the country--depriving reporters of their only tool for evaluating the agency's considerable failures to enforce its own public safety findings. At the Pentagon, news has been reduced to a trickle far more constricted than anything during Kosovo, which in turn was more restrictive than during the Gulf War. So comprehensive is the shutdown that on October 13, presidents of twenty major journalists' organizations declared in a joint statement that "these restrictions pose dangers to American democracy and prevent American citizens from obtaining the information they need."

In the short run, the Cone of Silence did most damage at the Centers for Disease Control. Could the two (at this writing) Washington, DC, postal workers who died of inhalation anthrax have been protected by earlier treatment? Did any of the CDC's doctors or scientists recommend a course of antibiotics for postal workers along the trajectory of anthrax-laden letters? Who knows? With the CDC's staff muzzled, the public and postal workers alike were left with politicians as the conduits for contradictory and inadequate information about the risk.

The uncertain dimensions of the Al Qaeda threat make equally uncertain which information the government publishes might contribute to another attack and what to do about it. But it should be noted that the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks apparently involved data no more confidential than an airline schedule. The Administration's response has been to treat all information and press access as suspect--an approach that will subvert public confidence and undercut legitimate media scrutiny more than it will damage Al Qaeda. During Vietnam, the famous credibility gap resided at the Pentagon, with briefings and Congressional testimony at odds with battlefield evidence. Just weeks into this war, the Bush Administration is risking a new credibility gap roughly the size of the District of Columbia.

Jitters are not among the clinical symptoms of anthrax.

The Administration is using September 11
to curtail our civil liberties.

A world effort to force an end to the US death penalty is gaining strength.

Strange as it may seem, Timothy McVeigh and George W. Bush shared the same analysis of McVeigh's execution Monday morning, June 11, in Terre Haute. The Oklahoma City bomber, intoned Bush, "met the fate he chose for himself six years ago"--the perfect mirror of McVeigh's own vision of himself as "the master of my fate," in his citation of William Ernest Henley's "Invictus."

The notion of "fate"--a predetermined outcome--sanitizes state-sponsored killing even as it fulfills McVeigh's megalomaniacal delusions. But fate had nothing to do with it. Death sentences are a matter of caprice rather than legal predetermination, as evinced by the twenty-one of twenty-three federal death-row inmates remaining in Terre Haute whose "fate" was to be born nonwhite. Myth: "The severest sentence for the gravest of crimes," as Bush declared that Monday, employing McVeigh as a handy fig leaf for a federal death row even more racially out of kilter than its state counterparts. Reality: The capital trial norm remains "the death penalty not for the worst crime, but the worst lawyer," in the words of litigator Stephen Bright.

One salient political and legal fact received scant consideration Monday: Because it was a federal execution, McVeigh's killing was the first in two generations on behalf of all of us. But "all of us," or even the majority of us, no longer support the death penalty. The government has gone back into the killing business at the very moment when the national capital punishment consensus has eroded, as indicated by polls showing support for death sentences slipping below 50 percent if replaced by life terms without parole. McVeigh's execution was supposed to turn this trend around. Instead, the FBI's documents blunder and the generally sordid spectacle from Terre Haute only fed public unease.

Sanitizing was pretty much the universal order of business Monday. The news media made much of their sensitivity to Oklahoma City's survivors. But only the Daily Oklahoman consistently noted the diversity of survivor opinion on McVeigh's execution, and among broadcasters only KWTW, an Oklahoma City station, reported that nearly a third of the 325 people who had reserved chairs for the closed-circuit telecast elected not to show up. And only the Chicago Tribune has bothered to report--in an interview with an anesthesiologist shortly before McVeigh's original execution date in May--that lethal injection deaths like McVeigh's are often far more painful than they may appear to witnesses. The closed-circuit telecast of McVeigh's killing also offered powerful ammunition against the argument from some leading abolitionists that public broadcasts of executions would lead to widespread outrage against them. "It was such a peaceful death. That made it more palatable," witness Archie Blanchard said on NBC, after confessing that before the telecast it had been "hard to think about being there."

Also missing from press coverage was any recognition of McVeigh's forgotten conspirators. Not John Doe #2, but the wide range of "mainstream" right-wing politicians and broadcasters and publishers and gun lobbyists who exploited the Branch Davidian deaths in Waco with wild conspiracy theories, ratifying McVeigh's delusional rage and naming his enemy. Just a few of those sharing collateral guilt: the National Rifle Association, which not long before Oklahoma City called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms "jack-booted government thugs, federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens"; Representative Helen Chenoweth, who declared that America's national parks had been taken over by the United Nations; Senator Bob Smith, who temporarily dropped his GOP affiliation in favor of the paranoid, antigovernment populists of the US Taxpayers Party; and antichoice fanatics who pointed the way to Oklahoma City with their abortion clinic bombings in the early nineties. It is easier to treat Tim McVeigh as an inexplicable aberration who can be evicted from history than to recall just how widely evident were obsessions like his.

President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft now turn their attention to Juan Raul Garza, scheduled for execution on June 19. In between, Bush traveled to Europe, arriving in Spain, which was in an uproar over a falsely convicted Spanish citizen recently released from Florida's death row. America's death penalty has for years baffled our European partners, but it is only now becoming a serious diplomatic and political issue. France is refusing to extradite Buffalo abortion doctor shooter James Kopp until prosecutors agree to spare him from capital charges, and Germany is suing the United States over the execution of a German national who was never informed of his consular rights. In Ireland, voters on June 7 overwhelmingly approved a referendum permanently abolishing capital punishment from the country's Constitution. Capital punishment now isolates the US abroad as it divides Americans at home. The McVeigh execution, instead of marking a new era of federalized capital punishment, may turn out to be the high-water mark before the long-overdue retreat of the capital punishment tide.