Yesterday, on the 220th anniversary of the USA’s Bill of Rights, President Obama and Congress effectively rendered it null and void. The passage of sections 1031 and 1032 of the National Defense Authorization Act legalises the detention without trial of US citizens and non-citizens alike, overturning the right of anyone accused of a crime to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury. As the economic crisis deepens and the Occupy movement foreshadows titanic class struggle on American soil, the US ruling class appears to be taking George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four as a training manual, not a work of political satire.
Under the legislation, which was sneaked into the 2012 version of the routine military budget bill, anyone accused of being a terrorist can be “detained without trial until the end of hostilities”. In the context of the ‘war on terror’, imperial strategists have talked of it lasting many decades. Someone might well end up in a ‘black site’ and never see the light of day again.
Of course, there’s also the problem of the term ‘terrorist’. The old adage that ‘one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter’ certainly comes to mind. When it invades countries, or provides aids to regimes that do, Washington always labels as ‘terrorists’ those who fight back. But even then it is very likely that there will be some – such as many of those detained at Guantanamo Bay – who merely got caught up in a situation where others were planning to fight back. The military is now entirely free to torture such people to their hearts’ content, safe in the knowledge that they will never be able to expose their treatment in an open court.
But even more than that, the legislation will likely be used against those who oppose US policy in any significant way, whether or not their behaviour could ever be covered by the standard dictionary definition of terrorism. As Julian Assange fights extradition to Sweden over rape allegations, it is worth remembering that many leading US politicians – including current Republican presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich – have accused him of “terrorism” or being a “terrorist”. Similarly, in the UK, Occupy London have been listed as “terrorists” by City of London police. It is not a great mental leap to imagine US cops – or the US military – doing the same to American activists.
What passed for US democracy has now been in profound decay for more than a decade. The onslaught arguably began with the impeachment of then President Bill Clinton – ostensibly over his sexual practices – by a hard right Republican caucus. Then followed the stolen presidential election of 2000, which put George W Bush in power despite his receiving fewer votes than his Democratic challenger Al Gore. In both cases, Democrats virtually prostrated themselves before the right wing.
In no small measure, Barack Obama was elected in 2008 because he appealed to ‘hope’ that there would be a ‘change’ from the anti-democratic policies of the Bush administration. At the time, he pledged to shut down the US camp in Guantanamo Bay, but it remains open, and such repression is now fully sanctioned by law.
However, it is not a matter of the wrong individuals having their hands on the levers of power. Instead, this democratic decay is symptomatic of capitalism’s decay. The ruling class have erected the skeleton of a police state because they know their economic assaults will soon trigger a massive fightback by the working class, of which the Occupy movement is only an acorn to an oak tree. As with the bankers’ appointment of technocrat hatchet men to the governments of Italy and Greece, it is one more sign that bourgeois liberal democracy is a luxury which the financial elites of the world can no longer afford.