This w/u is a brief survey update of the performance of the United States of America in the pertinent criteria, using Purvis's as a template. I concentrate particularly on the developments since the Great Airline Massacre. Please bear in mind that I have no intention of claiming that the US is a dictatorship; it remains internally a highly free place. However, the public trauma and hysteria in 2001 led to widespread disinterest in civil liberty (as often happens at moments of crisis), and the current administration has made some threatening gestures in recent years.
The right to:
- travel in own country: The FBI has implemented a "no-fly" list that excludes a huge number of innocent people from flying, presumably based on their names. (The list has not yet led to the detention of any terrorists, as one doesn't usually buy a ticket reading "Osama bin Laden.") We don't know who, exactly, is barred, because the list is secret, maintained without court oversight. The only legal course of action for those placed on the list is suing the federal government, and, given that civil rights attorneys have been prohibited from flying, that seems likely, in spite of the difficulty of filing such a suit without knowing whether the plaintiffs are on the list (the FBI won't say). Extra-legal profiling of Arabs and South Asians has also led some to avoid flying in frustration. (Some would also cite the ID requirements as overly restrictive.)
- travel abroad: The US has become decidedly less free in this regard, as many Arab, South Asian, and Muslim citizens and lawful permanent residents have been accused without substantiation of attending al-Qaeda training camps upon returning from their birthplaces or ancestral countries. See Maher Arar for a description of why not to fly through the US if you are Arab.
- peacefully associate and assemble: The US has taken a serious turn for the worse in this regard, as peaceful protests against the Iraq war were shunted to distant locations, if not blocked outright. In New York, police attempted to prevent Archbishop Desmond Tutu from speaking at a rally (just an example).
- teach ideas and receive information: The exception of court suppression of certain algorithms through the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, the debacle over Diebold voting machines, and the semi-serious suggested "regulation" of postcolonial studies are all fairly exceptional, but there has been little downturn in this category, unless one counts the harassment and death threats received by peace activists during any war (Nicholas de Genova comes to mind). The state sporadically suppresses information on illegal weaponry and the production of recreational drugs. (I object to these practices -- on grounds of the First and Second Amendment grounds -- but they don't seem terribly serious.)
- monitor human rights violations: The press have faced substantial restrictions in their reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan, although much of the shoddy coverage is due to press laziness.
- ethnic language: Many states, including Massachusetts, have abolished bilingual education programs, and the phrasing of the laws indicate that teachers who speak a non-English language in class could be sanctioned, although this seems a remote possibility.
The freedom from:
- forced or child labor: Prison slave labor continues to be an issue, and certain political figures have advocated for the return to compulsory military service, but child and forced labor remains marginal.
- compulsory work permits: Still a-ok.
- extra-judicial killings or "disappearances": No targeted assassainations, although some innocents are shot by police.
- torture or coercion: Two words: Guantanamo Bay. There exists evidence that the US is "farming out" prisoners to countries where torture is legal (e.g., Maher Arar to Syria). As yet, Guantanamo-like conditions have not yet been applied to citizens or lawful permanent residents.
- capital punishment: The US may be falling behind China in quantity of executions, but it continues a disturbing trend of failures in due process, including the denial of consular visits to non-citizens convicted of capital offenses. The death penalty continues to be applied almost exclusively to persons with inadequate legal representation. The execution of the mentally disabled is now illegal, but the execution of those convicted while minors is only now being challenged.
- corporal punishment: "Pain compliance" continues to be a favorite police strategy in response to peaceful demonstrations, both lawful and disobedient.
- unlawful detention: Damn. The President has pushed for legislation allowing for accused terrorists to be stripped of citizenship. Other citizens have been detained for months without legal access or charges; the state has defended these actions with absurd "enemy combatant" claims. A massive number of immigrants have been jailed based on spurious accusations of terrorist ties, prompting the Justice Department to issue a scathing report. The widespread arrest of peaceful protestors has expanded, in spite of numerous successful lawsuits (Seattle, for example). The developments of the past several years are extraordinarily disturbing, especially given the absence of serious public or legislative opposition. The courts remain somewhat combative when it comes to the detention of citizens, although they maintain that the Constitution only barely applies to lawful permanent residents.
- compulsory party or organization membership: None.
- compulsory religion or state ideology in schools: In spite of opposition from the Executive, courts have reduced the amount of God-imposition in schools. Many public school administrators still punish students expressing anti-war or perceived "unpatriotic" sentiments, although this practice is technically illegal. The teaching of evolution remains contentious in certain states.
- arts control: There has been little or no backslide in this area.
- political censorship of press: Again, there is virtually no state intervention in this area.
- censorship of mail or telephone-tapping: The USA PATRIOT Act has expanded wiretapping, and the National Security Administration continues to surveil an unknown quantity of electronic and telephone communications, with no court oversight or public scrutiny. While export restrictions on encryption software have been eased, virtually no one uses it. This area, especially in terms of NSA (and FBI) monitoring, remains an area of enormous concern for many privacy advocates.
The freedom for:
- peaceful political opposition: See "peaceful assembly." The Executive continues to wield "patriotism" like a blunt object, and the Democrats remain fairly uncritical in terms of civil liberties and foreign policy. Left-wing opponents, particularly anarchists, remain the open target of a great deal of state harassment and surveillance (for example, during the preparations of anti-war and anti-neoliberal protests). Still, assembly remains the major area of backslide.
- political and legal equality for women: Women remain underrepresented in every branch of government, and they are barred from combat positions in the military. No apparent backslide, however, and women are rapidly becoming more formally educated than men.
- independent newspapers, independent book publishing, independent radio and television networks: Fox News. Seriously. There exists no major TV news source that gave a serious voice to opponents of the invasion of Iraq, and the related protests received little coverage, in spite of their staggering size (300,000 in New York, before the war started). "Embedded reporters" often present a romantic and uncritical view of the invasion; in Afghanistan, Ted Rall documented the total dependence of the US press on "official" news sources; subsequently, many reporters have overstated the stability of Hamid Karzai's Kabul government, or ignored reports of civillian casualties based on official US denials. Many print news sources are somewhat more even-handed.
- independent courts: The "enemy combatants" nonsense theoretically allows the trial of accused "terrorists" (see "innocent until proven guilty") to be tried in secret military courts -- in other words, wholly within the Executive Branch. This is a Big Deal(tm). Rather absurd mandatory minimum sentences curb the authority of even federal judges, leading to some gratuitous prison terms for drug convictions.
- independent trade unions: The United States continues to tolerate unlawful labor practices on part of employers, particularly in the treatment of undocumented immigrants (who are in turn used as a weapon against citizens or documented permanent residents). In short, we are seeing the continuation of a decade and a half of backslide, although the union movement has in recent years become more assertive.
The right to:
- a nationality: Extra-legal harassment of Arabs and South Asians has become a severe problem; many women in New York and Michigan haved stopped wearing the hijab thanks to a handful of assaults. Profiling based on perceived ethnic or national origin has become widespread in airports, although it is often official (if not theoretically in opposition to official policy). Again, such practices can't be attributed to government policy.
- being considered innocent until proved guilty: Not if you're Arab, or a non-citizen, or you're Jose Padilla. We're clearly falling fast here. Also, "assets forfeiture" -- the seizure of property of drug suspects, before trial -- remains a widespread problem, and in many places the police have incentive to over-seize, as their departments retain the proceeds. The accused has to resort to costly legal action to get back her or his car, house, etc., even if found not guilty. Profiling of black and Latino youth remains a problem, as does mass arrests of protestors. Some drug and drug-related laws (the RAVE Act, for example) hold event promoters responsible for the drug use of others; some states theoretically allow punishment for the accidental "possession" of psilocibe mushrooms and cannabis growing wild on one's property.
- free legal aid when necessary and counsel of own choice: The treatment of post-September 11th detainees comes to mind here. The Executive continues to claim the right to deny counsel, particularly to immigrants but occasionally to citizens, when the charges are "terrorism." Free legal counsel often remains dismal, a major problem in capital cases.
- open trial: USA PATRIOT and related measures are concerted attempts to curb this right, in particular through the implementation of military tribunals. See "independent courts."
- prompt trial: Ha. Jose Padilla. Kevin Mitnick. Many immigrant detainees have actually had to ask advocates to try to speed their deportation, rather than wait for a protracted, costly, and often lost-cause trial.
- freedom from police searches of home without a warrant: This remains a non-issue, more or less. "No-knock" or secret warrants may be disturbing to some, but they still require court oversight.
- freedom from arbitrary seizure of personal property: Assets forfeiture (see "innocent until proven guilty"). "Eminent domain" is routinely used to make way for football stadiums.
The personal right to:
- interracial, inter-religious or civil marriage: Basically no problems, although some of us would argue that the God fanboys' prohibition of same-sex unions amounts to a prohibition of civil marriage (as I cannot marry without complying without someone else's religious criteria).
- equality of sexes during marriage and for divorce proceedings: Not major problems.
- homosexuality between consenting adults: Sodomy is legal! Yay! The military continues to bar homosexual practice. Although unrelated, punishment for consensual sex between closely-aged "majors" and "minors" (e.g., an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old) remains vastly higher vis-a-vis homosexuals.
- practice any religion: Hell, we aren't France. Many civil-liberties advocates have noted the expansion of surveillance of mosques and Muslim religious organizations, although I know of no examples of this that could yet be construed as authoritarian.
- determine the number of one's children: Nifty, no matter how thoroughly our President dislikes birth control.
The most disturbing backslides have occurred in the legal approach towards accused "terrorists," a vague legal designation that may include politically-motivated vandalism. The state, in particular the Executive, has taken on extraordinary powers in terms of detentions and surveillance. In many cases, the Executive has moved to supercede judicial authority in such cases, particularly with respect to non-citizens, allowing "law enforcement" to operate with impunity. In addition, violent suppression of large, peaceful protests has become the norm. Judicial response to both of these trends remains mixed, although legislative opposition has been virtually nil.
Probably the most frightening reality of all of this, however, is that public outcry has been so readily forestalled through the use of the designation of "terrorist." By restricting the most gratuituous of offenses to marginal groups -- suspected "radical" Muslims, especially, and those with minor visa violations -- the current administration has been able to set some rather frightening precedents. While I find the "it-might-be-us-next" logic obnoxious ("they" merit decent treatment whether or not it means anything for "us," for any value of "them" and "us"), many US voters appear unwilling to recognize that the treatment of non-citizens and perceived religious extremists (at least, the kind that doesn't get elected to office) will wind up weighing heavily on the Bill of Rights.