- The US's response to 11 September has been an
unprecedented clampdown on the rights of its own citizens, reports Paul
Harris in New York...
- The message of the posters on the walls of Skokie
library is plain: Big Brother is watching you. The signs, put up by
librarian Caroline Anthony, warn of the radical new laws that have given
the American government power to monitor the reading habits of its
citizens without telling them.
- Now the FBI can also secretly record what websites
people look at. And what books they buy. Or videos they hire. 'Libraries
are all about freedom of knowledge and not having Big Brother watching
you. We had to warn our users,' said Anthony.
- She believed Skokie was particularly at risk. The
Chicago suburb has a large population of immigrants, including many from
countries such as Iraq and Iran. Two years after the terror attacks of
11 September, 2001, Anthony and many others think America is in the grip
of a frightening extension of state power.
- At the centre of it is the Patriot Act, rushed through
in the wake of the attacks to give authorities the legal weapons they
needed to fight the 'war on terror'. Instead, critics say, those weapons
have also hit at America's own civil rights and freedoms.
- The act allowed the FBI to pull records from libraries
and bookstores, defined 'terrorism' to include direct action by
protesters, widened the use of wire-tapping on phone calls and emails
and paved the way for the mass internment without charge of several
thousand foreign nationals. The most vulnerable are Arabs, Asians and
Muslims. 'Essentially this is the most massive case of ethnic profiling
since the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War,'
said David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor and author of a
forthcoming book on the subject, Enemy Aliens .
- The government refuses to number the amount of foreign
nationals it holds without charge. But even those released and deported
are still victims. The shadow of being detained for suspicion of
terrorism is not easily lifted. Certainly Akil Sachveda is suffering. He
is now a part-time pump attendant in Toronto. He used to own a petrol
station, a bar and a pool hall in New Jersey, until one day the FBI came
looking for an ex-employee who was a Muslim. The man had left but they
arrested Sachveda instead on suspicion of Islamic terrorism, despite the
fact he is a Hindu. He was held for five months and given no access to a
lawyer. Prison guards threatened his life. Eventually he was deported to
Canada. He was never charged, but he had lost everything. 'It is so
painful. It was terrifying, but you can't fight the government,' he
- Sachveda now can't get a full-time job. His spell in
prison puts off employers. 'You either don't get an interview or they
let you go as soon as they find out. But I never did anything
- The extensions of state power go beyond round-ups and
the Patriot Act. The FBI has secretly recruited campus police officers
to monitor students and academics. The scheme was only uncovered after
the interrogation of a Sri Lankan campus union organ iser at the
University of Massachusetts. Yaju Dharmarajah had applied to help with a
state emergency co-ordination agency as part of plans to become an aid
worker. But his Asian name and accent instead brought the local campus
FBI officer to his house. 'They thought I wanted to video their work as
part of a terrorist plot,' he said.
- 'I am lucky. I have a white American wife. If she was
Sri Lankan like me, I wouldn't have said anything for fear they would
deport us,' Dharmarajah said.
- Others are also afraid. Last year Sister Virgine
Lawinger, a 74-year-old Milwaukee nun, was travelling to an anti-war
rally. But she was on a list of people considered too dangerous to fly
and was stopped from boarding her plane. She believes her politics were
to blame. 'People should not be naive. My experience just raised the
stakes for me. It shows we have to be even more alert to protecting our
democracy,' she said.
- Jan Adams, a journalist on the anti-war San Francisco
newspaper War Times , has also been stopped at airports, as has her
colleague Rebecca Gordon. New York lawyer Barbara Olshansky, who is
involved in several anti-Patriot Act suits, is stopped almost every time
she flies. She is frequently subjected to strip and full body searches.
She now fears to leave the US, despite being an American citizen, out of
concern she will not be allowed back. It has made her angry. 'It is
becoming an awful witch-hunt. At first I didn't believe it, but now it
is just horrifying to me,' she said.
- But there is a growing movement to try to roll back
the act. It is gathering support from across the political spectrum,
including such notable Republicans as Idaho's Senator 'Butch' Otter, who
has led an effort in Congress to curtail some of the act's
- Across America more than 150 cities and counties have
passed local legislation 'opting out' of the Patriot Act. In Boise,
Idaho, a Republican stronghold, a group calling itself the Boise
Patriots is hoping to force the city council to add their city to the
list. They are a diverse group, including anti-abortionists, women's
rights groups, environmentalists and pro-gun lobbyists. 'If enough
communities join this effort, we can roll this law right back,' said
founder Gwen Sanchirico.
- The movement has become so powerful that Attorney
General John Ashcroft has embarked on a nationwide tour to promote the
Patriot Act. But it is already too late for some. Sachveda is not
adjusting well to his newfound poverty and exile from his adopted home.
'I lost everything. It would have been better if I had never come to
America,' he said.