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     Volume 4 Issue 3 | July 9, 2004 |


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The Land of the Not So Free

Mustafa Zaman

“How dare Senator Daschle criticise President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism," was the fiery volley of a Republican minority leader, Senator Trent Lott, all bucked up to counter criticism. It was right after the adoption of new legislations and policies following the September 11 calamity, when few men like Daschle had the courage to speak out in protest, and risk being branded the enemy within.

War certainly is a bad time for free speech. As political and social pressures mount, the leaders find it convenient to readily dismiss any flack that their polices gather, and sweep their own home truths under the thick rug of patriotism.

As for the US government, after 9/11, it was, and still is, bent over and determined to go on its on chosen course by resisting opposition, combating criticism with a vengeance. But what about the free media that upholds the great democratic principle: the right to free expression? Unfortunately, this often gets the axe in the land of the free -- America.

Does any government have the leverage in monitoring a vast network of media, which is privately owned and continuously professes to enjoy 'total freedom'? The word freedom is something of a euphemism for democracy. It is a phrase that lends the countries around the world an essential mashalla (spice) -- an ingredient they incessantly crow about and which at present is being considerably tampered with.

Gore Vidal, the writer who often rubbed shoulders with the high-ups, wrote a piece after the twin tower catastrophy and it had to cross the Atlantic and travel to Italy to see the light of day.

Gore's article was originally commissioned by The Daily Mail. The paper declared the piece unsuitable for publication. Then Vanity Fair rushed to the rescue, or it seemed so. Vanity Fair asked Vidal to update and elaborate. After a three-month delay, that magazine also dropped it. An irked Vidal then offered it to several UK newspapers, who turned it down. Finally, it appeared in Italy in a collection of Vidal's essays entitled "La fine della liberta: Verso un nouvo tolalitarism?"

"The End of Liberty", the Vidal piece, shatters many myths that America makes effort to keep alive. After jump-starting with the creation story depicted in the holy Quran, where he discovers that Allah created darkness on the same day (he calls it Black Tuesday) Manhattan towers were struck. Then it goes on to explore a lot of facts that brings out the true colours of the Oval-Office Kings.

Vidal traces Osama bin Laden's past involvement with the CIA. A nation that Edward Syed referred to as "pragmatic" in their everyday affairs is known for their disdain for history. Vidal takes a different route, he retraces the past courses and sheds light on the underhanded acts initiated by the people occupying the highest office. Vidal writes, "Let us deal first with the six-foot seven-inch Osama who enters history in 1979 as a guerilla warrior working alongside the CIA to defend Afghanistan against the invading Soviets." Vidal also digs out the Saudi connection of the White House and traces the donation of large sums to Harvard by Osama's several siblings (he has 54 in total) living in Boston.

What tones this essay has nothing to do with "anti-Americanism" -- that giant of a phrase, which seals the fate of any kind of reasoning both in America and around the world. Vidal is a red-blooded American and he scathingly brackets Osama as "Allah's soldier fighting the infidels". He recounts the efforts of Osama in persuading a huge group of people to prepare for fighting in Afghanistan. Osama comes off as something of an Allah-obsessed sociopath in Vidal's view. Even the history of Saladin's conquest (during the 12th century) is seen from a Western perspective. Yet, the piece gives us accounts of history that the Bushites remain doggedly silent about.

What remains unuttered in the land of the free, is common knowledge in the rest of the world. Vidal brings it up and risks not getting a publisher. He brought into sharp focus the lobbing of a missile at a Sudanese aspirin factory by Clinton which was quickly followed by Osama's embassy-blowing spree in Africa, he knocked out two in all. Alongside Osama's antics, FBI's shenanigans too are revealed. The 1993 "murderous attack" is recalled, where, in the name of fighting terrorism, FBI mounted an offensive killing of 82 evangelical Christians "who were living peaceably in their own compound at Waco, Texas". Among the dead were 25 children.

The "acts" that made the great wheel of freedom take a reverse turn, flouting the norms of democracy, were consecutively introduced both by Clinton and Bush. Clinton's 1996 "conference bill" gave the attorney general the power to use the armed services against the civilian population. This act empowered the SWAT teams to an inhuman degree. "Special Weapons and Tactics", aka SWAT came into being, as Vidal observes, when in the 70s the "white-shirt-and-tie FBI reinvented itself from a corps of 'generalists' trained in law and accounting." In the early 80s, an FBI super-SWAT team was formed. The Waco catastrophe was the handy work of one such team.

After the Twin Tower Tragedy, the SWAT teams' actions were enhanced to the limit, the army's adventures in Iraq is the burning testimony. At the verbal horizon Bushites seemed to have mustered the same amount of ‘horsepower’. A sample of Bush's knowledge of Islam's wiles and ways: "They hate what they see right here in this chamber. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedom, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other." But the same man decried: "You are either with us or against us."

Since the terror attack, Bush seems to have lodged himself in a position where he is flanked by a group that is with him, and another that opposes him. It is certainly a self-appointed role. And by waging a war against one man, the self-appointed-messiah has defined 'good' and ‘evil’ in the slimmest terms possible. With the middle tones effaced, all things are seen in black and white.

By bringing in the legislation and policies that define the crime of terrorism in the broadest terms, the Bush administration has shown the acumen in "chilling any genuine criticism of, or even debate about, the government's security and military measures," believes Ronald Dworkin, a professor of jurisprudence at the University of London.

Vidal thinks that the word "terrorism" is a hard nut to crack, especially in legal terms. But not every other man belonging to the Western stream of knowledge finds it difficult to define. The British ambassador to the UN unflinchingly says, "You know it when you see it."

In the war against terrorism the civilians in Afghanistan or Iraq, or even the American soldier’s democracy and its ways are also in a tailspin. And it is clearly discernible in its true colour and with the overall weight of the ideological baggage, through words of the pontiffs who support the 'war-time' emergency measures. Micheal Ignatieff writes in Index, where Vidal's piece also appears, at last, in English for the first time, "Community -- especially moral community -- is not easy on free thought. The risks of censorship, as usual, are probably less serious than those of self-censorship."

The oppressive moralism that thickens the air on the American home-front after September 11, is well registered in the opinion polls. According to a November 1995 CNN-Time poll, 55 percent of the people believed: "The federal government has become so powerful that it poses a threat to the rights of ordinary citizens." Three days after the Twin Tower Tragedy, 74 percent said they thought: "It would be necessary for Americans to give up some of their personal freedom."

"The end justifies the means" -- a dictum that dictators keep cozily tucked under their sleeves, seems to be creeping into other domains. Terrorists justify their acts by resorting to it, now even democracies are following suit.

The world, it seems, is never flanked by a clearly defined line that puts good and evil in two opposite sides. To be able to side with what is good is an ongoing struggle for humans, as it is for any nation state.


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