Signs of a Police State are Everywhere
by James Petras
Z magazine, January 2002
Years ago, a well known author, Bertram Gross, wrote that
fascism would come to the U.S. with a friendly face: not with
Nuremburg rallies, or doctrines of racial superiority, without
formally banning parties, abrogating the Constitution or eliminating
the three branches of government, but I with the same nationalist
fervor, arbitrary dictatorial laws, and violent military conquests.
In the U.S., signs of a police state are evident everywhere.
Thousands of U. S. citizens of Middle Eastern descent have been
arrested without charges, and the exercise of their right to criticize
U.S. policy in the Middle East has been branded as support for
terrorism. This pogrom has been encouraged and incited by government
officials, especially by the police, both local and federal, and
by assorted veterans' groups and demagogic politicians. The president
has decreed dictatorial powers, setting up anonymous military
tribunals to try "suspicious" immigrants and overseas
" suspects " who can be kidnapped and tried in the U.S.
Habeas corpus has been suspended. School children have been forced
to sing quasi-religious anthems and pledge allegiance to the flag.
Many employees who voice criticism of the war or U.S. support
of Israel or denounce Israeli massacres of Palestinians have been
suspended or fired. A11 letters, emails, and phone calls are subject
to control without any judicial review. The mass media spews government
propaganda, churns out chauvinist stories, and is relatively silent
on overseas massacres and domestic repression.
One of the hallmarks of a totalitarian regime is the creation
of a state of mutual suspicion in which civil society is turned
into a network of secret police informers. The Federal Bureau
of Investigation (FBI) soon after September 11 exhorted every
U.S. citizen to report any suspicious behavior by friends, neighbors,
relatives, acquaintances, and strangers. Between September and
the end of November almost 700,000 denunciations were registered.
Thousands of Middle Eastern neighbors, local shop owners, and
employees were denounced, as were numerous other U. S. citizens.
None of these denunciations led to any arrests or even information
related to September 11. Yet hundreds and thousands of innocent
persons were investigated and harassed by the federal police.
Tens of millions of Americans have become paranoid-fearing "terrorism"
in their everyday work, shopping, and leisure activities. People
refrain from the mildest criticism of the war or the government
for fear they will be labeled terrorist sympathizers, reported
to the government, investigated, and lose their job.
Friendly fascism scapegoats Arabs-arresting, investigating,
accusing, targeting-while its public discourse proclaims the virtues
of tolerance and pluralism. Racial doctrines are not in evidence,
but racial profiling of "Middle-Eastern" people is an
established and accepted operating procedure of federal, state,
and local police. Large concentrations of Arab communities, such
as in Dearborn, Michigan, feel like they are living in a ghetto,
waiting for a pogrom to happen. The head of the FBI considers
all Arab civic, charity, and other associations suspect of aiding
terrorism and subject to investigation and its members targets
for arrest. The massive "razzias," police sweeps into
houses, stores, and offices of civic groups, have created a siege
mentality. The police campaign has aroused the racist instincts
and fomented a rash of civilian insults and hostility.
Executive Dictatorial Powers
In totalitarian states, the supreme leader seizes dictatorial
powers, suspends constitutional guarantees (citing "emergency
powers") empowers the secret police, and handpicks tribunals
to arbitrarily arrest, judge, and condemn the accused to prison
or execution. On November 13, President Bush took the fatal step
toward assuming dictatorial powers. Without consulting Congress,
Bush decreed an emergency order. The order permits the government
to arrest non-citizens who they have "reason to believe"
are terrorists to be tried by military tribunal. The trials are
secret and the prosecutors do not have to present evidence if
it is "in the interests of national security. "
The condemned can be executed even if one-third of the military
judges disagree. Dictatorial powers to jail or execute suspects
without due process is the essence of totalitarian rulers.
In mid-November, the Department of Justice refused to disclose
the identities and status of more than 1,100 persons arrested
since September 11. As in totalitarian regimes, political prisoners
are constantly interrogated without lawyers and without charges
by the FBI in the hope of forcing confessions.
On October 26 Bush signed the USA/Patriot Act, which vastly
strengthened the powers of the police over civil society. The
extension of secret police powers was approved almost unanimously
by Congress (most of whose members never read the law). Every
clause of this law violated the U.S. Constitution. Under this
law: (a) any federal law enforcement agency may secretly enter
any home or business, collect evidence, not inform the citizen
of the entry, and then use the evidence (seized or planted) to
convict the occupant of a crime; (b) any police agency has the
power to monitor all Internet traffic and emails, intercept cell
phones without warrant of millions of "suspects"; (c)
any Federal police agency can invade any business premises and
seize all records on the basis that it is "connected"
with a terrorist investigation. Citizens who publicly protest
these arbitrary, invasive police actions can be arrested.
The USA/Patriot Act, like its totalitarian counterparts, has
a vague, loose definition of "terrorism" that allows
it to repress any dissident organization and protest activity.
According to section 802 of the Act, terrorism is defined as "activities
that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation
of the criminal laws of the United States...(and) appear to be
intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population (or)...to
influence the policy of the government by intimidation or coercion."
Any anti-globalization protest, such as occurred in Seattle, can
now be labeled "terrorist," its leaders and participants
arrested, their homes and offices searched, documents seized,
and, if they are not citizens, shipped to military tribunals.
These "emergency" decrees and laws are in place until
2005 and beyond if the investigations began prior to the terminal
Perhaps, when the country has been re-democratized and the
chauvinist fever has ebbed and a fair and pluralistic media has
replaced the current state propaganda machines, we may discover
harsh truths. When the secret police files are opened we may discover
that many honorable and respectable people denounced their neighbors
and friends because of personal vendettas; that professionals
secretly informed on their colleagues who were critical of Israel;
that the FBI spied on millions of law-abiding progressive American
citizens because rightwing ideologues sought to eliminate them.
In studying the recordings, transcripts, and videos of the messages
of the mass media, we will be able to see how easily, quickly,
and completely they became propaganda arms of the friendly fascist
Researchers will marvel or be shocked by the corruption of
political language: massive bombings of large cities in the name
of "anti-terrorism"; euphemisms to justify massacres;
mass killings of prisoners of war described as "killed during
a prisoner revolt." Historians will also note the absent
voices of critics; the absence of any reports of civilian casualties.
Future scholars watching videos of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's
jocular pronouncements to "kill all terrorists," will
not join the laughing audience of journalists, remembering the
mountains of corpses executed in cold blood by Rumsfeld's surrogate
Historians will debate whether the mass acquiescence by the
U.S. public to the bombings and executions was a reflection of
the incessant and all-encompassing propaganda or whether they
were willing accomplices of the slaughter. The philosophers and
psychologists will debate whether the flag waving celebrants of
the New World Order were motivated by the smiling faces and bellicose
rhetoric of their leaders or embraced friendly fascism because
of their paranoia, fear, and anxiety induced by the voices of
authority and amplified by the media.
This view presumes that critical voices will survive the current
period of friendly fascism and build a movement to challenge its
power. One can hope and believe it will happen because, otherwise,
the lies and murders of the present will go unanswered.
James Petras teaches sociology at SUNY, Binghamton and is
a longtime writer on political issues.