Thursday, December 12, 2013

Has the U.S. killed a future Mandela?

I addressed this question in a Letter to the Editor published by The Washington Post online on December 11, 2013. Here is the letter, with the Post’s headline and links that the Post nicely provided for more information. (A slightly different version of this letter, revised by the Post and approved by me, was published in the print edition of December 12th, Page A18.)

Mandela ‘terrorist’ label calls into question U.S. drone policy

Beginning in 1988, the U.S. officially considered Nelson Mandela’s political party, the African National Congress, to be a terrorist organization. Mr. Mandela himself was placed on the U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008.

In his speech at Northwestern University, on March 5, 2012Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. defended the killing of terrorists, designated as such by the executive branch, as legal and as requiring no judicial review. Mr. Holder was responding in particular to the prior Sept. 30 drone killings of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and, two weeks later, his 16-year-old son. Prior to and since then, numerous such “terrorists” have been killed.

If the U.S. government can err so completely as to view Mr. Mandela as a terrorist threat until 2008, then it can err today in deciding who is and who is not a terrorist. If the United States had had the drone capability and “legal” rationale in 1988 that it has today, it might have killed Mr. Mandela. There may be someone who would have been a Mandela of the future had not he or she been killed, quite “legally,” by the U.S. government in a drone attack.

John L. Hodge, Jamaica Plain, Mass.

Another article, an op-ed in The Boston Globe by Boston civil liberties attorney Harvey Silvergate and his assistant, Juliana DeVries, points out the threat to freedom of speech contained in the U.S. government’s concept of a “terrorist”: “Terrorism ruling assaults civil liberties.” 

The creeping expansion of the “terrorist” label is similar to what happened in the 1950s, which led to the frequent labeling of anyone who advocated for social change from the left, including Martin Luther King, a “communist.” Many people so labeled lost their jobs and some went to jail. Similarly, as the Silvergate/DeVries article indicates, “terrorists” are being targeted and sent to jail, and perhaps killed, based not on what they do but on what they think and say and their associations.

In 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually put an end to the prosecution and jailing of “communists” based on their beliefs, expressions, and associations. (See its opinions, particularly the concurring views of Justices Black and Douglas, in Yates v.United States, 354 U.S. 298 (1957).) That Court was probably more liberal than the Court today: In Yates the conservative side of the bench produced only one dissent that favored the prosecution.

The only thing that separates us from a repeat of the oppressive anti-communist crusades of the 1950s, renamed the “war on terror,” is the time between now and the potential future. What that future will be, and when it might arrive, will depend on what we do today.

Also see my prior blogs on this subject: