Finally, John Ashcroft is hitting the griddle. Senate hearings on the Justice Dept.'s detention of hundreds of mostly Arab and Middle Eastern people and the Bush administration's plans to institute military tribunals have opened. The familiar partisan blowhard pundits are even making their way back to the talk shows...having been replaced since Sept. 11 by bioterrorism experts and former Army generals...licking their chops over what promises to be a raucous and polarizing debate.
Two significant things have come out in the wash so far: 1 ) Of the more than 1200 people arrested...600 of whom remain in custody...few have any connection to terrorism, and it doesn't appear that there is a smoking gun of any kind among them. 2 ) Aside from the civil liberties concerns, even if some of these people were connected to Al Qaeda, taking them off the street early is counterproductive when there isn't a threat of imminent attack...and contrary to Ashcroft's insinuations, he's offered no concrete evidence that he's prevented any such attack. Several former FBI officials ( including some from the Reagan era ) told The Washington Post that arresting people early on, as opposed to putting them under surveillance, can shut down cells instead of leading investigators to the wider terrorist network.
What do these two pieces of information tell us? In the almost three months since the attacks, Ashcroft and company still have no solid leads and are frighteningly amateurish in their approach. But holding a lot of suspects, even if those suspects have nothing to do with the terror attacks, does go far toward making the public believe you've accomplished something. And the public has certainly gone along for the ride, as polls show solid support so far for these overreaching measures, including the plans for military tribunals and the monitoring of conversations between lawyers and their clients. The prevailing theory, that people are so numb and fearful since Sept. 11 that they'll look the other way when civil liberties are threatened, is certainly part of it. But people have also been distracted, intoxicated by a grand show. For that, you have to hand it to Bush administration for the way it has managed the American media.
On television, it's been a beneficent, feel-good, dazzling war...glamorous even. To quote one of those perpetually beaming Christian aid workers who were freed ( and I'll get to them later ) , Hollywood could not have done it better. Women liberated from hideous outfits, with the President's newly feminist wife cheering them on. Afghans digging up the TV sets they'd buried in their yards. The poor old starving lion in the Kabul zoo getting his first bit of red meat in a long time ( while millions of people are apparently starving in refugee camps, though that's gotten virtually no TV play ) . The landing of the Marines in Kandahar, and the successful squashing of the prison rebellion in Mazir-e-Sharif.
And of course those Christian aid workers, two corn-fed, God-loving gals saved from the grips of the ruthless Taliban, a story the administration milked dry. For almost a week after their release they seemed to hold a press conference every day, thanking the U.S. military and finally making their way to George Bush's side for a photo-op at the White House. Then they did their "exclusive" sit-down with Katie Couric on Today.
These two are the scariest, creepiest Stepford women I've seen in a long time: always with broad smiles on their faces, blankly staring, zombie-like. In their interview with Couric it became clear that they were guilty of exactly what the Taliban accused them of: trying to convert people to Christianity. Why else would they have in their possession films about Jesus that had been translated into the native languages of the Afghan people? Duh.
Not that they should have been put to death or stoned, or necessarily punished at all for that; the Taliban are without a doubt fascistic maniacs. But let's be honest here: these were not two dispassionate, nonjudgmental individuals aiding the starving...they were zealous missionaries, not unlike those of the past who embarked on conquering missions to supposedly save the primitive peoples of the world from themselves. For this they're heroines?
The Times ran an article the other day about how people, particularly those with children, may now be abandoning Manhattan. As the wife of a J.P. Morgan executive put it, since Sept. 11 "it's too scary" to stay here.
All I have to say to these people is: Do you need some help packing up your things? I have lived through the highs and lows on this island for many years. I remember when you had to walk in the middle of the street in the East Village if you didn't want to get mugged...and that was at noon. Part of living here was accepting the risks it entailed.
In many ways it was the arrival of the slew of high-income family types, riding in on the booming '90s economy and the Giuliani quality-of-life campaign, that made Manhattan a bit duller. Sure, they brought in more money. But at what price? Not only did they push out a lot of creative people who could no longer afford the inflated rents, shoving them out to places like Astoria, Williamsburg and Greenpoint, but they brought with them their bazillion high-tech baby strollers and assorted paraphernalia, clogging elevators, streets and grocery stores. More so, they brought with them an age-old culture that elevates children and families to the sacred.
I have nothing against families and children. I'll even throw you the old cliche: some of my best friends have kids. What I am talking about is the privileging of family that is prevalent in much of American culture...in which, for example, you're supposed to put up with people's kids screaming on a bus because, hey, that's how kids are, and because families reign supreme. The resistance to offering that kind of privilege was one of the many things that always separated New York from the rest of America. New York was an adult place, for adult pursuits. In New York, you always had to shut your kids up in a public place, or leave them home, or better yet raise them to be urbane, sophisticated and respectful of others by the time they were, like, three...or you'd face the wrath of an annoyed stranger who would have no problem telling you to muzzle your brats. "It was just a very friendly, clean, family-oriented place," one woman among the fleeing hordes told the Times about Tribeca before Sept. 11, as she left for Stamford, Conn.
Not only do I have zero respect for these people for bailing out on this great city in the first moment of trouble, I think life will be much better without them. Those of us left behind will have the last laugh, anyway; the suburbs, as we all know, are far from secure, let alone sane. Don't think the irony was lost on many of us when we read about the family who left their Battery Park City apartment a few weeks ago for New Jersey, supposedly escaping terror, only to have their 6-year-old daughter kidnapped on the streets of the little seaside town of Spring Lake. Then there was the story just last week about the teenagers in sleepy New Bedford, Mass., about 55 miles south of Boston, who were found to be hatching their own Columbine-like plot; they were going to detonate bombs in their high school, shoot people in the hallways and kill themselves as well. Hmm ... the suburbs seem to have their own little suicide terrorists too. Enjoy Stamford, suckers!
Michelangelo Signorile can be reached at www.signorile.com . His column will now appear regularly in Windy City Times.