(Photo: Bud Korotzer / NLN)
NEW YORK — On February 2 the Center for the Humanities of the City University of New York Graduate Center and the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics co-sponsored a forum on the subject of the Media and Domestic Terrorism Trials. Moderated by Jeanne Theoharis, Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College, the panelists were Petra Bartosiewicz, independent journalist and author of a forthcoming book about the Justice Department’s post 9/11 trials, Lisa Graves, Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy, and Shayana Kadidal, senior managing attorney of the Guantanamo Global Justice initiative at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Professor Theoharis began by saying that civil rights and civil liberties in terror cases are issues that are not being examined by the media. The position of the Bush administration, and now continuing under Obama, was that in order to protect American citizens they have to go outside the law. The media examines, to some small degree, what is happening at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Abu Graib but, by ignoring it, leaves the impression that in the federal courts in the US the rule of law is intact.
In 2006, when Fahad Hashmi, Theoharis’ former student, was arrested in England the story broke on TV in a very frightening, flashy way – Terrorist caught! Connected to Al Qaida! Then the story disappeared. When he was brought back to the US in 2007 there was another frightening, flashy story. And then it disappeared again. Theoharis searched the web for news and discovered that he is being held under conditions of the Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) and then she had to do more research to find out what they were. The effect of the SAMs is to completely seal the prisoner and his lawyer off from the outside world. Evidence against the prisoner is considered secret and cannot be shared with the prisoner and only part of it is made known to the lawyer. Clearly, secret evidence is a factor in terror trials within the US, not just off shore. Any constitutionally protected statements Hashmi made, including in his writing going years back, can be used against him.
Theoharis shared this information with her colleagues who were completely unaware. Some became involved, including prominent academicians, but they couldn’t get media coverage for the case or for the trampling of the civil rights issue. The NY Times buries trials in the Metro Section and terror trials are no exception. They don’t look at the wider issues or see the trends because they are covered as episodic moments.
Petra Bartosiewicz, the next speaker, said that the mainstream press doesn’t cover terror trials that take place inside the country. They may cover those of Guantanamo prisoners that are coming to the US for trial. Those cases are usually tried in the press. Because everything in terror trials is secret the lawyers aren’t allowed to speak to the media to help them gain insight. In trying to cover the trial of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, Bartosiewicz was not allowed into the courtroom because she did not have the official NYPD issued press pass, only 4 or 5 seats were reserved for people with that pass, and the names of everyone being allowed into the courtroom, press and observers, were taken by court employees.
Shayana Kadidal, who has worked on several Guantanamo cases, said that the government response to terror is mass detention (seen after 9/11 when so many Muslim immigrants were arrested), torture, and wire tapping. All of these are maximally coercive and they don’t work. The fact that they are not effective is not reported. Effective measures that do work are also not reported. The media, along with elected officials, give the market responses – tell the public what we think they want to hear. Facts that run counter to the government narrative are simply left out. The government wants the enemy, those accused of being terrorists, to appear very threatening and the government wants to appear omnipotent – they can stop the terrorists. Most of the policies are aimed at immigrants, giving the impression that the foreigners / immigrants are the problem. There is no coverage of domestic terrorists (like Timothy McVeigh) and now there is no more coverage of torture (which continues).
Lisa Graves said that 9/11 turned the rules upside down – there is now a presumption of guilt, not innocence. We also have to look at who the commentators on the news programs are. All the “talking heads” present the government’s point of view. They are prosecutors or work for government agencies. Government press releases become news and are reported without fact-checking. The White House press corps are more like stenographers than reporters because they assume that whatever they are told is true.
She also pointed out that there are now 30,000 less reporters because so many have recently lost their jobs. So there is more happening with less reporters to cover it. Graves concluded her remarks by saying that secrecy was the enemy of democracy.
All panelists agreed on a final point, that trading civil rights for safety doesn’t work. It is ineffective. According to Kadidal, people are less frightened now because they are more focused on the wars and on the economy. They have become distracted by what they perceive to be more immediate problems. We are told that repression works because, look, there has not been another attack on US soil. But, he added, repression does not work. There is absolutely no connection between the repressive measures and there not being another attack. And, he advised, we should make every effort to make that point understood.