Un-American Activities

John Ashcroft
John Ashcroft; drawing by David Levine

The Times of London last May published a letter to the editor from Tony Willoughby of Willoughby & Partners, a firm of solicitors. “The head of IT [information technology] at our law firm,” he wrote,

is a Muslim. He is a gentleman in every sense of the word. His fanaticism, if he has any, is restricted to cricket. Last Sunday he went on a business trip to California. On arrival at Los Angeles he was detained and interrogated on suspicion of being a terrorist….

For the first 12 hours he was refused access to a telephone. After 16 hours, not having been given any food, he asked if he could have some. He was given ham sandwiches and, when he explained that he could not eat pork, was told: “You eat what you are given.” He did not eat. He was eventually escorted back to the airport in handcuffs and deported.

Mr. Willoughby wrote to American officials seeking an explanation. He got back what he calls “a fobbing-off letter”—and his firm’s laptop computer, which had been confiscated at the airport. Its data had been wiped out.

That is a mild example, very mild, of what has happened to the US government’s treatment of aliens since September 11, 2001. Mr. Willoughby’s colleague was evidently picked out, treated with contempt, and denied entry to this country because of his religion and, possibly, his ethnic antecedents; his family came to Britain, decades ago, from Pakistan. But in a sense he was lucky. He was not detained for months in secret, prevented from calling a lawyer, humiliated and beaten by prison guards. All those things have happened to aliens swept off American streets at the order of Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The harsh treatment of aliens since September 11 has had little political attention. Relatively few Americans know or care much about it. In this powerful book, Enemy Aliens, David Cole shows why we should care, as a matter not only of humanity but of self-interest. He lays out the Bush administration’s policies in the way they can best be understood, in their impact on individual aliens. His tone is measured, his legal hand sure. He lets the facts speak, and the result is gripping. Cole gives the most convincing view that I have read of the legal and bureaucratic threats that now face immigrants and visitors to America. But then he goes on to make an even more important point. The repressive measures that President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft first took against aliens are now being applied to citizens.

For the last two years more than 650 men and boys have been held in an American prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. They were seized in Afghanistan and are described by the US as “illegal combatants” attached to the Taliban or al-Qaeda. The Third Geneva Convention, to which the United…

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