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Perspectives on Confronting Terrorism Provided at Forum
Liz Hrenda, December 19, 2001 -- Confronting Terrorism in a Democracy was the topic of a panel discussion held on December 12, 2001, by the Pennsylvania Alliance for Democracy as part of the Penn State Downtown Center Diversity Series. Trent Hargrove, Esq., Chief Deputy Attorney General of the Civil Rights Enforcement Section of the Office of Attorney General; Pat Brogan, Vice president for Community Relations and Legislative Affairs of Planned Parenthood of the Susquehanna Valley; JJ Johnston, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania State Council, Service Employees International Union, AFL-CIO; Joel Weisberg, Esq., Director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition; and Lloyd Stires, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, addressed the complexities of maintaining an open, democratic society while trying to prevent terrorist attacks.
  "Democracy requires accurate and timely information for citizens to make appropriate decisions," said Lloyd Stires, "unfortunately, much of the current media coverage is functioning as a propaganda arm of the state." He pointed to news anchor Dan Rather's statement that he would do whatever the President would ask to support the war on terrorism. Newscasts are embellished with patriotic graphics and music, so that there is effectively no independent source of information. "As the news media sets the agenda for most people, there is almost no discussion of alternatives to the current policy of a permanent ‘war on terrorism'. Strong polling support for current policies is inevitable," Stires noted, "given that non-military solutions are not being discussed in any national forum."
   Most informative reports have come from the foreign press and are available primarily on the internet. From these sources, one can learn that over 3500 Afghan civilians have been killed. These are people who have no connection with Osama bin Laden or the attack on the World Trade Center. In what appears to be a war crime, 600 Taliban supporters were massacred, some with their hands tied behind their backs, by the US supported Afghan fighters.
   Stires also observed that while the US is fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan, most support for the Taliban comes from Saudi Arabia. The government has taken no action against that nation, with which we have a close relationship, including military bases and oil interests. One reason that the government may want to increase our influence in Afghanistan may be a planned pipeline from the Caspian Sea oilfields, which will go directly through that nation.
   Stires voiced his concern about the federal USA Patriot Act, which amounts to a Department of Justice wish list broadly redefining domestic terrorism in a way which can be used to justify surveillance of domestic dissenters such as those who demonstrate against the World Trade Organization. The new definition will allow targeting, so that Ashcroft may choose to focus on groups on the left rather than the right. In evaluating the importance of maintaining our civil liberties, Stires suggests we should ask ourselves, "Would we have been safer prior to September 11 if our civil liberties had been taken away?"
   Joel Weisberg noted that he served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam, and was directly involved in the decisions about providing false information in the service of military objectives. Weisberg lamented that the present crisis is being used as a pretext to bring mandated prayer into schools. "The same folks who advocate privatization of social services, who want churches, synagogues and mosques to care for the poor," noted Weisberg, "feel that these institutions aren't doing a good job of providing religion and want to use government to provide for people's religious life."
   Much attention has been given to HB 592, which passed the state House with only one dissenting vote, as an amendment to the school code. It mandates a daily moment of silence for the purpose of prayer, meditation of other religious activity, as well as recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Weisberg then researched the code which HB 592 is to amend, and discovered that it already requires a daily moment of silence for religious purposes, already contravening student's religious freedom.
   Because of the insecurity created by the September 11 attacks, people are willing to give up their liberties if they feel it will give them more security or if they feel it doesn't effect them directly. As an example, many people are willing to take away defendants' rights, Weisberg explained, because they believe that all arrested persons are guilty and that they will never be arrested. Many people do not fully appreciate the rights that we have.
   Weisberg went on to quote one of our founding fathers, " Democracy is not a suicide pact." How do we balance freedom and security? As an illustration of the complexities, he offered a hypothetical example of the police having in their custody a person who has knowledge of the whereabouts of an atomic bomb hidden in a city and set to go off. If the police can persuade this person to reveal the location in time, they could stop the bomb and the destruction. As an arrested person, this prisoner has constitutional rights, but, if the prisoner is appraised of them, the police may not get the information they need to disarm the bomb. He left it to the audience to consider what they might do.
   Pat Brogan told the audience that Planned Parenthood has decades of experience with terrorism, so that for her organizations, terrorism is neither new nor foreign. Women's health care providers have endured violence, harassment of staff and patients, clinic blockades. In the 1980's, a nationwide series of arson attacks began. In 1993, an arson attack resulted in half a million dollars of damage at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Lancaster. Murderous attacks on doctors who perform abortions continued in the 1990's. In December 30, 1994, John Salvi murdered a receptionist and wounded others in an attack on Planned Parenthood in Brookline, MA, and then went to another clinic where he also killed a staffer and wounded others. Women's health clinics have experienced anthrax threats since 1996, which neither law enforcement or public health officials were prepared to deal with. Planned Parenthood has had to develop internal expertise in security. These criminal activities have been encouraged by anti-choice leaders who invoke religious authority, but our nation is in denial about domestic terrorism which has its roots in religious extremism.
   "Media coverage of attacks on women's health providers has been minimal, distorted and inconsistent," observed Brogan. "Too often, the official and media response to these threats has been to discount them because they are directed against women's health providers. Instead of acts of violence, they are seen as political expression." Brogan gave a brief summary of the attacks on women's health providers. In October 2001, 180 Planned Parenthood locations received anthrax threat letters, and in November of this year, 270 received anthrax threat Fed Ex packages, including all the sites in the central Pennsylvania area. At about the same time, the office of the Mennonite Central Committee received one anthrax threat letter. The receipt of this single letter and its subsequent determination to be non-lethal, made front page headline news in Lancaster PA, while the threats to Planned Parenthood got brief mention on the back page. Too often, Brogan observed, terrorism is defined not by the nature of the act, but by the identity of the victim. She noted that US Attorney General John Ashcroft has referred to convicted felon and prison escapee Clayton Waagner as an " anti-choice warrior." "A claim of religious motivation does not excuse criminal behavior," she concluded. "We need to be alert to these differences, to hold the government and the media accountable."
   JJ Johnston began by reporting the loss that Service Employees International Union(SEIU) has experienced due to terrorism. Sixty-one members died in the World Trade Center, and one who was on the flight from Logan Airport which was crashed into the towers. Following those attacks, an SEIU health care worker died of anthrax exposure. SEIU's first response to the attacks was to search for its missing members, care for the families who lost loved ones, and to comfort the survivors and witnesses of the attacks. They then moved on to care for others in the community. SEIU members who were unemployed set about seeking out the families undocumented workers who had not sought help, due to language barriers or immigration status. SEIU expects that 3,000 of their members will lose their jobs as a result of these attacks.
   Johnston suggested that the rush to action in response has hurt working people. "The government acted quickly to bail out the airline industry," he said, "but the next day the industry laid off thousands of airline workers." In the name of airport security, airport screening jobs were federalized and screeners will be required to be citizens. Johnston explained that the inadequacies of airport screening were due to poor compensation and training, but lack of citizenship is not a factor. Workers have various reasons for not becoming citizens, such as the expense of the process or the potential loss of family property in their home countries. SEIU has organized the airport screeners in San Francisco, 80% of whom are not citizens. Following unionization, turnover dropped from 115% to 20%, due to better training and compensation. Now some of these well-trained, well-paid workers may lose their jobs if they do not become citizens. "Does it make any sense," Johnston asked, "to require that airport screeners be citizens, while the armed National Guard and the airline pilots are not?"
   Johnston lamented that corporations are taking advantage of the political situation created by the attacks. He read a statement from James Albertine, president of the American League of Lobbyists (New York Times, 11/18/01), "It is sort of a free for all. It could be a long dry spell before anything like this happens again. It's like squirrels running around finding acorns and putting them in the ground for the winter." Johnston suggested that our government needs a different focus. "Working families are suffering as result of terrorism and the recession," he said, "and we need to be attending to these needs."
   Trent Hargrove, Esq. observed that the events of September 11 caused a convergence of those on the left and right who have in common the aim of destruction of the U.S government. Both foreign and domestic terrorist anti-Semitic groups scapegoat Jewish people and claim that they control the media. In the U.S., these groups use the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech as both a shield and a sword. These protections mean that hate speech cannot be banned, and law enforcement faces challenges in collecting information about these groups. PA law enforcement is highly decentralized, which also hampers information gathering, including information about intergroup tension incidents.
   Subsequent to the September 11 attacks, the Department has received reports about groups of apparently Middle Eastern people moving into a location. They have had to reaffirm that Fair Housing laws and protections against ethnic intimidation still apply. Hargrove concluded, "The horrific event of 9/11 must not be an excuse to target people on the basis of apparent ethnic origin, race or religion. Nor can we allow those who would use these events to further their agenda in sympathy with international terrorists. In the atmosphere of heightened tension following the terrorist attacks, we all need to be especially alert to our own personal prejudices."