Evaluating Threats, Home and Abroad – A Conversation with David Cole

Pamela Nice

Pamela Nice interviewed David Cole in Washington, D.C. in November about his book, “Enemy Aliens,” and his views on the situation for Arabs and Muslims caught in the war on terrorism. They began by discussing Cole's evaluation of U.S. national security today.

Cole: On September 12, we had the world's sympathy. Today, two years later, I think there appears to be a higher degree of anti-Americanism around the world than ever before in the history of this country, and for me, that's the greatest national security threat that we face. You ask, well, what created that level of anti-Americanism since September 12? I think two things contributed: the unilateral way in which we pursue our foreign policy – insisting that we don't have to play by the rules – and then the flip side of that, having double standards at home. I think we have made ourselves less safe in large part because of these double standards.

Nice: In the book, you talk a lot about preventive measures [in the fight against terrorism]. Don't you think that's also tied to our foreign policy? I think that's creating enemies – this pre-emptive policy.

Cole: Right. I wrote a piece for American Prospect that compared Ashcroft's paradigm of prevention on the domestic side of the war on terror to the national security strategy on foreign wars. Both of them share a whole range of common attributes, including the lines on secrecy; short-circuiting of processes; and broad-based assertions of power. Ultimately, both the pre-emptive national security strategy and the preventive domestic strategy challenge the rule of law. And we sort of feel like we can get away with challenging the rule of law because we're the most powerful country in the world. But in fact we can't, because you gain a lot of legitimacy by adhering to and reinforcing the rule of law; and that legitimacy is a much more powerful means of protecting us than our weapons are.

Nice : Why aren't Americans more upset by this? Why isn't the press more critical?

“Many Arabs and Muslims are first generation here, and less likely to be integrated into the networks; but it's important to realize that there are networks out there that are speaking out in defense of the rights of Arabs and Muslims today.”

Cole: It depends on what press you're talking about; certainly the print press has been, I think, quite critical, particularly if you compare this to almost any prior crisis. There's a lot of criticism on editorial pages – the New York Times has been very strong. . . . But I think it's hard for the press to tell stories because so much of what goes on is secret, and people are afraid to come forward. It's a hard story to tell. My sense, going around the country, is that people are concerned, but they're mostly concerned about those measures that might actually affect them. In some respects, I've had very different experiences speaking to white audiences and to Arab and Muslim audiences. To white audiences, the message of my book is that you shouldn't believe the promises that the government makes that your rights aren't going to be infringed on by these [immigration] measures…your interest is at stake here; this will eventually affect you, so you should care about it.

Whereas to the Arab and Muslim community – it's already affecting them, and the message that it will be extended to citizens in some sense ought to be reassuring. Because when it gets extended to citizens, history suggests that the citizens will at some point say we don't want this – it's wrong – and it will be cut back.

I also think in the last year there has been tremendous movement in the consciousness about civil liberties in the war on terror. I cited in the book an NPR poll that showed 7 percent of Americans one year after the attacks didn't think they lost any significant civil liberties in the war on terror. But CBS did a poll in September of this year – one year after the NPR poll –asking a very similar question, and found that 52 percent of Americans are concerned that this administration is violating civil liberties. From 7 percent to 52 percent – I think that's reflective of a broader shift. It's also reflected in things like the fact that every Democratic presidential candidate attacks Ashcroft and the Patriot Act. When the Patriot Act was enacted, only one senator voted against it. Today, it's a dirty word to a wide segment of society: Al Gore has called for its repeal; Newt Gingrich has called for its amendment; [former House Majority Leader] Dick Armey, Howard Dean and Wesley Clark are all criticizing it.

Nice : What should Arabs and Muslims who live in the U.S. do now?

Cole: I think it's complicated if you're a foreign national of Arab or Muslim descent. But citizens should support groups such as ADC, CAIR, the Arab American Institute, and MPAC. These groups are speaking out on behalf of Arab and Muslim populations. Supporting these groups will not target you because the government doesn't consider them subversive. They are working within the American democratic process.

Nice: These groups are encouraging Arabs and Muslims to participate more in our democratic process.

Cole: And I think it's important to get involved not only with Arab- or Muslim-identified groups, but with the broader civil rights groups – the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch. Many Arabs and Muslims are first generation here, and less likely to be integrated into the networks; but it's important to realize that there are networks out there that are speaking out in defense of the rights of Arabs and Muslims today. It's important for Arab and Muslim communities to work with those organizations, not only on their own issues, but on broader issues– to develop ties, to work together. The broader point is, it's not the courts, the Congress or the executive that have protected Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. It's the people supporting these civil society organizations that have really been quite effective in shifting American attitudes. So I think there is a positive story here. . . . Progress can be made.

This interview appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 9, no. 45.


Copyright © by Al Jadid (2003)


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