In his new book, You Have No Rights: Stories of America in an Age of Repression, journalist and Progressive magazine editor Matthew Rothschild recounts the case of Maher Arar. A Syrian-born Canadian computer engineer, Arar was detained in 2002 by FBI agents during a stopover at JKF airport in New York. Believing him a member of Al Qaeda, the FBI sent Arar to Syria, where he was kept in the basement of a prison-in a room not much larger than a coffin-and beaten and tortured routinely for 10 months and 10 days. After his release, Arar was cleared of terrorist affiliations by both the Canadian and Syrian governments. Arar’s case is the most famous example of the Bush administration’s “extraordinary rendition” program, by which U.S. intelligence agents fly suspected terrorists to countries like Syria and Uzbekistan to be tortured during interrogation.
You Have No Rights is a dark, heavy-handed polemic against the Bush administration’s approach to human and civil rights. It begins with a finely rendered description of the various ways in which the administration has subverted and violated the U.S. Constitution and international law since 9/11, from the National Security Agency’s wiretapping scandal to the establishment of the Guant¡namo Bay prison camp. It then goes on to describe, in short, dryly written vignettes, the stories of 82 ordinary people across the country whose rights have been violated as a result of ramped-up national security policies. But Rothschild overreaches-Arar’s case is lumped together with stories like that of Denise Grier, a nurse at Emory University, Georgia, who was ticketed in 2006 by a DeKalb County police officer for sporting a “BUSHIT” bumper sticker on her car.
Indeed, most of the stories in You Have No Rights are much more like Grier’s than Arar’s: tales of overzealous police officers, low-level Homeland Security officials, and Secret Service agents harassing people who express dislike for the Bush administration. Reading them is an anthropologic experience likely to engender a certain amount of misanthropy-how can one make sense of a society in which Stephen Downs, a New York lawyer, was arrested in an Albany mall in 2002 for wearing a shirt emblazoned with the words “Peace on Earth”? However, it takes a great leap of the imagination to decide that stories like Downs’s and Grier’s mean the Bush administration has embarked on a successful campaign to repress ordinary political dissent.
When Rothschild claims America is in the grip of a new McCarthyism, he conforms himself to the caricature of the hysterical liberal propagated by demagogues like Rush Limbaugh. This is unfortunate because behind the overblown rhetoric, You Have No Rights raises important and alarming issues. Chief among them are the hideous ways in which the administration has violated the human rights of American and non-American Muslims it suspects of terrorism, and the cavalier and dangerous ways in which it has distorted the Constitution to justify its actions. Even if his case studies don’t bear his argument out, Rothschild is correct in saying that such an attitude toward the Constitution threatens all Americans, not just Muslims and Arabs.
Matthew Rothschild will appear at Borders Books (900 State St.) on Wednesday, August 15, at 7 p.m. to sign copies of You Have No Rights, and to discuss the book. For more information, call 899-3668.