Civil Wrongs

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Review of ’Enemy Aliens‘ by David Cole, The New Press £16.95

We are all aware that civil liberties in the US have been under attack since 9/11. The central argument of David Cole (a US constitutional and immigration lawyer) is that the principal victims of the crackdown on fundamental freedoms are ’aliens‘ - non-citizens of the US and Arab and Muslim citizens. Cole argues that this has been happening throughout American history.

When the US has been ’at war‘, or felt threatened, the government has responded by attacking the civil liberties of aliens or a minority group of citizens. He believes that there has been little outcry from US citizens because they don‘t think that it will affect them. He persuasively writes that US citizens ignore such attacks at their peril, as history has shown that once non-citizens have been successfully targeted, it is a slippery slope towards restricting everyone‘s civil liberties.

The level of detail in the book about how civil liberties have been attacked is impressive, as Cole describes the mass detentions of Arab and Muslim citizens and aliens, the passing of the Patriot and DSE (Domestic Security Enhancement) Acts (which allow for secret searches, arrests and stripping citizenship of anyone who supports even the lawful activities of an organisation deemed to be terrorist), along with many other ways in which civil liberties have been weakened and ignored. It uses case studies to illustrate how these attacks on civil liberties have affected ordinary people. They will leave you feeling shocked and angry at the blatant racism of the US authorities.

For me, one of the most impressive things about the book was that Cole puts this latest attack on civil liberties by the US government in the context of a long line of such offensives. He devotes chapters to some of the most shameful events in US domestic history bar slavery, including the internment of 110,000 Japanese citizens and aliens during the Second World War, the repression of Communists, left wing radicals and trade unionists and the targeting of Arabs and Muslims. Again, Cole manages to blend the overall historical picture, dates and facts with individual stories, making the book very readable.

The main weakness of Enemy Aliens lies in Cole‘s solutions to such state repression, which may stem from a flawed analysis of why such repression occurs in the first place. The latter half of the book discusses these solutions, some of which focus too much on the fear of another terrorist attack, as he advocates increased border control and registration of all aliens entering the US - suggestions which seems at odds with his central argument.

To his credit, Cole does attempt to address why terrorism occurs in the first place as he writes about US global economic and foreign policy sowing the seeds of hatred. However, his conclusion - that the way to break the cycle of attacking civil liberties is for the US to recognise that aliens, as well as citizens, have the protection of the constitution - is not convincing. It leaves no room for mass action on the part of US citizens to fight against what is going on now. But for those interested in current and historical detail of US repression this is a very good read.