Chilling story is one you can't -- and shouldn't -- put down

Bill Newman, The Daily Record Newswire

Reports of law enforcement shredding constitutional rights should surprise no one, and certainly not a civil rights attorney. Still, a recent news story did make me flinch.

The Chicago police, it was recently learned, operate a secret interrogation facility in a non-descript warehouse called Homan Square. Prisoners - both adults and juveniles, some as young as 15 - are disappeared there, often shackled for hours, denied their right to counsel, and beaten. At least one man, found unresponsive in an interview room, later was pronounced dead.

A protester, Brian Jacob Church, who in 2012 was held and interrogated at Homan Square, was quoted by The Guardian, which broke the story, as saying, "It brings to mind the interrogation facilities they use in the Middle East. The CIA calls them black sites. It's a domestic black site. When you go in, no one knows what's happened to you."

Church has it right. Detainees at Homan Square exist in no official booking database.

But shame on me for being surprised by that revelation. For some time, secret interrogation facilities in America have been entirely predictable, maybe inevitable. After 9/11 and a dozen years of Guantanamo, why wouldn't we - and the government as well - have imagined secret domestic interrogation prisons?

Easthampton resident Ellen Meeropol has imagined exactly that. Her new novel, "On Hurricane Island," tells, in the words of Center for Constitutional Rights President Emeritus Michael Ratner, "a chilling, Kafkaesque story about what happens when the United States does to its citizens at home what it has done to others abroad."

Meeropol's narrative begins shortly before an anniversary of 9/11 with university mathematics professor Gandalf Cohen about to board a plane at JFK. Homeland Security agents cull her (politely, of course, "this is just routine") from a TSA security line, escort her to an investigation room, and then fly her, blindfolded, to Hurricane Island, off the coast of Maine, where they lock her up in a facility designed for the interrogation of suspected domestic terrorists.

The federal agents abduct Gandalf. They suspect her possible involvement in a terrorist plot because in graduate school she had befriended, and after that sporadically emailed, a foreign student who later appeared on Homeland Security's radar.

"On Hurricane Island," Ratner says, puts the reader into the middle of the U.S. government's extrajudicial kidnapping, interrogation and detention programs "through characters about whom you really care." Ratner further extols Meeropol's work as "a story you can't put down."

And, I would add, that you shouldn't.

After 9/11, Congress passed the Patriot Act. The government rounded up non-citizens and deported many. Congress also enacted the Authorization for the Use of Military Force and acquiesced in and endorsed the executive branch's omnipresent surveillance of our movements and communications.

We should not feign surprise. America's response to 9/11 was foreshadowed by our historical willingness to forfeit freedom particularly in times of war but also in times of relative peace when facing enemies, real or imagined. Only years later do we learn that our abdication of our responsibility to preserve freedom made us no safer.

Recall the Alien and Sedition Acts in the early Republic, the Palmer Raids following WWI, the prosecution and execution of the Rosenbergs as an adjunct to the Korean War, and the McCarthy witch-hunts during the Cold War.

In particular, remember the Supreme Court's 1944 Korematsu decision, which upheld the right of the government during WWII to establish internment camps for Americans of Japanese ancestry.

In Korematsu, the court ruled that the government may seize citizens and non-citizens who it alleges could potentially pose a national security risk and, without charging them with a crime, imprison them in detention camps indefinitely. That 6-3 decision has often been criticized, but it has never been overruled.

And today the government insists that we are - and for the foreseeable future will be - fighting another war: the war on terrorism.

Given our extant legal apparatus and logistical infrastructure, it would take mere baby steps to establish the internal interrogation prisons that Meeropol imagines. After all, as the federal witness protection program demonstrates, the government already can make persons in its custody virtually disappear.

If and when such a detention program is discovered and disclosed, federal officials undoubtedly will insist that they have violated no constitutional guarantees. Press releases and talking heads will insist that the government operates the facility, both lawfully and appropriately, fully consistent with recognized exceptions to the Fourth and Fifth amendments, to thwart grave and imminent threats to our national security.

History and logic teach us that we stand only one terrorist attack away from Meeropol's fiction becoming reality.

"On Hurricane Island," although well-placed in the genre of dystopian political fiction - which includes George Orwell's "1984," Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here" - is not categorically apocalyptic. Within its pages some loves flourish. And Meeropol herself dedicates the book in part to her grandchildren "in the hope that people of good conscience can prevent events like the ones I've made up in this novel."

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Bill Newman is director of the western regional office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and author of "When the War Came Home."

Published: Thu, May 14, 2015

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