Thursday 27 March 2003

McCarthy's ghost

Democracy is under threat in the United States; anyone who objects to the conflict in Iraq is not allowed to say so

by Gary Younge

It's drive time with WABC's rightwing talkshow host, Curtis Sliwa, and Bill is on the line from the Poconos in Pennsylvania with a tale so funny he can hardly share it for giggling.

He was carrying an American flag and yelling support for the troops in a delayed St Patrick's Day parade over the weekend when he saw one woman carrying a sign saying: "No blood for oil".

"She was wearing black and she was an older lady," says Bill. "And then our sheriff saw her and she didn't have a permit. So they put her in the back of the truck car and hauled her away."

On its own, Bill's story would be aberrant - the tale of an overzealous legal official and an unfortunate woman in smalltown America. Increasingly though it is becoming consistent. The harassment, arrest, detention and frustration of those who are against the war is becoming routine. Relatives of victims who died on September 11, who are opposed to the war, have been prevented from speaking in schools. Last month Stephen Downs was handcuffed and arrested after refusing to take off a Give Peace a Chance T-shirt in a mall in Albany. He was told he would have been found guilty of trespass if the mall had not dropped the case because of the bad publicity.

As Iraqi civilians and American, British and Iraqi soldiers perish in the Gulf, this war is fast claiming another casualty - democracy in the US. This process is not exclusive to America. Civil liberties have suffered in Britain because of the war in Northern Ireland, and are undergoing further erosion because of the conflict.

But it has a particular resonance here because of the McCarthyite era during the 1950s when those suspected of supporting communism were forced to testify before the Senate to recant their views and divulge names of progressives. Comparisons with McCarthyism are valid but must be qualified. These popular and sporadic displays of intolerance may be gathering pace, but no federal edict has been issued to support them and many who support the war are opposed to them.

Bush has not launched a campaign to derail the Dixie Chicks, the all-American girl band whose CDs were crushed by a mob and whose latest release fell from the top of the charts after one of its singers made an anti-war remark in London. Downs says the officer who arrested him spent an hour-and-a-half trying to persuade his superiors that the case was not worth pursuing. Even Curtis Sliwa told Bill he should "ignore the protesters and get out the flags".

While these popular expressions of intolerance appear sporadic, not all are spontaneous. The rally to smash the Dixie Chicks' CDs and much of the impetus for the boycott of their single came from radio stations owned by Clear Channel Communications of Texas, which has close ties with Bush. The company's stations also called for the pro-war rallies that have cropped up in the past week.

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