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Gary Younge
McCarthy's ghost

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.

And while they have not received the state's imprimatur, Bush's administration has certainly created the climate in which they can thrive.

Under Big Brother monikers like the Patriot Act and Operation Liberty Shield, the state has stepped up the scope of its surveillance and the wiretapping of American citizens and will authorise the indefinite detention of asylum seekers from certain countries. Last year, surveillance requests by the federal government under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - originally intended to hunt down foreign spies - outnumbered all of those under domestic law for the first time in US history.

Under a proposed new bill, entitled the Domestic Security Enhancement act, the government could withhold the identity of anyone detained in connection with a terror investigation and their names would be exempt from the Freedom of Information act, according to the centre for public integrity, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Barry Steinhardt, director of the American civil liberties union programme on technology and liberty, told the New York Times that authorities have been demanding records from internet providers and libraries about what books people are taking out and which websites they're looking at.

The result is a symbiotic relationship between the mob and the legislature, whereby official repression provides the framework for public scapegoating with each gaining momentum from the other.

Most vulnerable are those who are most vulnerable anyway - Arab immigrants and non-white Americans. Men from countries regarded as potential sources of terrorism and who do not have a green card, are now required to be registered, fingerprinted and photographed by the immigration service. Many who have committed no crime but simply have their applications for a work permit pending are routinely arrested. "Basically, what this has become is an immigration sweep," said Juliette Kayam, a terrorism expert at Harvard. "The idea that this has anything to do with security, or is something the government can do to stop terrorism, is absurd," she told the Washington Post.

The growing surveillance compounded by discrimination adversely affects black Americans too. "It places those of us of colour under increased scrutiny and we get caught up in the web of racial profiling," says Jean Bond, of the Radical Black Congress.

The fact that all the incidents mentioned above happened to white, American-born natives is an indication of just how deep the rot has set in. Downs is the chief lawyer in the Commission on Judicial Conduct. Such are the targets of the war on terror.

From the outset Bush has insisted that: "Those who are not for us are against us," and so it follows that anyone opposed to his way of dealing with the terrorist threat becomes the enemy, at home or abroad. Terrorism is the new communism. Even before the first body bags have arrived, the war has already reached the home front.

ยท Gary Younge appears in J'Accuse Uncle Sam on Channel 4 tomorrow.

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