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Who's afraid of the Women in Black?

26 November 2001

Life in Salem, Mass. was scary in 1692. A recent smallpox epidemic was still haunting villagers, and threats of attack from warring factions filled residents with suspicion and fear. Soon, over 150 people from nearby towns found themselves in jail and awaiting trial before a "witchcraft" court, which relied solely on hearsay and ethereal evidence. Fast-forward over 300 years and things are eerily similar with the FBI desperatel y hunting "evil-doers," and the president seeking swift justice for the accused in secret, due process-less tribunals.

Women in Black, a movement of international peace activists, is one of the latest targets in the FBI's witch hunt. The FBI has classified Women in Black as a potential terrorist organization for being "anti-American," and has threatened members with a grand jury investigation, according to London-based newspaper The Guardian.

The Women in Black movement began in 1988 in Jerusalem, when a small gathering of Israeli women silently protested Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. They met once a week wearing black clothes to symbolize their mourning for victims of the violent conflict, and held a black hand-shaped sign that said, "Stop the Occupation." Some women also brought their children.

Hardly the feats of terrorism, their vigils have since gained popularity worldwide, where women of numerous nationalities and religious backgrounds demonstrate against all forms of violence afflicting their nations. Jewish and Arab Women in Black still advocate an independent Palestinian state together. Italian and Yugoslav women held vigils in Belgrade for seven years in opposition to Slobodan Milosevic's aggressive regime. German Women in Black have protested against neo-Nazism. India's movement demonstrates against religious fundamentalism, and Beijing's members hosted a vigil for the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women.

Apart from the FBI's probe, their admirable work has been well-acknowledged, with nominations for the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize for the Israeli and Bosnian groups. The entire international Women in Black movement also received the Millennium Peace Prize for Women from the U.N. Development Fund for Women this year.

Thus far the FBI has only contacted Jewish Women in Black, apparently because their progressive, anti-war political work in the Middle East yields suspicion. But Americans should hope they aren't entrusting their safety to federal investigators so dense as to associate leftist Jewish women with anti-Semitic, misogynistic terrorists.

The alternative is that the FBI is following the administration's moves, by crying witch and selectively eroding civil liberties in the name of America's hunt for evil-doers. And in these moments of paranoid hysteria mongering, everyone is a suspect.

Federal investigators have also probed over 200 universities for information about international students from the Middle East and Central Asia. They want to know what the students think about Osama bin Laden and where they live, according to The New York Times.

In addition, the administration still has more than a thousand detainees in custody, though it refuses to disclose precise figures of how many are detained, their identities, the activities or associations that warrant their detainment and even, as The New York Times editorial board observed, "the reasons for such secrecy."

Moreover, President Bush just authorized the government to prosecute non-citizen terrorist suspects in secret military tribunals, which he will reign over as commander in chief. These modern-day witch trials will be closed to the public and will permit evidence civilian courts may otherwise consider illegally obtained and therefore inadmissible - including hearsay. Now the administration has revealed many of these tribunals will take place at sea, aboard U.S. naval vessels far from prying eyes and public scrutiny.

Surely the administration's Constitution-trampling is just an effort to protect Americans in the best way it knows how, and therefore citizens should help officials in the best way they know how as well. To make the FBI's job easier, Women in Black has made a sadly unpublicized confession of guilt before, which is still useful intelligence for investigators today.

"I confess," the women stated, "solidarity is the politics which interests me; that throughout all the seasons of the year I insisted that there can be an end to the slaughter, destruction, ethnic cleansing, forced evacuation of people and rape." The women continued, "I confess, that I took care of others while the patriots took care of themselves."

Paulette Chu.

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