No Comment — May 21, 2008, 10:48 am

“Main Core”: The Last Round-Up

P.D. James’s 1992 novel, The Children of Men, recently realized in a fine film by Alfonso Cuarón, jumps thirty-five years into the future to give a dismal view of Britain as a struggling state. An island of relative order in a disintegrating world, Britain has turned to severe police state methods to deal with swarming immigrants. Vast internment camps have been established into which foreigners and “undesirables” are herded. There is public talk of resettlement of those interned, but in fact the fate that the detainees face is ominous—summary executions and violence within the camps claim many lives.

James is known for her dark fiction, but even within her work, The Children of Men assumes a special place. It is effective precisely because it is believable. The author appears to be peering through a dark mirror, into a bleak future that could be, the dismal underside of the Anglo-Saxon spirit.

Could America’s future also look like this? That speculation is hardly absurd. When James wrote her work more than fifteen years ago, the United States had no agency with a curiously Teutonic name (“Homeland Security”–very close to the name of the ubiquitous security service in her novel); it had no internal isolation camps into which tens of thousands of immigrants could disappear without a court date or chance to be heard; it had no Guantánamo concentration camps. So much has changed in fifteen years.

But there are plans that would draw America far closer to James’s nightmare. In the current issue of Radar, my Harper’s colleague Christopher Ketcham (whose piece on buffaloes in the current issue is not to be missed) discusses a secret program that may be at the bottom of some recent press reports.

Ketcham starts his narrative with former Deputy Attorney General James Comey’s dramatic disclosures about the nighttime visit that Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card paid on an ailing, hospitalized John Ashcroft. They whipped out papers and pressed the sedated Ashcroft to sign them. In what has come to be viewed as the most noble act of his term, Ashcroft angrily sent Gonzales and Card on their way. Comey later provided a riveting account of this incident, under oath, in Congressional testimony.

So what was this program all about? Speculation for months has focused on a massive surveillance program that skirted the criminal law restrictions contained in the FISA statute. Maybe. But Ketcham suggests there is more. He focuses on the Government’s super-secret Continuity of Governance program–its plans for government following a catastrophe, such as a devastating attack or massive natural disaster.

According to a senior government official who served with high-level security clearances in five administrations, “There exists a database of Americans, who, often for the slightest and most trivial reason, are considered unfriendly, and who, in a time of panic, might be incarcerated. The database can identify and locate perceived ‘enemies of the state’ almost instantaneously.” He and other sources tell Radar that the database is sometimes referred to by the code name Main Core. One knowledgeable source claims that 8 million Americans are now listed in Main Core as potentially suspect. In the event of a national emergency, these people could be subject to everything from heightened surveillance and tracking to direct questioning and possibly even detention.

Ketcham goes on to explain how the database would be used and who’s on the list. And surely Congress is keeping an eye on this program, yes? No, not really. And when civil libertarians raise concerns about the treatment of detainees in Guantánamo and other legal black holes fashioned by the Bush Administration, they are told that this is designed only for the “worst of the worst,” never for U.S. citizens. But experience has shown that such divisions rarely stand; abusive practices break through the barriers set in place for them. Main Core does not propose to turn America into one huge Guantánamo. But it could point to an America that looks much like the nightmare portrayed in The Children of Men. It’s about time we all got a good look at those blueprints.

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In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

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Out of sight on Leros, the island of the damned

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About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

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I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

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A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

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