The War on Terrorism and the Death Penalty:
An Interview with Robert Meeropol
by Marco Rossi April 2002
Robert Meeropol is the youngest son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. In 1953 the United States government executed his parents for "conspiring to steal the secret of the atomic bomb" when Robert was only six years old. Since that time, the Rosenberg case has proved a shame and scandal for the United States government.
The death of his parents inspired Robert to involve himself in progressive causes and social change. In the 1970's Robert and his brother Michael sued the FBI and CIA to force release of 300,000 previously-secret documents about their parents. In 1990 Robert founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children and now serves as its Executive Director. The organization provides support for both targeted activist youth and children in the United States whose parents have suffered because of their political activism.
Recently, Robert agreed to give a brief interview on the current "War on Terrorism" and the new forms of domestic repression experienced by United States citizens. . .
Marco Rossi: Several political prisoners in the United States received harsh treatment and were put in lock down immediately after the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Can you please tell us about the situation of political prisoners within the United States today, and how has post-September 11th climate changed their circumstance?
Robert Meeropol: Political prisoners like all prisoners are subject to increasingly harsh and arbitrary conditions in prison. 9/11 has just given those in charge a new weapon with which to isolate political prisoners. I believe that those in charge of the prison system realize that 2,000,000 prisoners are a potential mass audience for political prisoners to communicate with. They seek to prevent this. The other change in their circumstances is that sentence commutations and early releases have become next to impossible.
MR: There are still 1,200 immigrants who are being detained in the United States. What is the situation like for these people, and how long do you think the government plans to keep these people detained?
RM: The problem here is lack of information. I don't know what their situation is. I have no idea how long the government will keep these people detained. I think, absurd as it may sound, that people are being detained because they don't have anything to charge them with. The government is hoping to force "cooperation" with these detentions.
MR: Delegates from Amnesty International have recently been allowed to tour two detention centres in New Jersey that are housing immigrants who were detained after September 11th. Do you think that this is a sign that the Bush Administration is lightening up its pressure toward immigrants and its clamp-down on civil liberties?
RM: No. It is full speed ahead with the clamp-down. However, they aren't above using PR to claim that this is not the case.
MR: Guantanamo Bay has created a very conflicting situation for the United States. It has called the conflict in Afghanistan a War on Terrorism, but it refuses to acknowledge captured Taliban members as prisoners of war and treat them as such. The United States has classified the prisoners as 'unlawful combats.' The contradiction has provoked outcry from even some of the United States most devoted allies. How do you see the situation in Guantanamo Bay resolving itself? Do you believe that the USA will alter its present stance and respect the human rights of the prisoners incarcerated there, or will it continue with its present policy?
RM: As of now - Taliban fighters are being held in accordance with the Geneva Conventions on POWs, but the government refuses to classify them as POWs. Al Qaeda members are being held in legal limbo. Essentially we are saying we can do what we want with these people. The government is attempting to keep its options open. The bigger the domestic and international outcry against the government's actions, the more likely it is that they will abide by international law.
MR: The death penalty has become an embarrassment for the United States over the years. The USA's use of the death penalty has raised criticism even from its European allies. How has Europe's views on the death penalty changed, if at all, after September 11th?
RM: As far as I can tell 9/11 has not changed Europe's attitude toward the death penalty. To them it remains a barbarous practice.
MR: The Bush administration has made some minor changes in how tribunals will be conducted. One change was that the death penalty could only be used if the decision to use it is unanimously voted upon. Do you think that this change will have any significant effect on how military tribunals will be run?
RM: No, but I must add that it is far from certain that there will be any military tribunals.
MR: Should anti-death penalty activitists consider this a win?
RM: No. The biggest current challenge of the US anti-capital-punishment movement is Zacharias Moussadi's case. The government has until 3/29 to decide whether to ask for the death penalty. I predict they will and then the battle will be joined.
MR: Do you think that the new PATRIOT-ACT has the potential to totally change legal and civil institutions in the United States?
RM: Yes, it seriously undermines all our rights.
MR: To what extent do you see rights such as free speech, peaceful assembly, and privacy being restricted?
RM: The potential is enormous. The test will come when opposition grows. As long as we are a relatively few voices crying in the wilderness they can let us say what we will. Question is will they use the new laws to squash us if we start to gather a mass constituency? This one could go either way - it is too soon to tell.
MR: On Mumia Abu-Jamal's recording "All Things Censored," you made a statement about the need of the United States government to "flex its muscle" every generation and show that it will not be persuaded by political dissent. What type of "flex" do you think the next generation of activist can expect?
RM: Right now the new flex will be a wave of "capital conspiracy" cases. That is, the government asking for the death penalty for people charged with conspiracy as they did in my parents' case. Another flex will be to try to equate those who dissent with terrorists. This has already begun.
MR: Do you think it will be more difficult to speak out against the government than it has been in the past?
RM: Yes, but it depends upon what time in the past. Dissent has usually been stamped out during wars. What Bush is trying to do is get us in a state of never-ending low-level war (a la "1984") and use that as an excuse to stamp out all opposition to his policies.
another world is possible . . .