Saturday, July 31, 2004

Ashcroft on the Prowl
Artists and Nuns, Look Out!

I ran across an article that makes John Ashcroft look bad. It caught my attention, because it referred to a case I had read about earlier in the journal, Nature. The Nature article was in the 17 June 2004 issue: Bacteria raid may lead to trial for artist tackling biodefence Nature 429, 690 (2004) doi:10.1038/429690b Geoff Brumfiel, Washington - An artist who uses live organisms and laboratory equipment in his performances is being scrutinized by federal officials who suspect he has broken bioweapons laws. Federal prosecutors are deciding whether to file charges against Steven Kurtz, an art professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, for possessing strains of bacteria, laboratory equipment, and several books on biowarfare. But Kurtz's friends and supporters say that the materials are part of his group's performance pieces. Since 1987, 46-year-old Kurtz has been part of a Buffalo-based performance group, the Critical Art Ensemble, whose work offers political commentary on scientific topics. They often incorporate laboratory techniques into their shows, according to Nato Thompson, a curator at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in Boston who has seen the group's work. "The lab experiment is the performance," he says. The news article I saw today is from the Utah Daily Herald: Ashcroft targets protesters to pad antiterror record The Daily Herald Thursday, July 29, 2004 - 12:00 AM Jonathan Turley Attorney General John Ashcroft recently went to Congress to herald another record year of fighting terrorism, showcasing numbers showing 310 defendants charged as evidence that "the Patriot Act is al-Qaida's worst nightmare." Few would argue about the nightmare part, but it is hard to see al-Qaida losing much sleep: To a large degree, Ashcroft has used antiterrorism laws against citizens with no ties to al-Qaida or even terrorism. With many in Congress opposed to renewing parts of the USA Patriot Act, the 29-page report by Ashcroft attempts to show "a mountain of evidence that the Patriot Act continues to save lives," but it omits critical facts that seriously undermine that claim. In fact, the report is part of an annual effort by Ashcroft to prod local prosecutors to bolster their terrorism numbers -- often by using terrorism laws against conventional criminals and a curious hodgepodge of nuns, protesters and artists. [...] (Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University Law School) The Daily Herald article goes on to cite many specific examples of the questionable practices of Mr. Ashcroft. Although it is not possible to know what the motivation is for sure, the examples certainly give the impression that the DOJ is trying to inflate its record of fighting terrorism-related cases. they give an example of three nuns who got on top of a nuclear missile silo, then got arrested and labeled "national security threats." Quite a nasty outcome, for people who merely were expressing their pro-life philosophy. Dr. Turley does miss one point. Remember Dr. Kurtz, the art professor who was arrested for having bacteria, etc. ? He is not being prosecuted under antiterrorism laws, although that was the intent originally. Again, from the Nature article: The US attorney's office in Buffalo declined to comment on the case, but a website that supports Kurtz's group says the case is being pursued under the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989. The act was amended under the USA Patriot Act of 2001 to allow the prosecution of "whoever knowingly possesses any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system". The bacteria were identified as Serratia marcescens, Bacillus globigii, and a nonpathogenic strain of Escherichia coli. Of course, anybody who has a functioning intestine has ready access to E. coli; S. marcescens can be gotten over the Internet, from companies that supply material to high school biology labs; and B. globigii is so harmless that it is spread freely in the environment during experiments to test bacterial detection systems. It is used in such experiments precisely because it is harmless. True, they all are "biological agents," but it would appear that Dr. Kurtz deliberately used bacteria that are quite safe. That would make it hard to infer malicious intent. As an aside, S. marcescens sometimes grows on Catholic communion wafers when stored in a damp place. It is bright red. Once, this was thought to be a miraculous recreation of the blood of Jesus Christ. Back to the point: what did happen to Dr. Kurtz? He still faces criminal charges, but the charges have been changed to mail fraud. He faces up to $250,000 in fines, and up to 20 years in prison. Apparently, the B. globigii was obtained from a supply company that sells only to legitimate laboratories. Dr. Kurtz, being an art professor, could not order it directly. So he had someone else order it for him. This all seems rather pointless. You would think that, once it was clear that there was no criminal intent, and no threat to public safety, the DOJ would spend their time going after real criminals. What would cause them to pursue Dr. Kurtz so avidly, on such flimsy grounds? Could the fact that his artistic performances are "political commentary," a protest against the government, have anything to do with it??? The nuns were protesting against the government, and now they are being called terrorists.

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