It seems like every presidential election in recent history, America is faced with a stark choice of either voting for change or voting for the end of the world. In my time following politics, I often felt that these types of stark choices were often overblown. America, despite its bruises, was doing fine. The world was not going to end if we voted for Republican Presidential Candidate A or Democratic Presidential Candidate B or Independent Presidential Candidate C. Like a cat, America always landed on its feet.
After that fateful day on 9/11, America pulled it together. We survived.
But I don’t feel that way now. The stuff our government is doing in the name of 9/11, in the name of the “war on terror,” in the name of our safety, is troubling. Extraordinary rendition. Guantanamo. Waterboarding. Destroying tapes. The blithe dismissal of international treaties. The pathetic reasoning the government has come up with to do these things in our name, and the accompanying line of “yes men” experts justifying the adminstration’s conduct.
It bothers me . . . a lot. It should bother you, too.
Sure, its easy to point the finger at George Bush and his administration for ignoring the utmost principle that has carried this nation: the rule of law. He’s an easy target, but criticisms against his policies clearly shouldn’t end with him. Bush has a lot of helpers. That help comes not only in the form of people (i.e., Cheney, Gonzalez, Ashcroft, etc.), but also institutions (i.e., CIA, Department of State, Department of Defense, etc.). When he’s gone, the institutions will still be there. Who can replace Bush and bring about government wide change? Who can replace Bush and change the environment that fostered the situation we are in now?
Looking at the candidates out there, both on the Republican and Democrat side, don’t give me a hell of a lot of solace. There doesn’t appear to be much will for serious change, either in government or in the populace. The majority of the arguments are based within the Bush paradigm of the “war on terror.”
For example, it’s never whether waterboarding is per se illegal, but whether it’s effective or not. It’s never whether extraordinary rendition violates both domestic and international law, but whether it’s a useful tool for garnering information. It’s never whether “suspects” in Guantanamo are afforded the right to habeas corpus, but whether we are fighting a successful “war on terror.”
The paradigm needs to change. We are arguing under premises that we assuming are correct. The populace and those in government are putting the cart before the horse.
If you can protect us from terrorist attacks, then why should we bother? If you are fighting this war on terror, why should we dare question your tactics? If there are foreign terrorists out there, why does the U.S. have to treat those foreign terrorists with dignity or in accordance to international treaties that we ourselves helped draft? If we are the U.S., the most powerful nation in the world, shouldn’t we be able to do whatever we want so long as we think it’s right?
My main concern is not who will lead America once Bush is gone, but whether the institutions within our government are capable of true change and whether the citizens of this country will start waking up and realizing that a country that puts its safety above the rule of law is a country that has no rule of law to begin with.
I’m no Republican, but the what the hell happened to that party? Remember when they stood for smaller government (even when they were expanding it) and particularly for respecting the constitution? To be sure, in my earlier age, I was a Republican. They seemed like the party that respected the constitution (or at least appeared to). Now what the hell happened? The constitution is a stumbling block for their three favorite words: war on terror. Why is that the answer to just about everything? War on Terror. War on Terror. War on Terror. It’s like some kind of strange mantra.
And the Democrats? They’re still stuck in a 1992 pipe dream when Clinton was president. Their mantra is: Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton. Sorry to break it to you, democrats, but he’s no longer president. Democrats need true vision that looks forward, not one that is wedded to an embossed past. Democrats need definition. They have none and they need one fast. The democrats lost in 2004 not because the American public was duped. The democrats lost in 2004 because they had no candidate and certainly no platform.
So, what’s next for America? The same old, same old, for sure.
There are too many moments these days when we cannot recognize our country. Sunday was one of them, as we read the account in The Times of how men in some of the most trusted posts in the nation plotted to cover up the torture of prisoners by Central Intelligence Agency interrogators by destroying videotapes of their sickening behavior. It was impossible to see the founding principles of the greatest democracy in the contempt these men and their bosses showed for the Constitution, the rule of law and human decency.
It was not the first time in recent years we’ve felt this horror, this sorrowful sense of estrangement, not nearly. This sort of lawless behavior has become standard practice since Sept. 11, 2001. The country and much of the world was rightly and profoundly frightened by the single-minded hatred and ingenuity displayed by this new enemy. But there is no excuse for how President Bush and his advisers panicked — how they forgot that it is their responsibility to protect American lives and American ideals, that there really is no safety for Americans or their country when those ideals are sacrificed.
Out of panic and ideology, President Bush squandered America’s position of moral and political leadership, swept aside international institutions and treaties, sullied America’s global image, and trampled on the constitutional pillars that have supported our democracy through the most terrifying and challenging times. These policies have fed the world’s anger and alienation and have not made any of us safer.
In the years since 9/11, we have seen American soldiers abuse, sexually humiliate, torment and murder prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few have been punished, but their leaders have never been called to account. We have seen mercenaries gun down Iraqi civilians with no fear of prosecution. We have seen the president, sworn to defend the Constitution, turn his powers on his own citizens, authorizing the intelligence agencies to spy on Americans, wiretapping phones and intercepting international e-mail messages without a warrant.
We have read accounts of how the government’s top lawyers huddled in secret after the attacks in New York and Washington and plotted ways to circumvent the Geneva Conventions — and both American and international law — to hold anyone the president chose indefinitely without charges or judicial review.
Those same lawyers then twisted other laws beyond recognition to allow Mr. Bush to turn intelligence agents into torturers, to force doctors to abdicate their professional oaths and responsibilities to prepare prisoners for abuse, and then to monitor the torment to make sure it didn’t go just a bit too far and actually kill them.
The White House used the fear of terrorism and the sense of national unity to ram laws through Congress that gave law-enforcement agencies far more power than they truly needed to respond to the threat — and at the same time fulfilled the imperial fantasies of Vice President Dick Cheney and others determined to use the tragedy of 9/11 to arrogate as much power as they could.
Hundreds of men, swept up on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, were thrown into a prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, so that the White House could claim they were beyond the reach of American laws. Prisoners are held there with no hope of real justice, only the chance to face a kangaroo court where evidence and the names of their accusers are kept secret, and where they are not permitted to talk about the abuse they have suffered at the hands of American jailers.
In other foreign lands, the C.I.A. set up secret jails where “high-value detainees” were subjected to ever more barbaric acts, including simulated drowning. These crimes were videotaped, so that “experts” could watch them, and then the videotapes were destroyed, after consultation with the White House, in the hope that Americans would never know.
The C.I.A. contracted out its inhumanity to nations with no respect for life or law, sending prisoners — some of them innocents kidnapped on street corners and in airports — to be tortured into making false confessions, or until it was clear they had nothing to say and so were let go without any apology or hope of redress.
These are not the only shocking abuses of President Bush’s two terms in office, made in the name of fighting terrorism. There is much more — so much that the next president will have a full agenda simply discovering all the wrongs that have been done and then righting them.
We can only hope that this time, unlike 2004, American voters will have the wisdom to grant the awesome powers of the presidency to someone who has the integrity, principle and decency to use them honorably. Then when we look in the mirror as a nation, we will see, once again, the reflection of the United States of America.
You can find this NY Times Editorial here.