America: What’s Next? (Or: The Same Old Song And Dance)

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.


Waterboarding (Or: What the hell are we doing?)

Waterboarding is a technique used to simulate drowning. A prisoner is put on a board, with his/her head sloping down. The interrogator pours water over the prisoner’s face, which causes water to be inhaled into the lungs. Since humans, as far as I know, can’t breath water or liquid (except maybe in the movie The Abyss), the prisoner will gag and the prisoner will think he/she is dying because he/she can’t breathe.

Needless to say, it can cause some serious psychological damage, as well as physical damage . . . damage that often lasts longer than the actual event. As John McCain has commented, imagine having a gun held to your head and firing a blank. Nothing I want to be put through.

According to the CIA, it appears that if there is no blood (or at least not a lot of blood) then there’s no foul. But one thing is for certain. If police did this to citizens charged with crimes, their confessions would be thrown out of court and the police would be subject to a 1983 civil rights violation. Then why was the CIA allowed to conduct waterboarding on terrorist suspects or those that it considers to be enemy combatants or some new legal class of persons that one of the White House lawyers made up after a long night sniffing glue?

Well, with the CIA’s track record of extraordinary rendition and the government’s mess with Guantanamo, what’s another candle in the proverbial cake of “government abuse of power”? And, even though waterboarding has technically been outlawed, do you really think the CIA is following that mandate? I can only imagine some whack job CIA attorney writing some memo entitled, “Waterboarding is not torture if we use orange juice.” In the same vein, I can only imagine some whack job White House attorney writing some memo entitled, “Waterboarding is not torture if we kidnap the suspect and send him to Egypt to get waterboarded.”

What other torture methods are the CIA using that are beyond the scope of checks by either congress or the justice system (we all know that the current executive branch is useless when it comes to “checks”)? What gets me is how the Republicans thought Clinton split hairs over language (it depends on what the definition of “is” is). Yeah, Clinton ejaculated on Monica’s dress. But you know what? He didn’t ejaculate on the constitution day in and day out.

But the other interesting line of questioning is when is waterboarding or other forms of torture justifiable by the U.S. government? In this neverending “war on terror,” it appears that the ends justify the means. If it can prevent a terrorist attack, then dammit, we need to waterboard and, hell, we need to burn them on a stake if necessary! We’re fighting terrorists, not boy scouts! Give me a break.

That’s essentially what the U.S. government is saying. And that’s extremely disturbing, because that’s exactly what the framers of the constitution tried to protect the people from. Our constitution prevents that very argument. The ends never justify the means when due process and the equal protection of the laws are violated. Although ex-CIA agent Mike Kiriakou believed that he thought waterboarding is something “Americans should not do,” he still felt the technique worked. Did it though and at what expense? And let me ask you this, Mr. Golden Child Mike Kirakou. How many of these suspects did you waterboard that were completely innocent? I know “completely innocent” is not a word in the CIA’s vocabulary. You were just following orders, heh?

The American government should treat any suspect — whether a citizen or not a citizen or a pseudo-something a la enemy combatant — the same: with dignity and under procedures that respect the constitution. It is very difficult to trust a government that purports to treat its citizens fairly and those who are not unfairly. When the government is straining to make such distinctions, you have to ask yourself whether there is even one to begin with. Further, when you fight for the rights of non-citizens and the pseudo classifications of people like an enemy combatant, you are essentially fighting for your rights. If the American government can torture and violate the rights of individuals that utterly shock the conscience without impunity or consequence, then do you really think they won’t do the same to you? Wake up and smell the facism.

Now don’t get me wrong because I’m citing “technicalities” such as constitutional rights of due process and equal protection. Don’t call me some “soft on terror liberal cocksucker.” Law enforcement has a lot of leeway when it comes to interrogating suspects. They should do it zealously and relentlessly. But, I would have thought after World War II, there would be a damn clear bright line when it came to torture. That’s off limits for the American government. And it’s off limits for any government, and in particular, any government that our C – I – friggin A sends a suspect to.

9/11 did not change the constitution. It certainly changed our perspective. But 9/11 did not change the rules of the game. I was there in Manhattan on 9/11. I saw the planes hit. I saw the buildings collapse. I have the dust on my clothes. I have friends who died. I’m pissed, too, at the terrorists who did such a thing. But I’m also pissed at our government who has used 9/11 as a casus belli to do whatever the fuck it wants. Time to take it back.

Torture is never justifiable under any circumstances. Period. No exceptions.