In his book ‘1984’ George Orwell depicts a nightmarish totalitarian society called Oceania in which neither freedom nor civil liberties exist, and where every aspect of life – communication, behavior, even thoughts – is constantly monitored by a Soviet-style bureaucratic ruling elite. The masses are controlled by means of this apparatus and by the waging of perpetual war with one or the other of two opposing and equally obnoxious authoritarian power blocs in the world. Frenzied patriotism is relentlessly whipped up by the propagandistic Ministry of Truth; the Ministry of Peace, of course, pursues the war. Big Brother knows all.
America in 2006 is not Oceania and George W Bush is not Big Brother – well not yet anyway – but there are positively eerie echoes. I always found it more than a little disturbing that when the administration wanted to push federal agency initiatives or congressional legislation designed to weaken environmental protections, it would choose benign titles that indicated the purpose was the opposite to the truth. So a plan to weaken protections for old growth trees in our national forests and allow more logging became the ‘Healthy Forests Initiative’. Another example is ‘Clear Skies’, a Bush administration initiative designed to weaken tougher existing requirements to reduce pollution by the power industry. Even if GWB hasn’t read Orwell, I bet Karl Rove has.
Most disturbing, however, is this administration’s expansive view of executive power together with a willingness to exercise it – and with barely a contemptuous nod in the direction of Congress and the courts. For example, even after succumbing to public pressure, and the efforts of Senator McCain, and reluctantly signing a bill outlawing the use of torture on detainees by American civilian or military forces, Bush insisted that he was not necessarily bound by its provisions.
Nowhere do we see this dictatorial proclivity more clearly than in the scandal over National Security Agency eavesdropping of Americans’ communications overseas – well, we think it’s just overseas because the administration refuses to give even the barest details. The fact is we don’t know whose communications might be caught up in this gigantic fishing expedition. The administration legal argument is twofold: that Congress gave the administration authority to do whatever it needed to in order to pursue the war on the terrorists who mounted the 9/11 attack. This, needless to say, has come as unwelcome news to most of the senators and congressmen and women who voted for that authorization. If this unlikely stretch doesn’t work, the fallback position is that the president’s authority derives from his inherent constitutional powers as Commander-in-Chief.
Even setting aside the incompetence of an administration incapable of keeping Americans safe without violating our civil liberties, the scope of this power grab is breathtaking. In effect, Bush is saying that no law can bind his hands if he deems it an impediment to his pursuant of the terrorists. In this particular instance, it is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) but it is difficult to see how, under this reasoning, any law could not be disregarded if he invoked national security. And those who disagree are simply unpatriotic, defeatist dupes who give aid and comfort to the enemy. Bush and his minions had a visceral attachment to and belief in unfettered executive authority before 9/11. They have, nevertheless, exploited that tragedy unmercifully in order to justify it and have been aided by a fearful American public and a supine Congress.
Of course I could be doing Bush a grave disservice. He has said on numerous occasions that the terrorists hate our freedoms and that’s why they seek to destroy us. Maybe his secret strategy is to strip away our freedoms one by one that so that one day it will dawn on al-Qaida that we’re not worth hating anymore. Well who knows?
What I do know is that too many Americans have accepted this home-grown authoritarianism with nary a protest, embraced it even, particularly on the right (as though only Republicans will ever hold the White House). When did we become so craven? When did this wonderful democracy of ours cease to be worth fighting for – whether against the Islamic terrorists or our own government’s overreach? What is the point of sending our soldiers and marines to Iraq to fight for democracy when we allow an incompetent and unprincipled president to weaken it here at home?
If the legislative and judicial branches of our government fail in their duty to curb this presidential power grab, then each of us would do well to reconsider our fundamental and cherished belief in this country as the “land of the free and home of the brave”, in our system of checks and balances and, indeed, in the very institutions that are the bedrock of our democracy. Alas, we may never believe in them in quite the same way again.