Under the guise of preserving the security of the state, secret agencies monitor its citizens’ telephone communications without reference to a court or any meaningful legislative oversight; massive amounts of information are gathered and analysed from banks, libraries and other institutions used by the country’s citizens; enemies of the state are held in secret prisons overseas, hidden from the Red Cross or any independent monitoring, and subjected to interrogation using abusive techniques that might very well rise to the level of torture; after holding these enemies indefinitely without trial for years, the state brings these enemies before a kangaroo court that will be able to convict on the basis of coerced testimony, and evidence which has not been presented to the defendant for rebuttal.
Growing up during the Cold War in England, I would have had no trouble identifying the countries whose governments resorted to these tactics. It could only have been the Soviet Union or any one of its subjugated allies in the Warsaw Pact; or the People’s Republic of China, perhaps; certainly North Korea. The contrast between us and them was very clear back then, even in the face of a threat from what seemed a monolithic enemy. But alas we are not talking about the old USSR. No, we are, in fact, talking about the United States of America in 2006, unbelievable as that may be.
Authority to do some of these things has already been handed to the Bush administration by a compliant and frightened Congress under the USA Patriot Act. The rest, including unfettered electronic surveillance and the issues surrounding the detention, treatment, interrogation and trial of suspected terrorists, Bush now seeks from Congress in the run-up to a fall election whereby opponents, which he had hoped would only be Democrats, can be portrayed as unpatriotic and soft on terrorists.
Bush’s plan has been upset by the staunch opposition of some GOP heavyweights in the Senate, notably John Warner, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who simply cannot stomach America’s moral stature being further diminished by an administration that has done so much to reduce it already in the eyes of the world.
Of course Bush only seeks congressional consent because the U.S. Supreme Court is not yet sufficiently packed with ideological soul mates willing to demolish the principle of separation of powers (give it time, though, and Bush may have that problem licked too if another justice retires). A Supreme Court ruling earlier in the year forced the Bush administration to come to Congress on the detainee issues; the fact that it would likely do the same regarding Bush’s surveillance programme which bypasses the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) has prompted the administration to launch a pre-emptive effort to obtain Congress’ stamp of approval to its unfettered power to monitor our communications.
The Bush administration and its defenders, mostly on the right, say that we are at war with a deadly and ruthless enemy that dealt the United States a catastrophic blow on September 11th, 2001. To successfully combat this enemy, they say, we must adopt tough and intrusive measures. They cite precedents for restricting civil liberties such as the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II (a shameful act), or the suspension of habeas corpus by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, to justify these governmental intrusions which, they say would be temporary anyway.
Al-Qaida and its affiliated organizations represent a dangerous enemy to be sure. But let’s be realistic: they lack the capability to conquer any Middle East nation let alone confront the U.S. at home. What they can try to do is mount another 9/11-type operation. Even the characterization of the struggle as a “war” is misleading and serves mainly to boost both the terrorists and Bush himself.
Bush’s overwrought rhetoric on these issues has served to further diminish his credibility. When he suggests that if we don’t prevail in Iraq, the terrorists will follow us home (well, presumably they’d have to get a visa first) or that the safety of this country is at stake in the war in Iraq, it simply reinforces the perception that this floundering president will say anything to stoke the fires of fear in America.
We must certainly be vigilant; we must have strong security measures at our ports, and on our borders. Our law enforcement and intelligence agencies need to be alert and must talk to one another. The fact that we have not been attacked a second time since 9/11 suggests that our domestic agencies have taken the lessons of that event to heart. However, the idea that we cannot adequately defend ourselves without giving unfettered power to the executive branch to electronically monitor our communications, or that we must abuse captured suspected terrorists or try them in a court of law with Soviet-style rules of evidence is dangerous nonsense. In short, the notion that we cannot simultaneously remain free and still fight the terrorists is just plain wrong and if the Bush administration doesn’t think it’s possible, then the sooner we replace it the better. And that goes, also, for the Republican majority in Congress.
For me, the biggest surprise in this struggle for the soul of America is the Republican right. This is the party of small government, perennially sceptical of government intrusion in our lives, proud of Ronald Reagan’s role in the downfall of the Soviet Union, forever waxing lyrical about America’s freedoms. Yet in the last five years they have given unswerving support and applause to a secretive and authoritarian administration that has sought to expand executive power at the expense of the other branches, infringe on traditional civil liberties and intimidate both the media and the political opposition by questioning their patriotism and commitment to the struggle against America’s enemies.
If it’s okay for the right to question the patriotism of more liberal, progressive and even politically moderate Americans, then perhaps it’s time to question the commitment of conservatives (minus the libertarian element) to our democracy. The most interesting argument I’ve seen advanced by the right, and one I’ve seen frequently in the opinion pages of the daily newspaper, is that restricting our civil liberties is a necessary price to pay for preserving our freedom from the terrorists – who want to destroy it. Huh? So we’ll beat them to it by surrendering our own freedoms to our government before the terrorists take them from us? Yeah, that makes sense. And then there’s the caveat often advanced by the administration that these restrictions are “temporary” just as they were in World War II or in the Civil War. The trouble with that argument is that the struggle against Islamic terrorists is likely to be interminable – particularly if we keep electing dunderheads like Bush and the Republicans in Congress who seem intent on making decisions, such as invading Iraq, that aid rather than hurt the enemy.
Although I don’t agree with them on much else, I admire and respect Senators McCain, Warner, Graham and others in the GOP such as former secretary of state Colin Powell, who, together with the almost unanimous support of Senate Democrats, are willing to stand up for our country’s fundamental democratic principles – the very things that make it worth fighting for in the first place. It is shameful, however, that the foe these Republicans battle so valiantly is their own party and president.