Sunday, May 29, 2005

Letter to New York Times on Downing Street Memo- common sense told us in 2002 that the WMD story was a hoax

Percentage of Americans who think that President Bush is "honest and straightforward" has sunk to all time low of 41%, which means that if the 41% can receive e-mail, the Nigerian Oil scammers can count on doing a repeat business

Dear Editor:

Although much has been made of the explosive revelations of the "Downing Street Memo" released in early May, it is disingenuous of the New York Times, other major media outlets, and members of Congress to claim that they were misled by the Bush Administration's false claims about Iraq's WMD's in 2002 and early 2003. Had the media simply reviewed the statements of Colin Powell in 2001, they would have discovered that Iraq was no threat at all:

"The sanctions, as they are called, have succeeded over the last 10 years.... The Iraqi regime militarily remains fairly weak. ... It has been contained."

Colin Powell testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, May 15, 2001.

And if that wasn't enough, then simple logic should have informed both the news media and political leaders that with midterm elections coming up in November of 2002, the Bush Administration and the Republican Party desperately needed a huge distraction from the growing Enron scandal, the Clinton surplus which had been transformed into a burgeoning deficit in less than 18 months, negative economic indicators, including a net job loss, and the complete failure to locate Osama bin Laden, as President Bush had vowed to do, "dead or alive," shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks. News reports in the Summer of 2002 suggested that the Bush Administration was facing the very real possibility that Democrats would increase their majority in the Senate while Republicans could lose control of the House. If that had happened, then by November of 2002, Mr. Bush would have been transformed into a relatively powerless lame duck with two years still to go in his first, and probably only, term.

My best friend, a staunch Republican, and I both agreed during the summer of 2002 that the alleged military threat to the United States from Iraq was not only wrong, it was laughable. We had the country surrounded by our military, we had no-fly zones in the North and South of Iraq, our Air Force had taken out Iraqi military targets with ease when it suited our purposes, and sanctions were still in place. But we both agreed that it was brilliant politics of the President to follow the hallowed tradition of drumming up a war fever to take the focus away from the disasters over which he had presided- including the question as to how he had failed to anticipate and prevent the 9-11 terror attacks.

By early 2003, when the huge troop buildup made it clear that we were going to invade no matter what, the media and Congress once again missed the most obvious signals that the WMD threat was a hoax: virtually every nation bordering Iraq, including our NATO ally Turkey and the one country against whom Saddam had used chemical weapons- Iran, was urging us not to invade. Turkey went so far as to refuse to allow us to use our bases there as staging areas for a northern front. Had Saddam actually possessed WMD's, the means of delivering them, and the intention to do so, those countries bordering Iraq would have been first in line to be targeted, not the United States half a world away, and they would have been begging us to take out the mad dictator who threatened their citizenry.

Finally, we don't need the Downing Street memo to tell us that the vote to authorize the use of force in October of 2002 was motivated by politics rather than national security. Every Democrat who voted to authorize the use of force, including Senators Kerry and Edwards, knew full well that a vote against it would be highlighted in every campaign commercial in the November 2002 election as well as in the presidential race in 2004. They knew full well that Iraq was no military threat whatsoever to its immediate neighbors, let alone the United States. But the one thing they didn't count on was that President Bush would be foolish enough to use the authorization to launch a pre-emptive war, resulting in an occupation with no exit strategy, American deaths approaching 2,000, and expenditures of over $200 billion while the nation is running $400 billion deficits.

Sad to say, the bogus WMD threats of 2002 were only the beginning, as the Bush Administration gets away with faux town hall meetings on an illusory Social Security 'crisis," a prescription drug bill that suddenly cost hundreds of billions of dollars more shortly after Congress passed the legislation, and an energy bill that pretends that drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge could impact gasoline prices. The official lies will continue until members of the media and our elected officials recognize that our country and our troops in harm's way are more important than their careers.


The ACLU opposes religious signs like this on government property

(This column ran in the 6-3-05 THE ALBANY (Ga.) JOURNAL)

It was the last sentence in the article which got my attention:

"One board member was re-elected after a letter critical of prayer's prevalence, written by his Jewish opponent, was circulated, with a scrawled note casting her as an outsider."

The headline on the Associated Press article said "Ministers: ACLU, go home." If the Louisiana pastors had been more honest, it would have read "Jews, go home." The Rev. Louis Husser, looking smug and happy in the AP photo, was even more blunt: "The ACLU defends pedophiles. You have to understand where they are coming from."

The ACLU’s crime in Louisiana’s Tangipahoa Parish? Successfully petitioning a court on behalf of religious minorities to prohibit the local government from using taxpayer funds to establish an official religion.

So how did we get to this point in America in 2005? An organization whose sole purpose is to protect civil liberties found in the United States Constitution is vilified as much as pedophiles who prey on children. Is it because the ACLU’s goals are misunderstood- or is it because its mission is understood all too well by those who try to undermine it? The ACLU’s mission statement is unequivocal:

“The ACLU is our nation's guardian of liberty. We work daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States. Our job is to conserve America's original civic values - the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”

This doesn’t sound so pernicious. After all, every officer in our military and every elected official, State and Federal, swore an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic.” But many officeholders pay no attention to the meaning of their oath- most notably, former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who defied orders of the federal courts to remove a granite monument to the Ten Commandments.

In the dark of night Moore had unilaterally placed the 6,000 pound religious monument in the lobby of the State’s Judicial Building against the wishes of his eight colleagues on the Alabama Supreme Court. Moore ultimately lost his job when he violated his oath of office by defying the federal courts and refusing to abide by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits “an establishment of religion.” (As a side note, President Bush has nominated former Alabama Attorney General William Pryor to the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit- the same court which had upheld the order to remove the monument. Incredibly, Attorney General Pryor had unsuccessfully argued to the 11th Circuit on behalf of Moore that the First Amendment didn’t apply to Alabama.)

Speaking to a rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Moore, the self-proclaimed “Ten Commandments Judge,” told supporters that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation.” In fiery oratory, Moore thundered “in homes and schools across our land, it's time for Christians to take a stand" and told the crowd that it's time Christians "take back our land.”

Which invites the obvious question: if this truly is a Christian nation and Christians are the majority, then who has their land? Perhaps the Native Americans slipped off the reservation and repossessed Manhattan Island and other valuable properties while Justice Moore wasn’t looking.

Of course, the hypocrisy of national pontificators knows no bounds. Rush Limbaugh, who never found a kind- or accurate- word to say about the ACLU in his radio program, had no compunction in accepting its help when the privacy of his medical records was at issue during Florida’s investigation of his admitted abuse of OxyContin.
Limbaugh’s attorney, Roy Black, and the ACLU argued that the State of Florida’s seizure violated Limbaugh's right to privacy and the confidentiality of the relationship between patients and doctors. Black, apparently speaking without irony, opined:

"What meaning would the patient protections in the Constitution and the law have if prosecutors could disregard them any time they wanted to?"

Perhaps the ACLU should sponsor a debate between Limbaugh and Texas Republican Congressman Tom DeLay on the issue of privacy rights. In his unbridled attacks on the judiciary, House Majority Leader DeLay recently said:

“"I blame Congress over the last 50 to 100 years for not standing up and taking its responsibility given to it by the Constitution. The reason the judiciary has been able to impose a separation of church and state that's nowhere in the Constitution is that Congress didn't stop them. The reason we had judicial review is because Congress didn't stop them. The reason we had a right to privacy is because Congress didn't stop them."

So there it is. The Majority Leader of the United States House of Representatives blames Congress for the fact that Americans have religious freedom and a right to privacy. But in truth it wasn’t Congress that ensured Americans’ rights to privacy and to live in a country where the government can’t compel obedience to a particular religion. If the ACLU and civil liberties lawyers didn’t exist, if Tom Delay, Roy Moore, and Rev. Husser had their way, then the government would have the power to tell Americans what books they possess, what movies they could rent, what sexual positions husbands and wives were permitted, and whether or not they could use birth control. That may seem exaggerated or far fetched, but every one of those rights was the subject of a decision of the United States Supreme Court in the last 40 years. In every case, the ACLU and similar organizations were advocates for liberty and against government control over our everyday lives, protecting us from living under an American version of the Taliban.

Sunday, May 22, 2005


Addams Family dropout Priscilla Owen rewarded Ford Motor Company's lawyers and Enron executives who donated thousands to her judicial campaigns

(This column ran in the 5-27-2005 THE ALBANY (Ga.) JOURNAL)

“Ford [Motor Company] ’s attorney had explicitly told Searcy’s attorney, Randall Sandifar: “... to make an offer they would find acceptable, or they would string this along until Willie died..”

If you were a United States Senator, would you vote to confirm a judge to the United States Court of Appeals if you knew the judge had ruled in favor of Ford Motor Company after taking $20,450 from lawyers representing Ford in a horrific traffic accident lawsuit that left a boy paralyzed? That’s exactly what President Bush has asked the Senate to do by resubmitting the nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Owen’s nomination had been rejected by the Senate once before, but Bush’s resubmission of Owen’s name has resulted in a showdown expected to destroy all remaining vestiges of civility and bi-partisanship in the Senate.

The Republican fight in the Senate has ostensibly been about replacing so-called “activist judges” with “conservative” judges who will content themselves with applying the law rather than making new law. There was a period of time, from 1954 through 1969, when the label “activist” was accurate, at least insofar as it applied to the United States Supreme Court. In that 15 year period, the Warren Court (so named because it was led by former California governor Earl Warren, a Republican appointed Chief Justice by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower on March 1, 1953) ruled in favor of citizens’ constitutional rights in a sweeping set of decisions encompassing issues of critical national importance. Those decisions established rights under the Constitution that all Americans- Republicans and Democrats- take for granted today.

Some of the most famous decisions of the Warren Court outlawed State mandated racial segregation in education, (Brown v. Board of Education in 1954), applied the Fourth Amendment prohibition against police searches of homes without a judicial warrant (Mapp v. Ohio in 1961), ended the practice of government required prayers in public schools (Abington School District v. Schempp in 1963- a case often mischaracterized as outlawing unofficial voluntary prayers not mandated or sponsored by the government), protected citizens’ First Amendment rights to freely criticize government officials (New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964), overturned a State law making it a crime for a woman to purchase contraceptives (Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965), required police to inform persons in custody of their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and to have a lawyer (Miranda v. Arizona in 1966), overturned a Jim Crow era law that prohibited interracial marriage (Loving v. Virginia in 1967), and ended Georgia’s practice of refusing to seat black people on juries (Whitus v. Georgia in 1967).

By the end of Chief Justice Warren’s tenure on the Court in 1969, the major decisions establishing citizens’ Constitutional protections were firmly in place. Nowadays when Republicans use the epithet “activist judges,” they actually mean the opposite, as in the Shiavo case when every State and Federal judge involved refused to violate clear mandates of existing law. “Activist judges” in Republican-speak also encompasses courageous judges who will follow the law as written and apply clearly established legal precedent when the person protected is a member of an unpopular minority (i.e. non-Christians or gays). Ironically enough, two of the Supreme Court decisions garnering the greatest Republican criticism as being “activist,” Roe v. Wade in 1973 (a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion in the first trimester) and Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 (overturned Texas law regarding private sex between consenting adults), were written by Republican Justices Harry Blackmon and Anthony Kennedy, respectively. Each was appointed to the Court by a Republican president- Blackmon by President Richard Nixon and Kennedy by President Ronald Reagan.

Because the precedents protecting the rights of citizens are now firmly established, these days a truly “activist judge” is much more likely to be a conservative Republican who will ignore established law to reach a predetermined outcome. For an example, one need look no farther than Priscilla Owen, the most controversial of President Bush’s Federal appellate court nominees, who is at the epicenter of the epic fight in the United States Senate over the use of the filibuster. Owen is currently a Texas Supreme Court justice who was first elected in 1994 with hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from litigants who have since benefitted from her rulings. One of her donors, the infamous Enron Corporation, saved $224,989 in school district taxes when Owen ruled in Enron v. Spring Independent School District that: “... we need not decide the consequences of transfers [i.e. shuffling inventory among subsidiaries] that occur for tax evasion purposes.”

Enron’s PAC and executives gave $8,600 to Owen’s campaigns. (The case is reported at 922 S.W.2d 931 (Tex. 1996)).

But the case that should awaken the conscience of even the most hidebound Republican Senators is Ford Motor Company v. Miles, (reported at 967 S.W.2d 377 (Tex. 1998)), where Owen rewarded the law firm which had donated $20,000 to her campaigns. The firm, representing Ford Motor Company, lost a jury trial and the first appeal in the Texas Court of Appeals, but won a victory in a Texas Supreme Court opinion written by Justice Owen which ultimately ended up costing a paralyzed Texas teenager his life.

Willie Searcy, riding in his stepfather’s Ford Ranger pickup truck, was paralyzed in a traffic accident when another car hydroplaned and hit the Ranger. Ford was sued because the Ranger’s dysfunctional seat belt severed Searcy’s brain from his spinal cord. The jury reviewed evidence which included a 1983 Ford engineers’ study that found the faulty seatbelt could result in increased passenger injuries and deaths (the tension eliminator left too much slack in the belt), and awarded Searcy and his parents $30 million in actual and $10 million in punitive damages.

Justice Owen took almost two years to rule in the case, even though both sides requested an expedited hearing. And her ruling dragged out the case further, calling for remand to the trial court to transfer the case to another county where “venue” (“venue" means the county where the case is filed) would be more beneficial to Ford. Venue was not among the issues the Texas Supreme Court said it would consider two years earlier, it was not argued or briefed by either side on appeal, and the statute had been changed since the lawsuit was heard- so it was extraordinary for the decision to have been reversed on that issue. Moreover, the four dissenting justices on the Court noted that the trial court had already ruled on the issues of fact regarding proper venue.

Three years later, a Texas court had finally ruled in the family’s favor on another procedural issue, and it appeared that the case would finally be resolved in a new trial. But four days after that decision, on July 3, 2001, Searcy died when a ventilator malfunctioned during the night and his breathing stopped. If his parents had received any of the money awarded them years earlier by the jury, they would have been able to afford a night attendant to monitor the ventilator. In an April 2003 story The Texas Observer reported that when the lawsuit began, Ford’s attorneys had explicitly told Searcy’s attorney, Randall Sandifar:

“... to make an offer they would find acceptable, or they would string this along until Willie died.”

In this case the so-called “conservative” judge had done just what the Republicans have accused “activist judges” of doing: she used a technicality in the law to overturn the verdict of 12 ordinary citizens on the jury, and substituted her judgment for that of the jury, the trial judge, and the judges on the Court of Appeals. Worse yet, instead of excusing herself from participating in a decision involving some of her biggest campaign contributors, she helped them carry out their threat to Searcy’s lawyer- a delay long enough that Willie Searcy died before he ever saw a dime of the jury’s award. Ford’s lawyers had recouped their $20,000 investment in Justice Owen a thousandfold.

Texans for Public Justice reported that “Owen’s 11 biggest litigant-donors (including Enron Corp., Farmers Insurance, and Dow Chemical) appeared in her courtroom 26 times. While these big docket donors prevailed an enviable 77 percent of the time before the court as a whole, Owen was even kinder—favoring them 85 percent of the time.”

If the United States Senate wants to reject judicial activism, it should start with Justice Priscilla Owen, an activist judge whose biases favor corporate and insurance interests.

Friday, May 20, 2005


Possible disguise for ethically challenged D.A.

(this column appeared in the 5/20/05 The Albany Journal)

It's hard to decide which was more fascinating: watching our District Attorney and Phoebe Putney Hospital do the limbo as they attempted to dodge the bullet fired in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's (AJC) May 9th front page story "D.A. AIDED CIVIL ACTION," or waiting for the local media to figure out that the AJC expose on Ken Hodges' unseemly favors for Phoebe Putney was actual news worth reporting. For four days The Albany Herald's coverage was limited to an anonymous "squawk." Finally, on Friday the 13th, the Herald ran a story which was obviously designed to soften the blows landed on Hodges, with the first two paragraphs looking more like a press release from the D.A. than a real news story:

"Dougherty County's district attorney says allegations that he exchanged grand jury evidence for a "favor" from an Albany hospital are not true.

District Attorney Ken Hodges said Thursday that critics of his handling of evidence in connection with a lawsuit filed on behalf of Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital are trying to get public sympathy for the plaintiff in a countersuit against the hospital."

Interestingly enough, The Herald disclosed one fact omitted from the AJC story: Hodges admitted that he is, in fact, descended from the hospital's namesake, Phoebe Putney. However, the Herald's "reporter" failed to ask the most obvious question: how does someone sending anonymous faxes with information embarrassing to a local hospital end up as the subject of a grand jury investigation? Grand juries typically only hear cases involving serious felonies, as most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies proceed by a document called an "accusation," signed by the District Attorney and filed with the Clerk of Court. Many businesses, my own included, regularly receive unsolicited faxes from various sources. But that is hardly a crime- certainly not one worth wasting one minute of a grand jury’s valuable time.

WALB-TV's Jim Wallace did a piece on the scandal on the May 11th six o'clock edition, but, as Eddie Byrd of the Northwest Albany News astutely pointed out, a story prominent enough to be featured on the front page of Georgia's leading statewide newspaper somehow disappeared by the 11:00 P.M. newscast.

The essential facts of the impropriety are not in dispute: Hodges abused the authority of his office by using grand jury subpoenas to discover who was sending out the mysterious Phoebe "factoids" faxes. According to the AJC, Hodges used grand jury subpoenas to BellSouth to unearth physician John Bagnato and accountant Charles Rehberg as the authors of the embarrassing faxes, then turned the information over to Phoebe Putney's attorney. Phoebe Putney, in an act incomprehensible for a charitable institution of healing, then allegedly sent two former FBI agents to Rehberg’s home in an attempt to intimidate him.

The AJC reported, and The Herald confirmed with Hodges, that numerous persons affiliated with Phoebe Putney contributed over $9,000 to Hodges' 2004 Democratic primary campaign in which he successfully beat back a challenge from attorney Ingrid Polite. Hodges, nominally a Democrat, had urged numerous local Republicans to pick up a Democratic ballot, figuring that his support against a black opponent would be strongest in Northwest precincts of white Republican voters.

Granted, it is legal for individuals, including lawyers who represent criminals and businesses which may come under criminal investigation, to contribute to a district attorney's campaign. But the pickle that Hodges and Phoebe now find themselves in could easily have been avoided had Hodges refused to accept contributions from persons who stood to benefit from his largesse. Both Hodges and his donors should have realized that the appearance of impropriety caused by giving confidential grand jury information to campaign contributors undermines confidence in the impartiality of a prosecutor just as if the prosecutor had accepted overt bribes to fix cases.

In the Herald story, Hodges was unapologetic, going so far as to assert that what he did was routine:

"While Hodges said he gave Phoebe information regarding the identity of the author of the Phoebe Factoids, he said that he did nothing different in the handling of the case from what he would do in any other.

"Sharing information like this happens in every single case," Hodges said.

Of course, it wasn't just the sharing of information that was scandalous enough to rate a front page story- with photo- in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was the abuse of grand jury subpoenas- when no crime was committed- to get information as a favor to a campaign contributor.

When I first moved to Albany in the mid 1970's, the district attorney had just been replaced when it was discovered that he had accepted bribes to fix drunken driving cases. A former FBI agent, Billy Lee, father of current County Attorney Spencer Lee, became the caretaker of the office. Four years later, his chief assistant, Hobart Hind, defeated Lee in an election highlighted by Hind's ironic campaign slogan "Vote for a working DA." Ironic, because a few short years later, Hind was notorious for his inability to show up for work in the afternoons after a liquid lunch at Madeleine's, a restaurant across Pine Avenue from the courthouse. After eight years in office, Hind was defeated in turn by one of his former assistants, Britt Priddy. In a case of history repeating itself, eight years later Priddy was defeated by Hodges in the 1996 election- in part because computer records of courthouse entry showed that he, like his predecessor, also often failed to show up for work. After Priddy's defeat in the July 1996 primary, he collected his salary for the remainder of the year but abdicated his duties, and the office was run by his chief assistant in his absence.

In truth, the District Attorney's office has usually been run much more professionally under Ken Hodges than under his two immediate predecessors. But the system of justice suffers when a District Attorney abuses the power of his office to reward his friends and campaign contributors, and until he admits his mistake, the local media should hold his feet to the fire.

Monday, May 16, 2005

What Democrats should do instead of waiting to see how big the disaster will be

After the last few years I've really started to wonder: if we were to have an insane person as president proposing irrational programs which are named for the opposite of their intent and effect (i.e. "Clear Skies" "Healthy Forests" "Energy Policy"), who touts freedom while sponsoring torture and creating a 3rd Millennium Gulag of prisons where citizens and foreigners can be anonymously "rendered" without any due process, accountability, or trials, whose answer to every economic trend (surplus, deficit, massive deficit, war time economy) would be massive tax cuts tilted towards those most able to pay, who continually beats the drums for a war on terror while not acting to safeguard ports, borders, chemical plants, and while having first responders called into active duty, who spent the first six months after his re-election touring the country, meeting pre-screened audiences at fake town meetings to discuss ambiguous, ever changing proposals to meet an alleged threat to Social Security 40 years away while ignoring current fiscal disasters.....

If all that were true, and the person who was president was truly insane with no grip on reality whatsoever- then what would we call those who aren't crazy who spend much of their productive time either assisting the crazy president in his insane agenda which flies directly in the face of reality, and what do we call those in the media or opposition who "debate" the crazy proposals as if they had an ounce of rational thought behind them?

Not to denigrate what some common sense pundits and national Democrats are doing- and some do it very well. But if President Bush were certifiable, had escaped from the institution with the straight jackets, and had been planted in the White House, I can't see where anything would be any different. So why not just dismiss him as being completely nuts and out of touch with reality, dismiss his acolytes as if they are no more than crafty relatives cozying up to the crazy old uncle to get a piece of his will, and start dealing with the real messes that have been made, and figure out how to clean them up.

Rather than "waiting" for the President to enunciate his Social Security reform plan before responding, why don't Democrats realize that whatever he says will do the opposite of helping Social Security, tell the public that in the low keyed, frank terms that one reserves for discussing the insane ravings of a beloved relative, and get on with dealing with the real issues- such as an unwinnable occupation (not "war") in Iraq, the decimating of our military, the budget deficit, and Medicare/Medicaid reform, that need to be addressed pronto, unlike the Social Security Trust fund.

In other words, Democrats are doing a disservice by standing around seeing how badly Bush can screw up this country- its economy, its government, its standing in the world community, its military, its judicial system, and the health of its citizens. We need to start fixing the mess right now- not four years from now. And the best way to start is to put forth a "shadow agenda," since the Republicans in Congress won't allow Democrats to introduce bills, amend bills, or even debate the budget. We should schedule public hearings outside the offices of government- in rented halls in D.C. if we have to- to perform the functions of government and show the country what a real democracy should look like. We'd steal the show from the Republicans controlling the agenda now, and we'd show voters what they will get if they put us back in the saddle. And we should absolutely promise not to do to Republicans what they have done to us, and when we get power back, we should keep that promise.

I'm just sayin'.

Saturday, May 07, 2005


Is this the image of America's "moral values" we want to send to the rest of the world?

(This column ran in 5-13-05 THE ALBANY (Ga.) JOURNAL)

If The Albany Herald were to walk into a psychiatrist’s office and ask for a diagnosis, the likely result would be “schizophrenia.” How else to explain how a newspaper can run op-ed columnists who don’t just have different opinions about issues, but have different realities as well? The latest head scratcher came last week from Cal Thomas, who, lacking real life experiences on which to justify his column in praise of torture, had to resort to a scene from a fictional television series, “24” (from Fox, naturally), in which the hero has to torture a prisoner to locate a terrorist who has stolen the President’s nuclear launch codes. In stark contrast, a few months ago the Herald ran an Ellen Goodman column in which she took President Bush to task for his breathtaking hypocrisy in his second Inaugural Address. His exhortation to the country to be the beacon of liberty and democracy around the world stunned Ms. Goodman, who asked: “Does liberty coexist with torture?”

We Americans like to think well of ourselves. We sing songs about how wonderful we are- part of the title of this column is composed from the last words of the Star Spangled Banner (not “play ball,” as I mistakenly believed growing up). Here in America on holiday after holiday we celebrate our freedoms and pay tribute to the concept of human rights and those who fought for our freedom. So what on earth are we doing having our military running prisons in Cuba, Iraq, and Afghanistan where we have physically and mentally tortured human beings, violating fundamental human rights guaranteed by our Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, and international law?

Bob Herbert, the New York Times columnist, writes of Aidan Delgado, an army reservist stationed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq who was so sickened by the abuse of inmates that he finally turned in his weapon and successfully sought conscientious objector status. “The violence there was sickening,” Delgado said. “Some inmates were beaten nearly to death.” And once we allow our military to slide down the slippery slope of dehumanizing our opponents, other atrocities are virtually inevitable. Outside of the Abu Ghraib prison walls, Delgado witnessed one soldier whipping children with an antenna from a Humvee and another who viciously kicked a six year old child in the chest.

Worse yet- if it’s possible to get worse than the murders and human rights abuses carried out under our name at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib- are the murders and tortures carried out by our surrogates. The New York Times reports that the United States has used countries like Uzbekistan to torture prisoners. Imagine for one moment that a loved one has been snatched up by the CIA or special forces and “renditioned” to lovely Uzbekistan, where he or she will be greeted by the following welcome:

“State Department officials wrote, noting that the most common techniques were "beating, often with blunt weapons, and asphyxiation with a gas mask." Separately, international human rights groups had reported that torture in Uzbek jails included boiling of body parts, using electroshock on genitals and plucking off fingernails and toenails with pliers. Two prisoners were boiled to death, the groups reported. The February 2001 State Department report stated bluntly, "Uzbekistan is an authoritarian state with limited civil rights."”

As Americans, we have to ask: who are we now? Are we like Cal Thomas, who is willing to let his irrational fears from a fictional TV show trump his sense of human decency and any concerns for the Bush Administration’s vaunted “culture of life?” Thank goodness we are not remotely close to a Nazi Germany, with a planned Holocaust which murdered millions. The evil we do is done from a different atavistic corner of our brains, and when the evidence is overwhelming- as it was when digital photographs appeared in the media last year- we will even prosecute the lowest level underlings involved. But that is scant consolation to those who have suffered the horrors inflicted in our name.

Many Americans are rightfully outraged by the violations of human rights by their government. But after more than a year, right thinking people have to ask why no one has been held accountable other than the lowest level guards at Abu Ghraib- the latest being Army Pfc. Lynndie England, who famously was photographed holding a dog leash attached to a naked Iraqi prisoner. With this albatross around our collective necks, our complaints about human rights violations in other nations, including Syria, China and North Korea, ring hollow. It should be embarrassing to us that their dictators can now accurately tell us to get our own house in order before we rebuke them for their human rights abuses. Our glass house now covers officially sanctioned tortures, murders and violations of every law we profess to revere, from the Constitution on down.

Those who agree with Cal Thomas argue that we can’t afford to play by our civilized rules in an uncivilized world where fanatics take hostages and cut off their heads on video aired on the Internet. Those who value our country’s ideals respond that America has faced all kinds of obstacles in its history- invasion by the British in 1812 who burned the White House, a Civil War, and two opponents- Nazis and Communists- in the 20th century who murdered millions in their quests for world domination. Yet never before have we officially thrown off the self imposed restraints of human decency, respect for our own laws, and regard for human rights, as we did with the famous January 2002 memo by then White House counsel (now Attorney General) Alberto Gonzalez, which provided the legal cover for torture of prisoners taken in Afghanistan, and later, Iraq. Gonzalez called the strictures of the Geneva Convention “quaint” and “anachronistic” as he left a huge loophole for mistreatment of prisoners under the cover of “military necessity.”

To Cal Thomas I say: the faceless, mostly nameless opponents we face now are a paltry threat compared to the great nations which opposed us over the last 65 years, and we lower ourselves to think that we need to abandon all we profess to hold dear to defeat them.

As for the rest of us, we can ignore what’s out there and complain about gasoline prices and Michael Jackson’s defense while we provide the cash that fuels the countries in the Middle East that hate us and what we used to stand for. But the old saying still holds: evil triumphs when good people do nothing. I wrote this column and I’ll continue to publicly stand up for human rights. What are you going to do?