Sunday, October 08, 2006


As a result of a recent law passed by Congress, this is now the official image America presents to the world

“"The compromise legislation, which is racing toward the White House, authorizes the president to seize American citizens as enemy combatants, even if they have never left the United States. And once thrown into military prison, they cannot expect a trial by their peers or any other of the normal protections of the Bill of Rights." ... "this [subsection (ii) of the definition of 'unlawful enemy combatant'] means that if the Pentagon says you're an unlawful enemy combatant -- using whatever criteria they wish -- then as far as Congress, and U.S. law, is concerned, you are one, whether or not you have had any connection to 'hostilities' at all."

Analysis by Marty Lederman and Bruce Ackerman, on the recent legislation proposed by President Bush to legalize torture, indefinite detention without trial or due process, and denial of access to the courts.

There comes a time when many if not most of us faced with an insurmountable task will throw up our hands and give up. It could be that room that needs cleaning which is so full of clutter- much of which has to be sorted and saved, most of which can be thrown away. It could be the task of losing the weight that comes with age or whipping our bodies into the condition we took for granted back in the day. It could be trying to get another human being to see reason (especially difficult if it’s a spouse, a significant other, or my Republican friend Glenn.)

But lately, for me and many other thinking people with a sense of history and a conscience, it’s been dealing with the fact that the great majority of our 435 Congressmen and 100 Senators, doing the bidding of an elected President, seem to have lost their minds and are willing to throw the Constitution, freedom, and all sense of human dignity and civilization down the drain. All for short term partisan gains.

There are some exceptions, but even those one would most expect to fight the good fight- men like John McCain, who had enough courage to defy his North Vietnamese captors during years in a prison camp- have caved into their need to satisfy the right wing red meat voters who will decide the Republican Presidential nominee in 2008.

But this is about more than just the legalization of torture and giving unprecedented authority to the executive to define the laws of human rights. More than that is the incredible fact that for the first time in our country’s history, all 230 years of being a nation, we have our legislators debating how much sadistic, useless pain to inflict on helpless prisoners, many of whom have proved to be completely innocent of any offense. We have the highest officials in the land now voting to legalize the practices of stacking naked prisoners in piles or subjecting them to dog attacks on their naked genitals. Drowning them within seconds of death. Depriving them of sleep for days on end, and forcing them to stand in cramped positions- just like the infamous “Tiger Cages” which the North Vietnamese inflicted on captured American airmen like John McCain.

My disgust with this country, with the elected officials who not only secretly authorized these practices but who now have passed laws permitting them and immunizing their practitioners from civil or criminal liability, who have thrown out the ancient writ of Habeas Corpus which permitted prisoners to challenge the legality of their confinement in a court of law- my disgust knows no bounds.

As a Jew, I grew up with the knowledge that our time in any nation in the history of the world was always limited. We were short timers, so to speak. Welcomed to Egypt were Joseph and his brothers, then made slaves. Conquerors of the land of Israel in the time from Joshua to David, but later carried off in captivity to Babylonia in the sixth century, B.C.. Freed by the Maccabees in 165 B.C., conquered by the Romans a hundred fifty or so years later. Dispersed throughout the world. Restricted as to geography and trade, then finally kicked out of England, France, and finally Spain in 1492 when the last of the Moors were driven out by King Ferdinand of Columbus fame. Killed in pogroms in Russia and eastern Poland at the turn of the last century (sending my grandmother to America). Murdered by the millions by the Nazis in the period from 1939 to 1945, Holocaust deniers be damned.

As promising as the United States has been for the better part of 200 years, this country was not immune from the seductions of tyranny. There is no reason why, once we start giving up essential freedom for the mirage of temporary safety (to paraphrase Ben Franklin), we could not become as despotic as any slave state or totalitarian government in the world. And shortly before that day arrives, I or my descendants would have to pack our bags, and leave for a place where freedom still exists.

To be sure, the end of our freedom here could never be imposed by others- the shackles would be willingly placed on us by our own selves. The beginning of the end would start with calls to our sense of patriotism, and ironically enough, a fervent cry to protect our “freedoms” from “them.” “Them” being dark hued foreigners (never blondes- maybe that’s why our nation quickly got over the dislike for Nordic Germans after WWII but kept our hostility towards the Japanese for years after) who are sufficiently different from us in physical appearance, religion, language, and culture, as to be easily demonized and caricatured on editorial cartoons.

And once unreasoning fear and panic have set in, we will respond by throwing out everything our political ancestors held most precious. The Writ of Habeas Corpus. The right to a fair trial, with an impartial jury. The assistance of Counsel for the defense. The privilege against compelled self incrimination. All of the precious rights embodied in the 1791 Bill of Rights to our Constitution, added within bare historical moments of the formation of what would quickly become the greatest nation in the history of the earth. Not greatest for our military and economic might, wondrous as they were. But for our system of laws. Checks and balances. Freedom valued over order and conformity.

Why is Habeas Corpus important? Glenn Greenwald, a First Amendment scholar, reminds us of our history, pointing out that Justice Jackson wrote in a concurring opinion in Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 533 (1953):

“Executive imprisonment has been considered oppressive and lawless since John, at Runnymede, pledged that no free man should be imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, or exiled save by the judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. The judges of England developed the writ of Habeas Corpus largely to preserve these immunities from executive restraint.”

Thomas Jefferson, in his letter to Thomas Paine said: "I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution."

Patrick Henry wrote: “Is the relinquishment of the trial by jury and the liberty of the press necessary for your liberty? Will the abandonment of your most sacred rights tend to the security of your liberty? Liberty, the greatest of all earthly blessings--give us that precious jewel, and you may take everything else! ...Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel.”

And so the slippery slope has just tipped a little steeper with the passage of a law which disgusts and scares any of us who cling to the hope that one day our nation will regain its sanity, will once again be an international beacon for freedom, and not the most hated nation on earth, less and less free as each year draws to an end.


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