This week, Al Gore unleashed a blistering attack on the Bush Administration. In today’s New York Times, Bob Herbert writes about Gore’s comments, and suggests that while it’s easy to crack jokes at Gore’s expense, Gore raised very serious issues that need to be looked at. For Herbert, the key comment in Gore’s speech was:
“What makes the United States special in the history of nations is our commitment to the rule of law and our carefully constructed system of checks and balances. Our natural distrust of concentrated power and our devotion to openness and democracy are what have led us as a people to consistently choose good over evil in our collective aspirations, more than the people of any other nation.”
(This is from an e-mail I wrote on December 10, 2001. I’m not quoting the original message to which I replied, as this was from personal correspondence.)
Ashcroft isn’t saying that because we’re at war civil liberties will be curtailed. He’s actually saying (and the transcript of his prepared remarks are online here.)
“We need honest, reasoned debate; not fearmongering. To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against non-citizens; to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists – for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.”
In other words: we don’t need fearmongering. But while I’m up here, let me raise the specter of aiding and abetting the killing of innocents… by the very people sitting in this room!!
His paragraph was deliberate, of that I’m certain: he starts off with “to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty”, then concludes with “your tactics only aid terrorists.”
In other words, by questioning whether the Bush administration’s actions are in violation of the law is to directly aid the terrorists we’re fighting. This isn’t a question of degree – Ashcroft is denying anyone the right to question the decisions of the administration at all. That’s scary, because it is the same attitude taken by any number of non-democratically-elected regimes that we’ve fought in the past.
For me, the military tribunal issue sends a strong signal that we don’t trust our own system when it is most needed. We force other countries (yes, force) to abandon the military tribunal system because we claim that it isn’t constitutional, doesn’t honor basic human rights. In June of this year, 141 members of Congress (both Democrats and Republicans, by the way) wrote the government of Peru requesting the release of a 31 year-old American woman who was sentenced by a military tribunal because of actions aiding a Marxist guerilla organization. Despite the apparent lack of substantive proof tieing her to the activity in question, she was still found guilty in a closed proceeding. The quote from the State Department in 1996 upon her original sentencing (this is a policy that has not changed with administrations, by the way):
“The United States deeply regrets that Ms. Berenson was not tried in an open civilian court with full rights of legal defense, in accordance with international juridicial norms. Ms. Berenson may appeal her conviction in stages to two higher levels of military appeals tribunals, and we understand that her attorney is filing such an appeal. It is not clear whether a final appeal might be made to the Peruvian Supreme Court, a civilian body.
“The United States remains concerned that Ms. Berenson receive due process. We have repeatedly expressed these concerns to the Government of Peru. We call upon the Peruvian Government to take the necessary steps in the appeals process to accord Ms. Berenson an open judicial proceeding in a civilian court. The United States will continue to follow this case closely.”
In other words, a civilian, who a foreign government felt to be aiding a terrorist organization, was tried by a military tribunal and found guilty. When it concerned an American citizen (one who is very likely innocent of the charges, but that’s honestly beside the point), we got angry. But when we’re the government and some immigrants to the US are the alleged perpetrators, we’re OK with it. I guarantee you that the Marxist threat to the Peruvians is just as real to them as the al Qaeda threat is to us. Yet why are military tribunals OK for us and not for them? (For the record, I agree with the State Department’s statement of policy… it’s consistent with our policy going back two centuries.)
This is a country built on the premise that “all men are created equal” and that they are “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights”. We have codified those rights over time to include the right to counsel, the right to not be held without being charged with a crime, and the right to a proper judicial proceeding when charged with a crime. What the Bush administration has done is subvert those rights and sidestepped constitutional protections in the interest of expediency.
You spoke of checks and balances. But what Bush has done is to eliminate most, if not all, checks and balances on his authority by unilaterally declaring the tribunals to be in effect. Even while Congress was working with the administration to craft an overwhelming response to the terrorist threat, the administration acted without consultation. The tribunals vest in Bush the sole choice of whether to permit an individual to have access to the constitutional protections we promise or not – with no review possible.
Where are the checks and balances here?
What ultimately concerns me about Ashcroft’s testimony (moreso than Bush’s actions or the creation of the tribunals themselves) is that he says – quite directly too – that to question us is to aid them. This smacks of the same kind of military regimes we’ve often fought to shut down. I don’t care if we’re at war or not. To suggest that I have no right to question whether what he’s doing is fair, just, or simply American – that is provincial and patronizing to the extreme. I also think it’s dangerous. Indeed, I think that to question those actions is to be patriotic.
The freedoms that I speak of are what we’ve fought for more than 200 years to protect. They are not there only when it’s easy to ensure them. They are there for when they are difficult and challenging to protect. That’s what makes us different – we don’t choose the easy road, the one that’s most expedient. “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” We must not sacrifice what makes us different when we are under attack, for we set the precedent that down the road someone else could declare another threat to justify the same kind of actions. For you to suggest that the Japanese internment was an over-reaction, while the questioning of 5000 arabs, the prolonged detention of any number of immigrants who’ve not been charged with a crime and the suspension of constitutional protections for those detained seems the slipperiest of slopes to me. If we don’t have a formal process in place (i.e., public trials, constitutional protections, congressional oversight), who are you to say that what’s going on now is fair, just, American any more than I am to say it’s not?
Bottom line: we’re at war, and war brings with it necessary actions to protect and enforce our defense. I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the assumption that the system that we’ve worked so hard to create for more than 200 years is incapable of addressing the difficulties we face today.
And don’t worry about me forgetting the horror of 9/11. I’m so angry about what these bastards did that I cannot wait to see them die on the battlefield or tried, convicted and put away. (I think the former is far more likely.) But I’m not letting my anger justify actions that I believe are distinctly un-American. I want to see us react in the same way that pisses these guys off so much: with reasoned, principled, righteous anger. With the passion of a country of 250 million people who so love freedom that they’re willing to grant it to
anyone and die to protect it.
I wrote those words nearly 18 months ago. In that time we’ve witnessed the abandonment of the Geneva Convention in our treatment of prisoners under our control, we’ve watched the government hold American citizens without access to counsel, and we’ve seen the erosion of international support for our cause as a result of the disconnect between our rhetoric and our actions.
Al Gore’s speech nailed it. “George W. Bush promised us a foreign policy with humility. Instead, he has brought us humiliation in the eyes of the world.” We must hold him (and ourselves) accountable.