I’m a disillusioned American.
You’re probably aware that there has been some flap recently about U.S. treatment of foreign prisoners. There was an abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and the Red Cross report that suggested this was the norm rather than the exception. There is Gitmo, at which we’re holding hundreds of people captured in Afghanistan and Iraq indefinitely without trial and “interrogating” them. There is the attorney general’s memo suggesting the Geneva Conventions are “quaint”, and there is the public discussion about whether “water-boarding” and other such practices really amount to “torture”. And there was the president admitting that we have been keeping anonymous people in secret prisons around the world and responding “so what?” when asked about them. A horrifying and deflating list. At least to me.
Many of the people we’ve captured have apparently fallen into a legal interstitial black hole. They are not from any national army, and they are not American citizens. So they don’t come under U.S. criminal law and they don’t come under military law. Up until recently Bush found this confusion pretty advantageous: legal rights are pesky things. Most of them have ‘suspected links’ with terrorist organizations or insurgent groups, so why take any chances by letting them go? Also, Bush wanted to squeeze these guys, and there was no law that seemed to apply well enough to tell him he couldn’t do it. He took it upon himself not to allow these guys to have any of the cushy constitutional protections real Americans enjoy, like the right to a speedy trial, the right to be able to confront witnesses and have access to evidence that might demonstrate one’s innocence, basic procedural due process, or apparently the right to remain silent.
Enter a guy named Hamdan (reputedly Osama Bin Laden’s driver). After years of purgatorial incarceration, he actually got his case heard and filed a writ of habeus corpus: a challenge to his incarceration. Habeus corpus is the only means in our legal system a prisoner has to convince someone that he doesn’t actually belong there. Well, the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court where the sane 5/9 of that body miraculously told the president he was not King -- that he could not strip people of rights simply by virtue of his war powers -- that he would need something from Congress called a “law.” (http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/Hamdan_vs_Rumsfeld.pdf). Mr. Hamdan, for his part, was reportedly blown away that a guy like him could be so fairly treated in America.
Well, luckily for us he’ll be the last foreigner to have that experience -- Congress has leaped to the president’s rescue! Republicans proposed a new detainee law to clear a few things up:
--First, it declares that Bush and his government are not guilty of war crimes for their policies on “enemy combatants” up to now and in the future, no matter how bad they are. That was nice of Congress, wasn’t it?
--Second, it prohibits “enemy combatants” from ever using habeas corpus again. They got burned once - obviously that can’t be allowed. There are some similar procedures in military court that remain intact, though.
--Third, it creates a military court for “enemy combatants” that does pretty much exactly what the president wanted to do in the first place.
--Fourth, --- are you ready? -- it allows the president himself to determine who is and who isn’t an “enemy combatant”. Both citizens and noncitizens, here and abroad. Are YOU an enemy? Only the president knows.
I’m sure you can tell by my tone that I’m not in favor of these measures. Well, I was in the car last week and there was nothing on NPR I wanted to listen to, so I started scanning A.M. for some talk. I ran across a broadcast of Senator Patrick Leahy’s speech on the floor of the senate during debate over this detainee bill, and I was stirred by some of the rhetoric. He said things like
“This Administration, for all its talk of strength, has made us less safe, and its proposal before us today is one that smacks of weakness and fear. Its legislative demands reflect a cowering country that is succumbing to the threat of terrorism. I believe that we are better than that. I believe that we are stronger than that. I believe that we are fairer than that. I believe that America should be a leader in the fight for human rights and the rule of law.” http://leahy.senate.gov/press/200609/092806c.html
Statesmanship, I’m thinking. Well put. A principled statement concerning fundamental human rights and our national identity. No one can disagree with these sentiments.
Then the voice of the show’s host snickers in and says something like “See? I’m playing this because I want you to see how out of touch the liberals are. This is what they really believe! I’m not lying. This is what these guys actually think! I just wanted you to hear for yourself how much they hate America.”
I’m not exaggerating here. That’s almost word for word what he said. It turns out I was listening to one of the myriad local right wing spinslinger shows and this speech was being played as an example of what’s WRONG with the democrats and liberals. I am still profoundly distressed upon hearing this. I’ve been struggling to understand how this could be.
Now, we know “rights” are universally popular when used in the first person (“our rights”), but have always been somewhat suspect in the third person (“their rights”). This is doubly the case for people we don’t like. It’s certainly distasteful to champion the rights of neo-Nazis or accused wrongdoers, for example. But I always thought doing so was a fundamentally American thing. Has it honestly become Republican dicta that human rights are un-American?
I remember something my late Grandfather once said. He was reading a newspaper article about the arrests related to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and he was angry. Now, Grandpa lived in Bergen County, New Jersey. He could see the WTC from his kitchen window, and this had a visceral impact on him. He was not in my memory a violent person, though he was not a careful speaker either, but he said one of those knee jerk angry things you hear a lot: “they ought to shoot those people”. “Assuming they’re found guilty in court,” I added. I was angry too, and I didn’t feel motivated to argue against such a punishment, but I was concerned that we not leap to judgment. My Grandfather’s response surprised me, though: “they don’t deserve a trial!”
I found this tautology frustrating and a little bit frightening. How can we proclaim what they deserve until we have a trial to determine their guilt? More importantly, perhaps, how can we hand out Constitutional rights or withhold them based on a person’s perceived character? It’s only because we apply them to everyone that we can be sure they apply to us, right? Well, my Grandfather was too scared or angry to acknowledge this. Perhaps that’s what’s driving current Republican policy: fear and anger.
But, I’m beginning to think there’s more to it than emotion -- I mean, democrats are scared too. I’m wondering if those on the Right see America as a fundamentally different thing than I do, and I wonder how long it’s been so. The Right, I am coming to realize, lives in an ‘America’ of dirt and water and with few ideals grander than self-preservation. Sure, they wave the flag and they talk about American pride, but what do they think ‘America’ is, in the end? It’s the ground we live on, the people we know, the history we learn. Love it or leave it, they say. And that to me is sad.
Despite the constant self-congratulatory rhetoric (You are the heroes!), America and its people are largely unexceptional. Our land is lovely and varied, but so are many other lands. There’s really nothing innately right about the people here, either - there is no prized attribute we have that other peoples elsewhere lack. In fact, we are largely thick-headed, self-obsessed, gluttonous, and frivolous. We have not shown ourselves to be either more good, more smart or more brave: everybody in the world is communal in the face of tragedy; everybody meets and tackles adversity in ingenious ways; everybody wants a better life. We have had more success and wealth than most, but if that is so, it is not because of us.
And that’s where I think the Right and I part ways. My America is not made of mud and rocks, or even individuals, it’s an experimental flight of ideals. America is the first country formed on the principle that a government derives its powers from the consent of the governed. Whereas other nations were inseparable from their ethnic makeup and their historical boundaries and rulers, my nation is essentially state of mind - a set of principles that we adhere to: ideas of equal rights and equal opportunity and democratic authority. We are America in a sense to the extent we succeed in bringing such ideals to be.
Needless to say, the fundamental expression of this American gamble is the Constitution, and especially its Bill of Rights: a list of limits on the power of the majority and its government to oppress the minority. The Constitution is a structural feature that has repeatedly prevented us from falling prey to those base instincts of xenophobia and selfishness and thus ceasing to become what our ideals demanded. Thus we deem these listed rights as especially American, though we did not invent them. We revel in our “freedoms” as guaranteed by this document. “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free,” says a popular, if oddly unambitious country song.
America holds a promise, as well. We are America to the extent we fulfill this promise. If the people are truly in charge, then the people can use their government and accomplish good. America has done an extraordinarily large share of this, and does so even now, though much of the rest of the world, too, has democratized. And we have at times worked to promote or support the freedoms we love as rights for people we don’t know around the world. In the minds of most Americans, we are righteous: when we fight, we fight for freedom or for justice, not oil, or dominance, or land.
Of course, this is not always true in reality. We have also selfishly been responsible for the pain and oppression of others. People have bullied and murdered in our name, and our armies have been used for greed as often as for good. But these acts of America are not American to me. One can love America and hate the acts of its government.
So maybe when this rightyradio yahoo and all the other “conservatives” say liberals like me and Sen. Leahy hate America, maybe they’re onto something, in their myopic, simplistic way. There is much about my country I do hate. I am offended by many of our government’s policies (though I am in favor of some); I am embarrassed by many of our national acts (though I am proud of others). I hate that we torture, bully, invade, and exploit others, which are by definition un-American acts. I hate the current government and some of the people who support it, who make my country into a parody of itself. But I don’t hate America. I hate that my country is becoming less and less like what America ought to be. What are we without our ideals? Just another hunk of land.
By the way... the law passed.
I wonder, at what point in the successive abandonment of our ideals do we say that the great American experiment is a failure and take our place among the other billiard balls in the Machiavellian billiard table? Would our president be sad to hear the news if we did?
Thanks for tuning in on Sunday. Thanks Drek. I promise I'll make the next one shorter.