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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

Friday, October 06, 2006

Orwell's Credibility Fouls My Mood

On the phone, last night, Flame-Haired Angel asked me a question I've been trying to come to terms with, myself.

If you visit here regularly, it's likely you've noticed, as she had, a decline in mirth, and an unusual current of fury.

I haven't kept quiet how I feel about the paths the current US government is clearing into the future. Still, recent events have dominated my thoughts more than usual, and my reaction is beyond head-shaking. It is beyond indignation. It is fury, rage and not a little fear mixed with bitter sadness.

The recent hit parade of US government assaults on freedom include warrantless wire-tapping of its citizens, the legalization of torture, the suspension of habeas corpus, and the granting of unprecedented authority to the President by stripping it from the courts.

I know these sound like abstract things, far removed from your life. They aren't. They are the opposite of esoteric. They are the foundation of your life. They underpin your assumptions about everything. You assume that you must have done something wrong in order to be arrested. You assume that if a mistake is made, and you are wrongly arrested, it will eventually be addressed by the justice system. You assume that, while in prison for not doing anything wrong, you will be treated humanely.

Laws passed in the last 10 days, by the Bush administration and a complicit congress, have made all of these assumptions wrong. For detail:

The Blind Leading the Willing

Photo Finish

Habeas Corpus, R.I.P.

The vilest of the assaults on our freedom is the deletion of habeas corpus. This hasn't gotten as much press as the fine points of torture. Understandably, most people see the term "habeas corpus" and tune out because it's Latin legalese. Don't.

Habeas is the most basic right of an imprisoned citizen. It forces the government to either charge you with a crime or release you.

When habeas is taken away, the government can imprison anyone they want to for as long as they want, without charging them. Laws pushed through the United States congress in the last two weeks delete habeas for anyone the US wants to imprison, unless they are a US citizen.

Fancy a vacation in the US?

For those of you who, knowing all this, still feel comfortable that *you* would never be detained, recognize that the US military and the CIA have released numerous prisoners who, they admit, never did anything wrong. They make no comment about the guilt or innocence of the prisoners they continue to hold. Only 10 prisoners at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay have ever been charged with anything.

The CIA shipped a Canadian man to a secret prison in Syria. He was tortured for ten months. Never charged with anything. He turns out not even to have been worthy of suspicion, much less guilty of anything.

Tortured for ten months. No reason to suspect him of anything.

The law in civilized nations has always been pretty clear about this kind of thing. Since the Magna Carta in 1215. But not any more. The law just passed in the United States makes all of this perfectly okay.

If you are kind enough to read my stuff, here, but don't zoom off to read the bleak-sounding articles I link to on topics like this, allow me to just briefly summarize what these new laws do:
  • The President -- solo -- gets to decide who is and who isn't an "enemy combatant". No court has the power to question his judgment.

  • The definition of "enemy combatant" is now so broad that countless non-terrorists -- indeed countless non-law-breakers -- can be included.

  • Those imprisoned as enemy combatants may be kept in prison as long as is deemed necessary -- indefinitely -- without being charged.

  • Torture is legal. You can mince definitions of the word, but the stuff at Abu Ghraib is now legal.

  • Those held as enemy combatants can never bring a case to court based on their rights being violated.

  • If there ever is a trial, it will be held before a hand-picked military commission, not an open court.

  • If there ever is a trial, the defendant will not be able to examine the evidence against him.

  • There is no longer a requirement for a search warrant to gather evidence in cases involving enemy combatants.
America: Land of the free. But free from what? How is the above so different from the "evil" Soviet regime the US vilified for decades?

I read the list above, and reminisce. It takes me back to highschool, reading George Orwell's 1984, straining for credulity.

The publicity around the new laws strains to point out that the suspension of habeas corpus only applies to non-citizens. As a citizen, you can still be run through the ringer, as above, but you do at least have to be charged with something. That is, assuming the government doesn't just "disappear" you off to one of its foreign prisons, as it has done with several thousand people in recent years.

Being a citizen doesn't buy you much these days, anyway. Two US citizens found that out recently when they tried to return to the US. They were stopped at the airport and prevented from boarding the plane home. The would continue to be barred from going home unless they submitted to an FBI interrogation under polygraph. Citizens not charged with any crime were barred from going home unless they submitted to questioning by government agents.

All the talk of citizens and non-citizens, however, leaves me cold. It's okay to imprison them without trial, but not us? It's okay to torture them without evidence, but not us? What makes us different? Why does an innocent foreigner have fewer rights than a guilty American? And how do you know? By torturing them first?

But the publicity about this citizen/non-citizen differentiation has been a palliative. In these new laws, the cancer on US Citizens is almost as bad.

One article I read earlier in the week makes the connection clearly:

...the President [can] round-up both aliens and U.S. citizens he determines have given material support to terrorists. ...

In his 1928 dissent in Olmstead v. United States, Justice Louis Brandeis cautioned, "The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding." Seventy-three years later, former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, speaking for a zealous President, warned Americans "they need to watch what they say, watch what they do." ...

Our constitutional right to dissent is in serious jeopardy. Benjamin Franklin's prescient warning should give us pause: "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security."

It is all of this that made Flame-Haired Angel ask the question. She has watched my mood turn with the same trend as the content of this blog. Why, she asked, after all the other malignancies this government has introduced on the notions of freedom and justice, should I be so exercised now? Aren't we beyond shock at what the Republican congress and President will do in the name of "the war on terror"?

She's right that my reaction, now, is far more extreme than my plain opposition of the past. The Bush era has, in addition to incompetence (Katrina) and wishful thinking (greeted as liberators; insurgency in its last throes), delivered bad policy (invade Iraq), broken the law (wiretaps without warrants) and lied (Saddam's nuclear program). Throughout, I have been incensed over the work of a bunch of assholes who have kept themselves in power by feeding the citizenry fear and fabrication.

What they have done in the last ten days, however, is far worse. They have offered us a new norm for what the United States stands for, and they have done it by making the illegal legal: by legislating exactly the kind of authoritarian blackness that characterizes totalitarian regimes.

These are not simple changes in law. The rights they have ripped away are the foundations of a free society, without which there can be no democracy.

They have, in short, started un-making the foundations of the longest-surviving democracy in history.

For when freedom goes, so goes democracy. Because democracy isn't just about voting. Voting is predicated on a free society: free to think and speak and act in ways that the government of the day may not condone. Otherwise, voting -- something done in the former Soviet Union and in Communist China -- is meaningless. It is window dressing.

I have always cleaved to the US Constitution. It is a nearly religious document to me. Its goals and its doctrine are radical: define a government by restricting its power to only that which the people allow it.

These new laws tell you, as an individual, that you only have the rights the goverment allows you. They can legally throw you in prison, keep you there forever, and torture you.

My lefty American friends tend to fall into one of two camps: those who think the US is becoming a police state, and those who think the Republic is essentially fine but just happens to be going through a period of being governed by a pack of whack jobs.

Each thinks the other is a little pixelated. The first group calls the second camp "naive", and the latter folks call the former "alarmist". Normally, I side with the folks who say that assholes may be in charge, but the Republic has solid foundations.

In the last week and a half, however, I've begun to change sides.

That is why, as I told my Flame-Haired Angel, I am depressed.

Only two things gives me hope. First, the majority of Americans are increasingly sceptical of the Republican administration's spin. They aren't yet rejecting it outright, unfortunately, but they also aren't so easily accepting the "just trust me" rhetoric of the President. The November elections are a test of what the American people want America to be.

The second thing that gives me hope is that the Constitution is not arbitrated by the President or the congress, but by the Supreme Court. The process is slow, and the Court has a conservative majority, but challenges to the new laws will come and the Court does tend to take offence at attempts to strip judicial review, as some of these new laws do.

So, the American people and the Supreme Court may prove my foul mood hasty. If they do, I will celebrate having been too knee-jerk, too melodramatic in fearing the un-making of American ideals. I will blissfully retract. It's an increasingly long road to get there, however: the un-Partriot Act repealed, torture abandoned, and habeas corpus applied to anyone we arrest.

Until then, we will be listening to rhetoric about freedom in a land that isn't free.

For under the law in today's "land of the free", freedom means imprisoning the innocent without charge and torturing them.

Orwell's not straining for credibility anymore.


Comments on "Orwell's Credibility Fouls My Mood"


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (5:34 AM) : 

From the outside (non American) looking in. You could not give me a million dollars to visit America!! America will be the "straw that breaks the camels back", they bring it all on themselves and will be the cause for the grief that is to come. And yet they love it, tis scary......


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