The Death of Liberty
The great American novelist and playwright Sinclair Lewis, who died in 1951, once noted that "When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross". How prophetic his words sound today.
The Bush administration, with typically mind-blowing arrogance, has determined that constitutional rights and protections which have sustained this nation for 230 years, through a civil war and two world wars, are no longer relevant.
In years to come, we may look back on this week as the week in which American liberty died. Not with a civil war, a coup or a revolution, but with an indifferent whimper. This was the week in which we joined Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Sudan in legalizing torture. Our political "leaders", in a burst of election-year madness, decided to withdraw from the community of civilized nations in approving the terrifying Torture Bill. As Matthew Yglesias suggests this week, a valid argument can now be made that the United States is a rogue state. For several years, we have been the only modern democracy to practice the death penalty. Now we can proudly claim to be the only one where torture is legal.
This may sound like hyperbole, but history is replete with examples of democracies that have degraded into tyranny. For example, the Roman Republic transformed itself from representative democracy to Caesar's dictatorship and then succumbed to hubris and collapse. Germany's Weimar Republic became a tyranny with the democratic election of Adolf Hitler, and ultimately suffered the same fate as the Roman Empire. Is the American Republic headed the same way?
There is a school of thought among political theorists that democratic republics such as America provide fertile ground for dictatorship, because the citizens of a free society refuse to believe that their society could be anything but free. If the erosion of democratic freedoms is gradual rather than sudden, then the effect is similar to the boiling frog syndrome. Citizens will accept each attack on civil liberties on its own merits while ignoring the broader trend. By the time the people realize their government has become tyrannical, it is too late.
There are two effective methods of establishing authoritarianism in a free society. The first is to ensure that a constant state of war exists, keeping the population off balance and focused on perceived external threats. The other is to ensure that the population remains too divided and distracted to notice what is happening at home, never mind to offer concerted resistance. The Bush administration has to some extent used both approaches in conjunction with each other, and now we stand on the precipice of tyranny.
The logic of the administration's authoritarian stance is based upon the following rules:
- We are involved in an existential war with an asymmetrical enemy, even though Congress has not issued a declaration of war in accordance with the U.S. Constitution. This war may last for generations, or until we say it ends. There are no clear parameters for victory.
- Because we are at war, we must ignore certain constitutional rights. This means we need to torture suspects, wiretap individuals, detain citizens indefinitely, create secret prisons and suspend habeas corpus.
- We don't need to tell Congress what we are doing, because doing so would jeopardize national security.
- We don't need to tell suspects why they are being arrested, tortured or detained indefinitely, because doing so would jeopardize national security.
- We can search anybody's home, wiretap their phone calls and monitor their internet access without probable cause or a warrant. Warrants present a legal inconvenience in a time of war.
- International treaties to which we are party, such as the Geneva Convention, do not apply to us. We cannot allow legal niceties to impede upon the president's power in a time of perpetual war.
- The courts cannot overrule our authority, because that would breach national security.
- We do not have to observe laws passed by Congress if the President feels that they impede upon his war powers. The President, as Commander-in-Chief, does not have to say why he is ignoring a law because the nation needs a strong leader while we are at war. And we are at war for as long as we say we are at war.
- Any newspapers that leak stories about how we are abusing our powers are impeding upon the president's war powers and are therefore guilty of sedition. We reserve the right to prosecute and imprison journalists as enemies of the state.
- We can listen to your phone calls, monitor your internet usage and read your mail. We don't need a reason for doing so and you may never know that you are being watched.
- Anybody who opposes us is effectively giving aid and comfort to "the enemy" and may therefore be considered an enemy combatant.
Indeed, most of the ingredients for a dictatorship are already in place or are in the works. Consider:
- The FCC's relaxation of media consolidation rules allow most mainstream news outlets to reside in the hands of a few major corporations such as Viacom, Time Warner, Clear Channel and News Corporation, all of which are major Republican contributors.
- The elimination of the Independent Counsel role prevents any legal oversight of the administration's excesses.
- The Real ID Act of 2005 will require all citizens to carry an RFID-enabled national identity card. This will allow the government to track every activity a citizen takes that requires an ID card.
- The Voter ID Act of 2006, passed by the House earlier this month, amounts to a poll tax on the poor and elderly, who often do not possess photo identification but who generally vote Democratic.
- The Torture Bill, passed by the House and Senate this week, allows for the indefinite detention and torture of any individual deemed by the President to be an enemy combatant or terrorist suspect. The government is under no obligation to demonstrate probable cause or to allow a detainee access to a lawyer. It can be used to detain U.S. citizens as well as aliens in secret prisons.
- The Wiretapping Bill, passed by the House today, allows the government to monitor the telephone calls and internet conversations of any citizen without probable cause or a court warrant.
- Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security awarded a $385 million contract to Halliburton for the construction of several detention camps around the United States.
- A recent Princeton University study showed that the most commonly used electronic voting machine in the United States can be easily hacked to change the results of an election. This machine is manufactured by Diebold, America's largest provider of voting equipment, whose CEO is a major Republican donor. Most voting machines used in the United States do not provide a paper trail for verification.
- The GOP has engaged in unprecedented gerrymandering of congressional districts in an attempt to ensure permanent one-party rule. At the very least, this shameless exercise makes it difficult for challengers to mount an effective challenge, even in a country where the overwhelming majority of Americans now disapproves of Republican rule.
- Republican legislators and surrogates have engaged in a campaign to harass and intimidate judges who demonstrate independence of the Bush administration. Former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a Reagan appointee, cites this as "a grave threat to the independent judiciary".
If I would have written such a list six years ago, you might have thought I was describing an Orwellian future. But all of these elements are in place today. They have gradually crept up on us and when combined, provide a solid framework for a true American dictatorship.
Today, we live in a nation where the government can commit any atrocity and go to any excess without consequences. If the government feels any need to justify its actions, it simply needs to say "we are at war" and cite "national security" without any obligation to elaborate.
After all, what will stop them? The Republican Congress, desperate to cling onto power, is in the president's pocket and is about as likely to provide oversight as I am to win American Idol. The courts are either being demagogued, intimidated or ignored. The media is more worried about Suri Cruise than it is about discussing our constitutional rights (I mean, civil liberties are such a downer). Meanwhile, the economics of Bush's America bear more similarities to the Gilded Age than the late 20th century. Power and wealth is concentrated in the hands of an elite few, the middle class is being squeezed to extinction and hardworking Americans are kept distracted and divided by the most cynically manipulative administration in this country's history.
A couple of decades ago, if you asked a foreigner what words came to mind when they thought of America, they would use phrases like "land of the free", "liberty", "McDonalds", "American Dream" and "opportunity". Nowadays, they use words such as "Guantanamo", "Iraq" and "Torture". That is what we have become to the rest of the world. Not the shining beacon that Reagan envisaged, but a brutal, bullying, overbearing hyperpower that is feared rather than admired. Hence the sudden influence of emerging powers such as Venezuela and Iran. New economic, military and political alliances are forming to counterbalance American might. That is how far we have fallen in the past five years.
I would like to conclude this rant with a question and a hope. My question is this. Where are all the traditional conservatives who spent years whining about big government intruding into their lives? Have they sold out their principles in return for political power? Or are they just being cowards by not speaking up?
My hope is this. There are still patriots within this nation's military and political leadership who value the constitutional principles upon which this country was founded. These are the good men and women who remember that they swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, not the President. Bush is not the Constitution. He is not a King. He is not America. Like all elected politicians, he is merely a temp and he works for us. As in we the people. We are not his employees and we are not his subjects. My hope is that enough Generals and patriotic political leaders will stand up to this delusional wannabe tyrant and say "Enough".
If this gradual slide into dictatorship continues, we may all want to renew our RFID-enabled passports.