Hanrahan writes: "We have become overly fearful, willing to surrender many core freedoms for the illusion of absolute security. We as a nation are less free than we were 11 years ago. And the mainstream press needs to say so, needs to explore this in news articles, as well as editorially and on the op-ed pages and in the broadcast media."
An American flag behind barbedwire. (photo: Getty Images)
The Press Needs to Expose the Siege of Democracy, Not Abet It
07 July 12
‘We have become overly fearful, willing to surrender many core freedoms for the illusion of absolute security…We as a nation are less free than we were 11 years ago. And the mainstream press needs to say so, needs to explore this in news articles, as well as editorially and on the op-ed pages and in the broadcast media.'
- From PBS
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat ... Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!
- From A Man for All Seasons, by Robert Bolt
ave we in the United States cut down much of "Man's laws" - our Bill of Rights - in the name of protecting ourselves from, and attacking, those whom our government has identified as our modern-day devils?
Has the mainstream press largely ignored the chilling story that, pushed by the alarmist warnings of national leaders since the September 11, 2001 attacks, we have become overly fearful, willing to surrender many core freedoms for the illusion of absolute security against what we are told is a never-ending terrorism threat? Never mind reality, we're scared, as polls show: Do whatever you need to do to keep us safe, please, no questions asked.
Wage secret wars and semi-covertly unleash cyber attacks and drone strikes in any country against any putative enemies - as defined by the Obama administration - and don't worry about international and national legal niceties or congressional approval, much less having open, public debate about our overt and covert war-making? Fine, as long as you keep us safe and don't tell us about the civilian casualties we and our NATO allies cause or the number of new enemies we create through our military adventurism - unless, of course, those civilian casualties are caused by governments in Libya or Syria or the like. After all, we are the United States, the world's greatest democracy, and the rules don't apply to us.
Have we as citizens collectively assumed an "I'm-doing-nothing-wrong-so-why-should-I-worry" attitude, firm in the knowledge that it's mainly Muslims, activists and foreigners who are affected by civil liberties abridgments and targeted assassinations - at least for now? Are we Americans stumbling obliviously into authoritarianism, with few in government or in the mainstream press willing to warn us about it? Is the real ticking time bomb that should concern us the one attached to our Bill of Rights, rather than the hyperbolic one wielded by Muslim extremists? Has the mainstream press been as vigilant in alerting us to the dangerous policies and tendencies in our own government over the last decade as it has been in alerting us to abuses in, say, China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Libya, Syria, North Korea, and on and on? We're not arguing moral equivalencies here, but rather asking: Has the mainstream press overall met what is supposedly its role of serving as watchdogs over our own government and the military-industrial-homeland security apparatus that feeds so profitably off of it?
Call it whatever you will and, if you feel President Obama is acting in your interest, and that President Bush and Vice President Cheney did so before him, and presumably that Romney will if he is elected, then go ahead and defend this diminution in civil liberties as being necessary. But it seems indisputable that we as a nation are less free than we were 11 years ago. And the mainstream press needs to say so, needs to explore this vital-to-democracy topic in news articles, as well as editorially and on the op-ed pages and in the broadcast media.
The loss of civil liberties: just collateral damage
Among civil libertarians, constitutional scholars, activists, alternative media commentators (such as Democracy Now on Pacifica, the Alyona Show on RT) and widely-read progressive bloggers and reporters (such as Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald, TomDispatch's Tom Engelhardt, and the Nation's Jeremy Scahill), the diminishment of our civil liberties and the unchecked war-waging by the United States since the September 11, 2011 attacks is, rightly, a topic of constant discussion. One wonders how much worse the civil liberties picture would be were it not for the heroic efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights. In theory, a majority of the American people today appear to still hold to the ideals embodied in the Bill of Rights, even as those rights have been whittled away in the decade-long climate of fear.
In a Pew Research poll last September on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, 54 percent of respondents said "no" when asked whether it was "necessary to give up civil liberties in order to curb terrorism" - up from 35 percent right after the attacks and 45 percent at the one-year mark. But within Washington's tightly-closed inner circle - the mainstream news outlets, the president, the Congress, the military-industrial-security state complex - civil liberties and the rule of law are just so much unacknowledged collateral damage.
Why, in our mainstream press, don't we see more news articles and op-ed pieces along the lines of the opinion piece that Professor Jonathan Turley wrote in January and that, miracle of miracles, actually found its way into The Washington Post's Sunday Outlook section with this provocative headline: "10 reasons the U.S. is no longer the land of the free."
In this remarkable piece Turley, the Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University and one of the nation's leading authorities on civil liberties, noted:
"In the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, this country has comprehensively reduced civil liberties in the name of an expanded security state...While each new national security power Washington has embraced was controversial when enacted, they are often discussed in isolation. But they don't operate in isolation. They form a mosaic of powers under which our country could be considered, at least in part, authoritarian."
I call the Turley piece remarkable not only because of its tightly-reasoned, sobering arguments but for the fact that one hardly ever sees such notions raised in daily mainstream newspapers, or on mainstream television news. As Turley wrote: "We seem as a country to be in denial as to the implications of these laws and policies. Whether we are viewed as a free country with authoritarian inclinations or an authoritarian nation with free aspirations (or some other hybrid definition), we are clearly not what we once were." We would be wise, Turley said, to follow the Chinese proverb: "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names."
Turley noted similarities between rollbacks of civil liberties in this country and the civil liberties abuses in other countries such as Iran, Russia, China and Cuba:
"Every year, the State Department issues reports on individual rights in other countries, monitoring the passage of restrictive laws and regulations around the world. Iran, for example, has been criticized for denying fair public trials and limiting privacy, while Russia has been taken to task for undermining due process. Other countries have been condemned for the use of secret evidence and torture."
Sound at all familiar?
Despite the similarities between powers assumed by or granted to the U.S. government over the last 10 years, Turley noted: "Even as we pass judgment on countries we consider unfree, Americans remain confident that any definition of a free nation must include their own - the land of the free." But, he cautioned: "The list of powers acquired by the U.S. government since 9/11 puts us in rather troubling company."
Turley went on: "Americans often proclaim our nation as a symbol of freedom to the world while dismissing nations such as Cuba and China as categorically unfree. Yet, objectively, we may be only half right. Those countries do lack basic individual rights such as due process, placing them outside any reasonable definition of ‘free,' but the United States now has much more in common with such regimes than anyone may like to admit. These countries also have constitutions that purport to guarantee freedoms and rights. But their governments have broad discretion in denying those rights and few real avenues for challenges by citizens - precisely the problem with the new laws in this country."
"Since 9/11, we have created the very government the framers feared: a government with sweeping and largely unchecked powers resting on the hope that they will be used wisely...Dishonesty from politicians is nothing new for Americans. The real question is whether we are lying to ourselves when we call this country the land of the free."
Looking at the U.S, what would a foreign correspondent see?
While our mainstream press can be clear-eyed and forceful about civil liberties and human rights abuses and military belligerence by other countries' governments, U.S. reporters for the most part seem unable - or unwilling (or are blocked by editors) - to look at the United States as if it were a foreign country and see that since 2001 we have traveled a long way down a dangerous path.
If I were a foreign correspondent coming to the United States, what would I see? A two-plus-centuries old democracy where over the course of little more than one decade first one president and then his successor have assumed or been granted awesome powers for the government to assassinate citizens and non-citizens alike who are deemed to be dangerous to the state - anywhere in the world, merely on the say-so of the president that these are dangerous individuals; to detain individuals indefinitely without trial; to conduct warrantless surveillance of individuals; to subject persons accused of crimes against the state to trial by a military tribunal rather than before a civilian court; to bring some defendants deemed to be particularly dangerous to proceedings before secret tribunals; to arrest and hold indefinitely without charge not only suspected terrorist enemies of the state but any person deemed, without trial, to be giving ill-defined "material support" to such enemies; to remand prisoners to custody in other countries whose governments are known for torture policies; to set up secret prisons for terrorist suspects in other countries; to invade and occupy and bomb other countries that pose no direct or imminent threat to his own nation; to wage secret wars using elite military units, without open consultation with the legislative branch or the citizenry; to unleash armed drone strikes and assassinations in any country felt to be harboring dangerous enemies of the state, with or without authorization of the leaders of those countries, and with or without knowledge of specific terrorists residing in those countries; to bring espionage -espionage! - charges in record numbers against government whistleblowers, accusing them of disclosing information about illegal government spying or government lying about matters of national security and war; to keep one accused whistleblower in solitary confinement, often stripped naked, for eight months, even refusing a United Nations human rights investigator's request to interview him, and so on. And I would see self-serving, dangerous legal opinions, used first by one president to justify torture, and then by his successor to assassinate via drone or other methods any person deemed by presidential fiat to be a terrorist enemy of the state.
And I would see a nation in which the country's legislative branch, with only a few cries of outrage from its less-influential members, acquiesces in most of these abuses of powers - or takes the lead in authorizing even more abusive powers for the president and the federal government - powers directed against individuals in other countries as well as against their own fellow citizens. And, in addition to agreeing with the president that the nation is beset with enemies from abroad and within and that some liberties need to be abridged, this legislative branch for the most part sits idly by as the nation's foreign intelligence services and the national police take on ever more aspects of a corporatist surveillance state with increased powers, including what one spy-agency whistleblower says is wholesale collection of billions of citizens' "transactions" - phone calls, emails and other forms of data - from Americans. I would see human rights and civil liberties abuses committed by a previous president and vice president and their administration - including torture and spying on citizens - swept under the rug, as the current president with the blessing of congressional leaders of both parties turns a blind eye to most of those earlier abuses, while continuing to commit most of these same abuses himself. I would see abuses that previously had been regarded as crimes, such as targeted and "signature strike" assassinations, now normalized as supposed essential tools in what was once called the global war on terror. Only some of these aren't even considered abuses anymore, because they have been codified into law or upheld by courts.
As Peter Van Buren, who was recently forced out of the State Department after 23 years as a foreign service officer for writing a book and numerous personal blog posts criticizing the government's so-called "reconstruction efforts" in Iraq, has noted: "Many of the illegal things President Richard Nixon did to the famous Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg are now both legal (under the Patriot Act) and far easier to accomplish with new technologies. There is no need, for instance, to break into my psychiatrist's office looking for dirt, as happened to Ellsberg; after all, the National Security Agency can break into my doctor's electronic records as easily as you can read this page."
And as a foreign correspondent I would see that when citizens took to the streets to protest economic and foreign policy injustices, some 7,300 of them were arrested in a nine-month period in more than 100 cities around the country, with many of the arrests demonstrably brutal and arbitrary and often carried out by riot-gear-clad, heavily-armed, militarized police who increasingly are coming to resemble urban armies. So-called "free speech zones" have become commonplace in any situation where large numbers of protesters are expected to assemble. Press efforts to provide first-hand coverage of the protests and arrests of protesters are not only blocked by police in some cities, but dozens of reporters, photographers and videographers are arrested on spurious trespassing and assault charges (or moved far away from newsworthy events) - merely for doing their jobs of trying to cover the news.
Meanwhile, police in the nation's greatest city are found to be conducting massive spying operations against Muslims in their mosques and businesses within their own city and beyond its borders in a systematic collection of personal data and gossip through surveillance and infiltration in the manner of some frightening, wannabe Stasi. And the mayor of another major city, in advance of an international conference in his city - in an apparent effort to thwart militant protests - arranges for 500 state police troopers and 600 National Guard troops to supplement his own heavily-armed, riot-geared police known historically for their brutality against demonstrators. I would see how federal, state and local police increasingly infiltrate Muslim and activist groups with the goal of enticing individuals into acts of violence and then making highly-publicized arrests ballyhooing how another terrorist threat has been thwarted.
And I would see the courts in this still self-proclaimed bastion of liberty, with few exceptions, being caught up in the national security mania, almost always supporting extreme government secrecy and upholding dangerous new powers assumed or granted to the president or other government officials under the guise of the terrorist threat or state secrets - relying strictly on the government's say-so. With the support of the president's cabinet officer in charge of justice, the nation's highest court rules that anyone imprisoned or arrested for any reason can be strip-searched. The timing, interestingly, coincides with an upsurge in street protest demonstrations, and activists voice concerns that strip searches will become routine in mass arrests of protesters for even the flimsiest of pretexts, thus scaring off many protesters already concerned about the increasing rough tactics of the police. Meanwhile, security agents, assigned to monitor passengers at airports, extend their jurisdiction to train stations, highways, city streets - those same city streets that in major cities are choked with surveillance cameras. I would see the way suddenly being opened for the use of surveillance drones on a wide scale in many of the nation's states and cities and border areas.
The new meaning of Exceptionalism
You can imagine the outcry all of these abuses occurring in another erstwhile democratic country would provoke from President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or the previous regime of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. One can even imagine the likes of Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) calling, as usual, for armed intervention by the United States to restore democracy to a once-democratic nation - and a nation that, after all, is especially dangerous as it has a great storehouse of nuclear weapons, up to 1,000 or more military installations in scores of countries around the globe, a military budget almost equal to the military budgets of the rest of the world's governments combined, actual wars and secret wars on two continents, and demonstrably belligerent intentions toward other nations and insurgent groups globally. One can imagine the outcry. But, of course, that nuclear-armed nation experiencing its leaders' assaults on democracy is the United States, a nation blessed with exceptionalism that exempts it from the rules and allows it to make the rules for other countries (even as it violates those same rules it applies to others).
These governmental powers recited above, of course, are exactly the ones that have been authorized to Presidents Bush and Obama by Congress and by favorable court decisions, or just claimed by Bush or Obama using self-serving secret legal opinions and without any congressional authorization, since the attacks of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
If taken one by one, only from the perspective of how these issues were reported in the mainstream print and broadcast press, many readers and viewers might not view with alarm one particular power granted to or asserted by, first Bush, and now Obama. Powers that, as Salon's Glenn Greenwald has frequently noted, are endorsed on a bipartisan basis by congressional Democrats and Republicans alike.
Taken as a package, the implications of these extraordinary governmental powers for our ever-dwindling democracy are most serious indeed. Shouldn't the mainstream press be loudly and repeatedly sounding the alarm over these threats to democracy? Would future historians consulting the pages of our major mainstream newspapers, and watching old videos of network and cable news, get any feeling that the press of our day presented the Bill of Rights as being wobbly and about to go down for the count in the first and second decades of the 21st century? Or would they get the feeling that our press and our national leaders in Congress felt that whatever was going on, it was just politics as usual, not really worth talking about much - certainly not worth even a fraction of the news coverage devoted to, say, nonsensical right-wing fantasies of Obama's secret Muslim and socialist beliefs and foreign birth, or the U.S. Secret Service agents' prostitution scandal, or John Edwards' disgraceful behavior and trial?
To my knowledge, no mainstream publication or broadcast outlet has put together a comprehensive piece along the lines of "growing concerns among civil libertarians, constitutional scholars, activists that the United States is no longer a fully free society." Aside from the handful of praiseworthy U.S. mainstream journalists - such as Charlie Savage of the New York Times, Dana Priest and William Arkin of the Washington Post and the New York Times editorial writers who have regularly reported or commented on government secrecy, the growing power of the executive branch in foreign and military affairs, and the threats to civil liberties post-9/11 - those of us concerned about where our democracy is heading have to rely mainly on the aforementioned established bloggers such as Greenwald and Engelhardt and alternative media journalists. Or the foreign press, such as this piece from Paul Harris of the London-based Observer, who wrote recently:
"Obama has presided over a massive expansion of secret surveillance of American citizens by the National Security Agency. He has launched a ferocious and unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers. He has made more government documents classified than any previous president. He has broken his promise to close down the controversial Guantanamo Bay prison and pressed on with prosecutions via secretive military tribunals, rather than civilian courts. He has preserved CIA renditions. He has tried to grab broad new powers on what defines a terrorist or a terrorist supporter and what can be done with them, often without recourse to legal process. The sheer scope and breadth of Obama's national security policy has stunned even fervent Bush supporters and members of the Washington DC establishment."
Just as with the mainstream press, the Congress has continued its downhill slide into irrelevance as a critic and watchdog on foreign and military affairs. Those few voices in Congress who do regularly warn against assaults on the Bill of Rights and military adventurism - Democratic House members such as Jerrold Nadler of New York, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Barbara Lee of California, and Republicans Ron Paul of Texas and Walter Jones of North Carolina - are ignored or otherwise marginalized by the press in such a way that their warnings are seldom published or broadcast by mainstream media. When was the last time any interviewer on, say, one of the Sunday talk shows, cited the abuses instituted under the Bush and Obama administrations and asked the question: Has our government's decade-long response to 9/11 made us more unfree?
It would be a great boon to Americans' understanding of the United States' militaristic posture in the world and the corresponding decline of civil liberties at home if we heard more in the mainstream media from people like Nadler and a lot less from get-tough, be-afraid-be-very-afraid war hawk Senators McCain, Graham and Lieberman. As Nadler, whose lower Manhattan-Brooklyn district includes the World Trade Center attack site, warned last December in urging a no vote on the National Defense Authorization Act, which codified in law the detention without trial of non-citizens and citizens alike on suspicion of links to terrorism:
"We are in danger of losing our most precious heritage not because a band of thugs threatens our freedom, but because we are at risk of forgetting who we are and what makes the United States a truly great nation. In the last 10 years, we have begun to let go of our freedoms, bit by bit, with each new executive order, court decision and, yes, act of Congress. We have begun giving away our rights to privacy, our right to our day in court when the government harms us, and, with this legislation, we are continuing down the path of destroying the right to be free from imprisonment without due process of law."
Nadler has been that rare congressional Democrat who has criticized Obama and Democratic congressional leaders for taking positions on civil liberties and the rule of law that are essentially the same as those policies they widely decried under the Bush-Cheney administration. Democrats should apply the same standards to President Barack Obama as they did to George W. Bush. Nadler said that the National Defense Authorization Act codifies presidential powers which "frankly, these are powers that - that, during the campaign three years ago that President Obama - candidate Obama - said we shouldn't have and, on these questions, they [Obama and congressional leaders) have essentially taken the same positions as the Bush administration and we Democrats should — should oppose this by our own party."
Obama's supporters, of course, point out that there really are terrorists (albeit a growing number, thanks to our government's militaristic actions on so many fronts in the last decade) who want to do harm to Americans, and that Obama is doing what he thinks necessary to keep us safe. Another factor, though, is that Democratic leaders, since the end of World War II, have been consumed with the notion that they are seen as being "soft" on defense and foreign policy matters. President Truman "lost" China, went the right-wing attacks of the time. President Johnson disastrously escalated the war in Vietnam out of a concern that Republicans would accuse Democrats as being "soft on communism" if he dithered. With the 9/11 attacks and the aggressive response by Bush-Cheney (two major wars, torture, a crackdown on civil liberties), Obama clearly does not want to appear to be "soft on terrorism." And so, for example, his defenders praise him (or withhold their criticism) for his quasi-secret use of armed drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, his extra-judicial killings of even Americans deemed to be enemies, and his continuation of almost all of the Bush-Cheney civil liberties rollbacks, which all show he is not "soft on terrorism." As it is, Obama is soft on democracy, and that's a lot worse.
Jimmy Carter laments loss of moral authority, absence of dissent
Yet to read and listen to almost all of the mainstream media outlets, you would swear that at worst we have had some civil liberties blips and "controversies" here and there over the last decade, as the press generally hasn't seen a need to put it all together and look at what Professor Turley termed "a mosaic of powers" or to even pose the question: What does all this mean for the future of our democracy, as year after year what were once once-inviolable barriers against government intrusion on personal liberties are cut down?
Former President Jimmy Carter recently weighed in with his own warning on the government's abuse of civil liberties over the last decade, stating that the United States "is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights." Without naming either President Bush or President Obama, Carter said that recent revelations "that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation's violation of human rights has extended. This development began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues." Noting U.S. leadership in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Carter said, "It is disturbing that, instead of strengthening these principles, our government's counterterrorism policies are now clearly violating at least 10 of the declaration's 30 articles, including the prohibition against ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.'" The result, he said, is that "instead of making the world safer, America's violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends."
And these extraordinary powers that Carter warns of will pass to the next president - either after this next election if Obama is defeated or in 2017 after Obama finishes a second term. Even if you believe Obama has used, and will use, these powers wisely, why should anyone be certain the next president will? And does anyone really believe this is as far as presidential powers will go in the areas of war and peace and civil liberties? What's next? If some actual terrorist plot - resulting in a large or small number of casualties - is successful within the borders of the United States, what will be the next draconian law passed or power assumed unilaterally by a president to counter what will surely be adjudged an even more dire situation than 9/11? How can influential Democrats possibly speak out against future civil liberties abuses by a Republican president now that they have assented to abuses by the Obama administration - and, when they had the majority in both Houses in 2008-2010, took no action to restore any of the civil liberties usurped under Bush?
What will be the next Bill-of-Rights-negating power granted to, or assumed by, a president? Will we have a "debate" over mass incarceration of U.S. "terrorist suspects" if that happens, the way we had a "debate" over waterboarding (not torture when the U.S. does it, according to National Public Radio and much of our mainstream press, but rather "enhanced interrogation techniques"), or the "debate" we had over President Obama's unilateral assumption of authority to assassinate anywhere, far from any armed conflict zone, individuals who are deemed by virtue of secret information possessed by the government to pose a threat to the United States? Or the recent "debate" over whether New York police were acting illegally in their mass surveillance and profiling of Muslims not only in New York, but in New Jersey? Where does this all end, and who will stop it?
There are so many questions for the public to ask and the mainstream press to answer.
Where, for example, was the discussion of any of these civil liberties issues in the bizarre 2012 Republican presidential primary campaign (other than by libertarian, anti-government Rep. Ron Paul of Texas), or by any of the major supporters of President Obama's re-election? And where will this diminishment in civil liberties issue be in the general election campaign? Nowhere, you can bet, given that the incumbent president will be defending, even bragging about many of the civil liberties abuses during his term (e.g., targeted assassinations), if anyone even brings them up. Meanwhile, his Republican opponent Mitt Romney will proclaim Obama as not bellicose enough toward unfriendly countries or insurgent groups and not tough enough in limiting our civil liberties in the name of security. There are, of course, presidential candidates who raise these issues all the time: former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, the nominee of the Justice Party, and Jill Stein, likely nominee of the Green Party, but you are unlikely to see either of them in the presidential debates or quoted or pictured in the major news media because they are those dirty words in officially-sanctioned U.S. politics: "third-party candidates." If it's not said by the Republican or Democratic presidential candidates, then it's not an issue as far as most of the mainstream press is concerned.
In the print press, New York Times reporter Charlie Savage can no doubt be counted on in election coverage to compare the civil liberties views and policies of Obama and Romney, just as he comprehensively compared the views of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in 2008 when he was with the Boston Globe. It would be instructive for him to include the views of third-party candidates so readers could see what we have lost in the area of civil liberties in the last decade. And the Times editorial page can generally be counted on for hard-hitting defenses of the Bill of Rights, regardless of which political party is in power.
For example, a recent, excellent Times editorial denounced the long-delayed decision by Pentagon prosecutors to finally, officially charge Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other men with war crimes for planning the 9/11 atrocities and to try them before "a constitutionally flawed military tribunal that will be convened at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, a global symbol of human rights abuses."
The editorial rightly criticized the nine-year - yes, nine-year - time period the defendants have been held without trial, as well as their being subjected to "brutal and illegal interrogations," one of the polite euphemisms much of the U.S. media uses to describe the unmentionable word torture which, as we know, only occurs elsewhere and not in our country. Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month alone, the editorial noted. Sounding a theme similar to that offered by Jonathan Turley, the editorial quoted an ACLU official to the effect that "after years of being subjected to treatment designed to destroy prisoners physically and psychologically...how confident can we be that the statement is untainted by torture? Imagine that another country - Iran, say, or North Korea - proposed as much. Would we buy it?" The editorial concluded that even the best-managed trial in a military tribunal "will not be able to change the fact that this country has in the last decade accepted too many damaging and unnecessary changes to its fundamental principles of justice and human rights."
From what is still the nation's most influential news outlet and, arguably, the nation's best newspaper, this otherwise excellent editorial offers the rather tepid conclusion that a lot of disturbing things have happened that this country has "accepted," but falls well short of saying what this means for the present and future of our democracy. It should be willing to say that this, folks, is truly a crisis and we had all better wake up, especially the press, to the fact that the very heart of our democracy is under siege.
As for the broadcast media, where is the network documentary about this rollback of civil liberties, a la the Edward R. Murrow expose of Senator Joseph McCarthy's assault on democracy back in the 1950s? Don't hold your breath.
Regarding Congress, why have there been no congressional hearings on the government's assault on civil liberties and what this means for our democracy, in the mold of the Senate Select Committee on intelligence abuses of 1975-1976, under the leadership of Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho)? The panel, referred to as the Church Committee, investigated threats to democracy posed by the widespread illegal intelligence operations of the FBI, CIA, IRS and NSA at home and abroad that targeted the great social movements of the time for civil rights and against the Vietnam war.
In a further sign of our nation's downhill trajectory, most of what Church and other civil libertarians of the time denounced as dangers to our democracy are today praised or taken for granted by our national leaders and many mainstream media commentators as the normal state of affairs, necessary to protect against every person everywhere who might harbor an intent to do the United States and its people wrong. Would this current crop of congressional go-alongers and demagogic alarmists even have considered impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon for his crimes? Look forward, not backward, to quote a famous, recent Nobel Peace Prize-winner.
Likewise, couldn't the press ask why have there been no congressional hearings on all of our post-9/11 overt and covert wars comparable to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings of the 1960s, under chairman Senator J. William Fulbright (D-AR), into the conduct of the Vietnam War? (Perhaps politicians of this current era draw their own survival lessons from the congressional opposition to the Vietnam war, when various Democratic senators - first, notably, Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, and later Fulbright and others - were willing to vigorously take on the war policies of a president of their own party, the next election and blind party loyalty be damned. Their defeats in subsequent elections were attributable to one degree or another to their outspoken positions on the war.)
Why are both Republican and Democratic leaders so supportive - or silent and incurious - or cowardly - about our use of drone warfare? About civilian casualties? About how our actions are creating more terrorists? About how our war in Iraq killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, created several million refugees and generally devastated that country? About how our war in Afghanistan has likewise devastated that country? Shouldn't editorial writers and op-ed columnists be demanding an accounting of what our war on terror has reaped and where in the world (literally) our leaders think it is going?
And why are most Republicans, who otherwise portray Obama as an arch-fiend on domestic issues and who claim to see dangerous socialism and threats to liberty in even the mildest, albeit pro-corporate healthcare plan, so willing to acquiesce in what are true threats to the Bill of Rights? Namely, those actions that have been unleashed by the Bush/Cheney and Obama administrations in the name of a type of homeland security that spreads fear among the populace and rips up the Constitution in order to keep us all safe by waging a war without end against terrorists everywhere? Why do Republicans incredibly and callously see health and safety regulations, clear air and clean water, as threats to corporate rights and to our inalienable right to be poisoned in the name of the free market, but yet would seem to favor having a future president who they hope would be even more belligerent and invasive of individual privacy than Bush or Obama - as witness the GOP's nasty and anti-democratic wars against immigrants, minorities and women?
Finally, let the press explore the question: Have we become to a troubling degree exactly what we as a nation professed to abhor a little more than a decade ago? Thrown into the scrap heap many of the precious liberties we claimed to be defending in the war on terrorists everywhere? Become a nation of ‘fraidy-cats, more concerned with the myth of total security than with the human rights of the people whose nations we occupy and bomb, as well as our own?
While Democratic and Republican leaders continue to mouth the cliché about the world envying us our liberties, the reality no longer matches the nice little fairy tale we tell ourselves. President George W. Bush famously said that the terrorists "hate our freedoms." Thanks to his actions and that of his successor in our government's never-ending bomb-and occupy response to the 9/11 atrocities, we have fewer freedoms for them to hate us for today.
No crops without plowing up the ground
This is the point at which I should be suggesting ways to halt this catastrophic slide into ever-more dangerous territory. Perhaps the words of a slaveholding Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, and a former slave and statesman Frederick Douglass would help.
Jefferson stated: "Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories." And: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
As if predicting our current situation, Douglass said: "Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them." In his most famous quote, Douglass gave his tough prescription for social change: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." And then, specifically, what to do: "Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground."
Elections alone won't win back our civil liberties, as we have seen. Had Obama supporters spent much of the last four years holding the president's feet to the fire on issues pertaining to war and peace and civil liberties (as Progressive Democrats of America, seemingly alone among Democratic groups, does) - rather than focusing on the next congressional or presidential election - they might have pushed Obama and the Democrats into a progressive position on civil liberties and our wars, and on our worldwide military presence and our bloated military budget. As Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, those constituencies that did aggressively pressure Obama - namely on the issues of undocumented migrants and gay marriage - were successful in getting him to act favorably on their behalf. The press, once seen by the founders as a bulwark of liberty and essential to keeping the public well-informed about matters of civic importance, needs to be pressured, too, to call for a return of our full Bill of Rights and to show it is more than repeaters of statements and leaks about the dangers of terrorism that come out of the White House, or Congress, or the Pentagon or the intelligence community.
What likely is most needed is a super-version of Occupy Wall Street, with the kind of persistent and disruptive street agitation that is vital to any campaign to restore the Bill of Rights. Whether this would come about is problematic. Nevertheless, without lobbying, without an informed populace, without street pressure, there will only be one direction for civil liberties in the current climate - and that is down. It is time, in Jefferson's words, to educate. And it is way past time, in Douglass' words, to plow up some ground.
John Hanrahan is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for The Washington Post, The Washington Star, UPI, and other news organizations. He is now on special assignment for Nieman Watchdog.
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