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Is It Too Late?

Is it too late to save democracy in the United States?

An illegal and immoral war is going on in our name, and our politicians are arguing about whether it makes us more safe. What about it being illegal and immoral? What about the 100,000 or more civilian deaths in a nation that was never any threat to us? Whose responsibility are those?

Yesterday, after a token show of resistance, the U.S. Senate passed a bill which will allow President Bush to define torture as he likes. It provides retroactive legal cover to interrogators who have tortured prisoners, and to those who gave the orders. And it writes into law the authority long claimed by the President to hold “enemy combatants” in special prisons indefinitely, without charges or right of appeal. In fact, for the first time it extends that authority to U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the New York Times said about the bill in an editorial yesterday:

    …it would give Mr. Bush the power to jail pretty much anyone he wants for as long as he wants without charging them, to unilaterally reinterpret the Geneva Conventions, to authorize what normal people consider torture, and to deny justice to hundreds of men captured in error.

I can only hope that this bill is lousy enough that even the conservative Supreme Court will be forced to throw out its worst arguments, as it already has twice. What changed this time is that the full Congress, our elected representatives, have given their stamp of approval to a philosophy that used to be pushed by only a few legal extremists in the White House, the David Addingtons and John Yoos.

The Democrats in the Senate could have prevented this with a filibuster, but they didn’t take a stand. They bargained that away in exchange for the chance to make a symbolic gesture, voting on an amendment that would have fixed one of the worst things in the new bill, by giving detainees the right to challenge their detention in court. The amendment failed anyway, 51 to 48.

Supposed Republican mavericks John McCain, Lindsay Graham and John Warner capitulated earlier in the week, accepting a deal with the White House on torture that preserves the status quo, allowing the Bush Administration to claim it isn’t torturing when it is.

In other words, the terrorists have won. One bolt from the blue on September 11, 2001 and we run cowering to Big Brother. We no longer have the courage to demand protections for the accused, or proof of guilt in a court of law. What time do we have for such niceties when “there are people out there who want to kill us,” as Bush loves to say? He said it again yesterday:

    People shouldn’t forget there’s still an enemy out there that wants to do harm to the United States.

Often this is described as a “faceless” enemy who “lurks in the shadows.” Yet if we could cast some light into those shadows, perhaps we would see the enemy’s face. Perhaps he would have a human face, the face of Iraqi women and children, for example. Perhaps he would share our desire for freedom. Perhaps he would remind us to treasure the freedoms we are so quickly squandering.

As the line from the Vietnam War era goes, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Who has twisted our Constitution into pretzels to justify cruel and unusual punishment, or indefinite detention without trial? Who has eroded our freedoms, softly and sweetly, until one day we are able to wake up and say, “The U.S. Senate has given the authority of a dictator to one man, as the Roman Senate did two thousand years ago”?

That day is September 29, 2006. Shame on us all.

UPDATE: Carl Hulse of the New York Times attempts to find a silver lining for Democrats, pointing out that 32 of them voted against the bill, apparently a surprisingly large number. Among them were all of the potential 2008 presidential contenders, such as Russ Feingold, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Barack Obama. His conclusion was that:

    …party leaders believe that President Bush’s power to wield national security as a political issue is seriously diminished.

He offers this quote from Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who is responding to fears that the issue will be used to hammer Democrats in the upcoming elections:

    The only reason to worry about the politics of it is if you don’t understand it, and don’t have the guts to stand up and defend your vote.

Nevertheless, the one thing that could have stopped this bill from actually passing didn’t happen, as Washington Post blogger Dan Froomkin points out:

    I’m still amazed that Democrats didn’t filibuster the bill in the Senate. Indeed, 12 Democrats actually voted for it.

It can even be argued that Democrats ended up with the worst of both worlds. Bush supporters will beat them over the head with this anyway, but they didn’t get the credibility they might have gotten from standing their ground on principle. Despite their 32 votes, which does show that some of them are growing a spine, as usual it was too little, too late. Glenn Greenwald makes that point here:

    It is still difficult to understand the Democrats’ strategy here. They failed to try to mount a filibuster because they feared being attacked as coddlers of the terrorists. But…they voted against the bill in large numbers, thereby ensuring those exact accusations will be made anyway—and made loudly (the White House already started today). Yet they…spent the last several weeks only tepidly (at most) opposing the President’s position, and thus lost the opportunity to defend and advocate the position they took today in any meaningful way…. They make this same mistake over and over.

He concludes in a later post that:

    It goes without saying that the conduct of Democrats generally…was far, far short of anything noble, courageous or principled. […] But that’s all besides the point at the moment, because…the most important and overriding mandate is to end the one-party rule to which our country has been subjected for the last four years. Achieving that is necessary—it is an absolute pre-requisite—to begin to impose some actual limits on the authoritarian behavior and unchecked powers of this administration…. There is no point in trying to glorify the conduct of Democrats. […] But a desire to see the Democrats take over Congress…does not have to be…driven by a belief that Washington Democrats are commendable or praiseworthy and deserve to be put into power…. A desire for a Democratic victory is, at least for me, about the fact that this country simply cannot endure two more years of a Bush administration which is free to operate with even fewer constraints than before….

A stirring endorsement indeed!

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