Tag Archives: Constitution

United States of Secrets

Today I watched the PBS Frontline Documentary “United States of Secrets.” I found it at my local library, and I bet it is at yours as well. I recommend you watch it. It is a detailed history of how America ended up where its government is now spying on its citizens.

The threat of follow-on attacks after 9-11 was sufficient for the executive branch under Bush/Cheney to implement an unprecedented program of domestic spying. They lied about it and tried to cover it up, and they tried to threaten anyone who dared to alert the citizens of what our government was up to. Now we know the truth, but we don’t seem to care enough to do anything about it.

What came through loud and clear to me through this program was that it is naive of us to expect our leaders to fight against this move unless their constituents are demanding change. No elected leader can afford to stop a program when the threat of “causing” harm or death to Americans hangs over them if they try.

The electorate doesn’t care much about Constitutional details when planes fly into a buildings, Ebola lands on our soil, or ISIS jerks chop off the heads of Americans on YouTube.

Any President or member of Congress who fights to prevent the U.S. government from conducting unconstitutional activity in the name of national security will be blamed for allowing the next attack, so they cannot afford to do it. If we don’t want to be spied on by our own government, then we’re going to have to force our representatives to pass specific laws against it.

Crimes of War & Lynch Mobs

When an angry mob decides that a man is guilty of a crime and executes their own form of justice in place of due process, we call it a lynching. We flatter ourselves that such things do not happen in our civilized society. Yet if an accused terrorist is given the benefit of due process, and if his jury does not find him guilty on every charge that the angry mob demands, then they clamor to throw out due process.

Earlier this week, a civilian jury found Ahmed Ghailani innocent of all but 1 of more than 280 charges against him in the bombing of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The future House Speaker, John Boehner, reacted to this verdict by declaring “the decision by this administration to try terrorists in civilian court was the wrong one from day one” because “terrorists should be tried in military, not civilian, courts.” So if Rep. Boehner can label you as a terrorist, then he wants to strip you of your right to a trial in a civilian court.

The incoming Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Lamar Smith, complained that the exclusion of a key witness from the trial demonstrated that foreign terrorists cannot “be adequately tried in civilian courts.” He griped, “The judge in this case, applying constitutional and legal standards to which all U.S. citizens are entitled, threw out important evidence.”

Civilian courts are messy. Justice is decided by a jury of “peers.” They have a nasty habit of insisting that evidence obtained through coercion is not reliable. One could argue that accused foreign terrorists would have a hard time getting a fair trial because they’re being judged by U.S. citizens, but few are worried about the rights of this accused man. We’ve apparently decided that the principles of our Constitution aren’t really universal truths; we don’t need to be bothered with them if we suspect the accused of being a “terrorist.”

Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra is the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. He says that this verdict confirms that the decision to try Guantanamo detainees in civilian courts “was a mistake and will not work.” Apparently for Rep. Hoekstra a trial that “works” is one that returns a verdict he wants. Sen. Lindsey Graham said “I’m going to have my hands full holding back” some of his fellow Republicans who don’t want to try terrorist suspects tried in civilian courts.

These feelings are not the exclusive domain of Republicans. Democratic Sen. Jim Webb said the verdict “affirms what I and others have said from the beginning: those charged with crimes of war and those who have been determined to be dangerous law-of-war detainees do not belong in our courts, our prisons, or our country.” Notice how subtly this works. Once we declare a “war” on terror, it allows us to sidestep our justice system whenever terrorism is involved. Terrorism becomes a crime of war. Inconveniently, this same logic finds that a drug sale is also a crime of war since we’ve also declared a “war” on drugs. And what about the war on poverty we declared in 1964? Should legislators who insist on tax breaks for the wealthy while denying unemployment benefits to the poor be prosecuted for war crimes?

There are two thing I know that all of these men have in common. First, not one of them sat in the courtroom to hear and weigh the evidence like each one of the members of the jury. Yet for the sake appeasing an angry mob, they presume that they know better than the jury the guilt or innocence of this man.

Second, each one of them are “bound by Oath or Affirmation to support this constitution.” Yet for the sake of appealing to an angry mob who have demonstrated their political power, they ignore their pledge without a second thought. I wonder what it means to support our constitution if it does not mean to abide by our system of justice. What type of leadership can we expect from people who are eager to sidestep due process in order to guarantee that a court decides in a particular way?

The Washington Post quotes an “official directly involved in Guantanamo issues” as saying “There’s no political will for” civilian trials. Well goodness gracious if there’s insufficient political will for upholding the constitution, then obviously we can just ignore the thing.  After all if we defy the angry mob too often, then they might turn on us.

Was It a Crime or an Act of War?

Before September 11, 2001, acts of terrorism in the U.S. were dealt with as crimes rather than as warfare. President Bush (W.) very deliberately decided to consider the horrible events of 9/11 as an act of war rather than as a crime. By selling it as an invasion of American soil, perhaps President Bush hoped to create a narrative of events similar to Pearl Harbor and World War II.

His decision certainly inaugurated America’s “war on terror.” America had already gone to war against another abstract notion rather than an actual nation. Thirty years earlier, we had famously gone to war against drugs courtesy of President Nixon. The utter failure of our efforts to solve drug crimes by re-branding it as a war didn’t seem to dissuade President Bush or us.

Wars end only after one side surrenders. How precisely does one imagine that terrorism will surrender, I wonder? In other words, how do we end a war on terrorism? Are we obligated to continue to spend money and send our citizens to die so long as there are people utilizing terrorism to try to achieve their end? Do we seriously imagine that by flexing our considerable military muscle all would-be terrorists will eventually cower and refrain from trying to attack us?

Crimes, on the other hand, end when a perpetrator is brought to justice or when the case is closed after all leads are exhausted. There is no illusion that a particular type of crime will be eradicated. The pursuit of criminals follows an arc of justice. Wars are less concerned with justice and more concerned with destroying the enemy.

It is odd when I hear the same people who insist on calling 9/11 an act of war complain about the process of bringing its perpetrators to justice. What constitutes justice in the case of an act of war? If justice is achieved by imprisoning or killing the individual soldiers involved (as if it were a crime), then what justification do we have for invading foreign lands? Can we have it both ways? Can we insist on simultaneously prosecuting the crime and the war? Do we think that by doing both we express more righteous anger?

Trying to do both is an unholy combination. It justifies arguments that the accused should not have the rights guaranteed by our Constitution. It allows us to apply the no-holds barred style of war to a trial. Yet even if we were to execute every perpetrator of 9/11, it would not satisfy our blood-lust that we want to name as “Justice.”

There is a price for this unholy combination. It is not just the terrorists who lose. Every American loses a bit of the very freedoms that wars are fought to defend. If terrorism is an act of war rather than a crime, then the same absolute fever for its eradication must apply to preventing future acts of terrorism.

With a mere crime, our society balances the rights of citizens against the power of the government to prevent crimes. But there is zero tolerance against acts of war. To allow even one act of war on our soil would make us appear to be weak. Our macho indignation cannot abide by that.

So now with every new foiled plot, we add one more indignity to anyone who chooses to fly on a commercial airplane. We allow one more invasion by our government into our rights. We pick on the airlines it seems because that was the weapon of choice on September 11th. But it doesn’t stop there. Wiretapping and other violations of our constitutional rights are swallowed by a public who have been whipped into a frenzy about this “war.”

Like the drug war, none of our efforts seem to have made any real progress toward the implied goal of ending terrorism. Is America safer as a result of all this? I suspect that in fact we have played into the hands of terrorists. Terrorism is designed not to inflict material damage to an enemy, but rather it is designed to leverage meager resources toward inflicting symbolic damage that terrorizes the enemy.

If the goal was to strike terror in America, then one would have to say that the best allies of the terrorists have been our leaders who continually overreact to every threat. Oddly what seems to be driven by our machismo has resulted in our appearing to be scared and impotent. I wonder where we would be today if our leaders had taken the course of considering 9/11 a horrific crime rather than an act of war. Perhaps then we would have brought the perpetrators to justice and limited Al-Qaeda to only fifteen minutes of fame.

How Propaganda Can Backfire

Right-wing media has been quite successful in feeding propaganda to an audience hungry for sensational radio and television. Smart individuals spin thin facts into fat assertions that are sometimes positively Orwellian in the way that they misrepresent reality. Other times they just make assertions based on nothing but mythical anecdotes.

Last week the Rupert Murdoch owned Wall Street Journal ran a piece raising the alarm about inflation. Their thin facts were that wholesale prices were rising and putting grocers under pressure to raise their prices. The article correctly pointed out that so far this year food and beverage prices had risen at a paltry annual rate of less than 0.6%. This didn’t stop the article making the fat claim that “an inflationary tide is beginning to ripple through America’s supermarkets and restaurants.”

Sarah Palin took the bait. The Wall Street Journal was so successful in spinning its propaganda, that Palin claimed in a speech that, “everyone who ever goes out shopping for groceries knows that prices have risen significantly over the past year or so.” Inconveniently, another writer from the Wall Street Journal called her out on her false claim.

This isn’t the first time a Tea Party darling has been exposed because s/he was too gullible about believing the spin of the right. Famously in a debate, Christine O’Donnell demonstrated her lack of understanding about what the Bill of Rights says concerning the freedom of religion. The right-wing media loves to prattle on about how the separation of church and state is not in the Constitution. Of course this statement is true if you put quotes around “separation of church and state.” Nowhere in the Constitution does that exact phrase appear.

It’s rather hard to hear the quotation marks when listening to some angry prophet of the right-wing media. So it’s understandable that someone like O’Donnell would be surprised to learn what the first amendment of the Constitution actually says when it is read to her during a political debate. She got caught by the same trap as Palin: she believed the spin even when it contradicted the facts.

The scary part of this tale is that in a Democracy, we need an educated electorate to avoid being manipulated by the rich and powerful. Many voters out there have grossly inaccurate understandings of facts that have been misrepresented by pundits in the media.