Thursday, November 30, 2006

Terrorizing Democracy

There are countries in the world where you can be arrested and stripped of your rights by executive fiat; where you can be held without charge and without a chance to challenge your detention; where you can be put on trial before a military court and be convicted on evidence obtained by torture. You might never know that the evidence against you was coerced – the source of the evidence can be classified so you are unable to challenge it.

There are countries where, on these standards of justice, you could be put to death for your alleged crimes.

But who ever thought that the United States of America would be one of these countries?

Sometimes it’s hard to believe just how far we’ve come since 2001. The United States may not always have endeared itself to the world in the 1990s, but its place among the liberal democracies of the world couldn’t be seriously questioned. Now the United States, which seeks to project democratic values around the world, has become a country that practices disappearances, detains those it suspects of being its enemies indefinitely, and has just set up, under Military Commissions Act, a system of punishment so egregiously in violation of due process and human rights norms that it can hardly be called a justice system at all.

It is now possible, in fact legal, for the President to place the detention of an individual beyond the reach of civilian courts. The Military Commission Act actually strips those declared enemy combatants of habeas corpus rights. It allows them to be tried by military commissions on evidence obtained under cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and to have that evidence withheld from them on grounds of security. It prohibits them from invoking the Geneva Conventions as a source of rights in any U.S. court. And it can impose the death penalty at the end of this process.

This law does not apply to U.S. citizens – but one wonders how much protection that offers when a detainee has no right to tell a judge that he is in fact a U.S. citizen.

President Bush’s record demonstrates that he believes in the practically unfettered exercise of executive power. Never has the United States has a president who so fundamentally rejected the doctrine of the separation of powers. Congress, led until recently by the Republicans, collaborated in this shameful betrayal of American principles. (Given that these same Republicans, faced with the President’s admission that he had illegally spied on Americans, reacted by calling those who broke the story of this impeachable offence unpatriotic, we perhaps should not have expected too much from them.)

Under Bush’s leadership, the United States has held people in secret, without charge, and without access to the outside world, meeting the test of disappearances under international law. It has tortured, and it has sent hundreds of men, some of them innocent civilians picked up in indiscriminate sweeps by ignorant soldiers, into the pit of despair at Guantanamo Bay, where it has let them languish in a permanent state of limbo.

Now, to deal with this backlog of prisoners, it has created a system of kangaroo courts befitting Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

And there’s no end in sight: while Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War, that war had a definable end; the undeclared war on terror, conveniently for the Bush administration, is one with no definable end or any cohesive enemy.

The Bush administration’s illiberal depredations on American democracy provide a study in how not to respond to a terrorist threat. And it would be tempting to conclude that it is people like President Bush and his authoritarian coterie who pose the greatest threat to American democracy. But that would miss the more important point: look what has happened in response to an attack that killed 3000 Americans. Now imagine what measures Americans will not only accept but demand if Islamic terrorists succeed in their goal of detonating a nuclear weapon inside an American city.

We should recognize the threat that George Bush and the current leadership of the Republican Party pose to American democracy. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture: that the real threat to the survival of liberalism, not just in America but in the West, is the terrorism that seeks to kill millions of Westerners in the name of God. Because there will be scant hope for liberalism if it ever succeeds.


Post a Comment

<< Home

hit counter provided by .