September 30, 2006

"Thus the World Was Lost"

We are not gods, and we are not omniscient. We cannot foretell the future with certainty. Most often, cultural and political changes are terribly complex. It can be notoriously difficult to predict exactly where a trend will take us, and we can be mistaken. We do the best we can: if we wish to address certain issues seriously, we study history, and we read everything that might shed light on our concerns. We consult what the best thinkers of our time and of earlier times have said and written. We challenge everyone's assumptions, including most especially our own. That last is often very difficult. If we care enough, we do our best to disprove our own case. In that way, we find out how strong our case is, and where its weaknesses may lie.

Barring extraordinary circumstances, we cannot be certain that a particular development represents a critical turning point at the time it occurs. If we dare to say, "This is the moment the battle was lost," only future events will prove whether we were correct. We do the best we can, based on our understanding of how similar events have unfolded in the past, and in light of our understanding of the underlying principles in play. We can be wrong.

Before I wrote it, I had thought a great deal about the numerous issues and themes discussed in my lengthy essay about the Military Commissions Act, and what that Act means for our future. I have been writing about many of those issues for several years now, so I have been thinking about them for a long time. I have continued to reflect on them since I posted that essay, and I have read still more. Among other reading, I have visited several blog entries, and considered the remarks in the posts themselves and in the often lengthy comment threads. You might find them of interest as well: Kevin Drum, Mark Kleiman, The Editors, IOZ. There may well be others that are instructive; those are the ones I was aware of.

I am certain of several key aspects of the issues that have been raised, and I should clarify a couple of points. There is no question that the Military Commissions Act, given the language it now contains, grants -- in principle -- full dictatorial powers to the executive. As I explained in the earlier essay, the executive and certain entities it controls can designate anyone, including any American citizen, as an "unlawful enemy combatant." That person can then be imprisoned for the rest of his life, with no recourse whatsoever. Period.

That is absolute power over every single one of us. Absolute. Consider the word, and what it means. Your life is no longer yours. It is the executive's, to dispose of as he chooses. I must repeat an earlier point: it is most likely that this power will not be exercised to the full extent possible, or anything close to its full extent, any time soon. The exercise of that power will come, if it does, in stages. See Jim Henley's post on this point. Of course, the specifics may be very different, depending on many other events -- and depending on what particular individuals hold this fearsome power, and what their specific objectives are.

The critical point is what, in principle, the grant of power includes. As noted, the grant is absolute: it includes everything. As I have pointed out, the determination of the Bush administration to achieve absolute power has been indisputably clear since shortly after 9/11. And this is hardly the first time that I and others have noted that the mechanisms for a complete dictatorship have now been put in place.

In the various other blog posts linked above, there is great concern about where responsibility for this heinous bill lies. I will have more to say on this point when I return to my series, "On Evil, Guilt and Responsibility." For the moment, I offer these basic guidelines as to my own thoughts on this question. Primary responsibility -- and primary guilt -- lies with those who proposed and drafted this abomination, and with those who voted for it. It lies with the Bush administration, which desperately wanted this bill (since, among other things, it immunizes them for their barbarity and crimes), and with the Republicans in the House and Senate. That much is obvious.

But the responsibility and guilt do not end there, although the questions become more complicated. This bill did not concern the specifics of an agricultural subsidy, or particular modifications to the tax code. This bill concerned "the writ of habeas corpus [which] is the fundamental right for the political system originally envisioned by the founders of the United States." This bill concerned the ultimate foundation of individual liberty. In the most important and deepest sense, this bill was the ball game. Moreover, as detailed in the second half of my long essay, we have all been on notice for more than three years that this battle would arrive. We all had plenty of time to prepare for it, and to wage the necessary struggle -- necessary, that is, if we wished to ensure that the foundation of liberty would survive.

The Democrats in Congress had that same time to prepare. They did not. They passed the major work off to the three "maverick" Republican Senators, and hoped they would eradicate the worst that was in the bill. In the event -- as was entirely predictable -- the "uncompromising" Senators compromised on all the points that mattered. They gave the administration everything it wanted: they made all of us property of the executive, to be disposed of according to his whim. At the last minute, and on the last day, some Democrats gave speeches about the grave dangers contained in the bill. By then, it was far too late.

Given the very considerable lead time they had, the Democrats in Congress could have been educating their colleagues -- and all Americans -- about why habeas corpus is the foundation of our political system. They could have explained why, in the absence of habeas corpus, none of us is free -- and why our liberty would become only an illusion to be destroyed at any moment. The Democrats could have explained the momentous nature of this battle, and why the administration could not be allowed to succeed. They could have made certain that enough Democrats understood the issues and were committed to the fight -- and they could have at least ensured that the bill would not be passed in the manner it was: on a thoughtless, depicably hasty schedule, designed only for electoral purposes. By means of a filibuster or utilizing some other mechanism provided by their endless rules, the Democrats could have prevented passage of this bill prior to Congress's adjournment.

With proper preparation, and with the requisite understanding that freedom itself was imperiled, the Democrats could have achieved these aims. All of us would be forever in their debt. Surely liberty itself is worth such a battle, isn't it? But the Democrats did none of these things, so the bill passed. Thus, they share in the guilt and responsibility. The guilt and responsibility that accrues to the Democrats is not as great as that of the Republicans, but it is surely great enough. And when your freedom, and that of your family and friends, and that of every single one of us, is destroyed in this manner, how do you even go about measuring degrees of guilt? How do you say this failure is worse than that one? The bill passed. They all failed, Republicans and Democrats alike. In principle, torture was enshrined and liberty was destroyed.

But now we are told that, if and when Democrats take back Congress, they will erase this abominable blot from our nation's record. On what basis are people so certain of that? You hope they would do so, as do I, but you do not know that. On this point, I would be prepared to feel some confidence that Democratic majorities would do the right thing -- if only they were speaking out in opposition to the coming attack on Iran now. In the same way that the Democrats could have educated Americans about the profound dangers in this latest bill well before the battle was finally joined, they should have been educating Americans about the grave immorality and destructive insanity of an attack on Iran for months now, as I suggested at the conclusion of my essay, "Morality, Humanity and Civilization" (which is, I confess, one of my personal favorites; because of the issues it discusses, I implore you to read it). But they have not been speaking out in this manner at all. They merely echo the administration line that a nuclear Iran is "unthinkable" and cannot be "allowed," because we say so. In this manner, they only increase the likelihood of such an attack, rather than decrease it. After the catastrophe of Iraq, after the catastrophe of the Military Commissions Act, the Democrats still do not know how to fight these battles. It is not even clear they wish to. So on what basis are you so confident they will undo the monstrousness of this bill?

Such confidence that the Democrats will do the right thing also rests on what I consider to be a deeply dangerous naivete about the political dynamics in play. In the runup to the 2008 election, we will still be in Iraq. The "war on terror" will be a continuing enterprise. Given the Democrats' overpowering fear of being portrayed as "soft" on terrorism, would they dare undo this legislation in such a climate? I strongly doubt it; I am 99% certain they would not. And if the undoubtedly disastrous after-effects of an attack on Iran are playing out (see this post and the other entries linked there, including this one, for much more on this), the ongoing national hysteria would probably lead to further and still worse legislation and police state tactics, to which the Democrats will probably also accede.

I do not think it is confidence that the Democrats will do the right thing in the future, so much as it is a desperate hope. To be sure and as I said, I share that hope. The Republicans are loathsome and beyond redemption. The Democrats represent the only possible opposition -- but thus far, they have not provided any that matters. If they did, they could save us all.

Some argue that the Supreme Court will find the act, or at least certain key provisions, unconstitutional. That, too, is a hope, but I myself am far from certain that the Court will rule in such a manner. In any event, we do not know what the ultimate outcome will be as far as the judicial system is concerned.

So we are confronted with one stark certainty, opposed by fragile and uncertain future hopes. We know the Military Commissions Act destroys liberty at its very foundation. We do not know if this fatal injury will ever be ameliorated. The Act should have been stalled at the very least. It was not.

Destroying the very basis of liberty is not an event that occurs every day. Mark the date. Historians may well have cause to note it.

People often exhibit a visceral rejection of comparisons of our dire predicament to the rise of Nazi Germany. I will let Jacob Hornberger speak to that point, here:
Have you noticed how many Americans get upset over the comparisons that are increasingly being made between the United States and National Socialist Germany? After all, it’s not as though we’re living in a police state, right?

Well, if U.S. officials could somehow assure us that the U.S. government’s treatment of accused terrorists isn’t moving in the same direction in which Nazi Germany treated accused traitors, maybe that would help to put those comparisons to rest.
And here:
Now, I know that conservatives get upset when libertarians bring up Adolf Hitler in the context of the post-9/11 U.S. government assaults on civil liberties (Have you ever noticed that they never get upset when U.S. officials compare recalcitrant foreign rulers to Hitler?), but as I pointed out in my article "A Democratic Dictatorship," when the U.S. government is doing something that Hitler did, while that doesn’t automatically make it bad, it at least should raise some red flags.

As I pointed out in my article "How Hitler Became a Dictator," after the terrorist strike on the Reichstag, which enabled Hitler to secure the Enabling Act that temporarily suspended civil liberties in Germany, a German judge, while convicting one of the defendants, acquitted others, much to Hitler’s chagrin and disapproval. After all, they were obviously "terrorists." How dare that German judge find them not guilty?

So, Hitler decided to implement a new "independent" judicial system within Germany to try terrorists and traitors. Known as the "People’s Court," it became nothing more than a judicial lapdog to carry out prosecutions, convictions, and punishments in accordance with Hitler’s will. In fact, it was the infamous People’s Court that convicted German college students Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends in the White Rose organization and quickly tried and executed them (3 days after their arrest) for treason for distributing antiwar and anti-government pamphlets.

The military tribunals that Bush and the Congress are setting up will supposedly be used only on foreigners, not on Americans accused of terrorism. The reason for that differentiation in treatment is political — the feds know that Americans are less likely to object to this new judicial system if Americans think that will be applied only to "other people," not to them.

How can such a system be reconciled with the legal principle of equal application of the law and the political principle of the rule of law? Answer: It cannot be.
Finally, I offer several excerpts from Milton Mayer's illuminating and frightening book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45. I will not belabor the parallels,and I leave you free to draw what conclusions you will.

In Chapter 14, "Collective Shame," Mayer refers to the "excesses" of the "radical" Nazis, and discusses how some people attempted to oppose them:
""Yes," said my colleague, shaking his head, "the 'excesses' and the 'radicals.' We all opposed them, very quietly. So your two 'little men' thought they must join, as good men, good Germans, even as good Christians, and when enough of them did they would be able to change the party. They would 'bore from within.' 'Big men' told themselves that, too, in the usual sincerity that required them only to abandon one little principle after another, to throw away, little by little, all that was good. I was one of those men.

"You know," he went on, "when men who understand what is happening--the motion, that is, of history, not the reports of single events or developments--when such men do not object or protest, men who do not understand cannot be expected to. How many men would you say understand--in this sense--in America? And when, as the motion of history accelerates and those who don't understand are crazed by fear, as our people were, and made into a great 'patriotic' mob, will they understand then, when they did not before?

"We learned here--I say this freely--to give up trying to make them understand after, oh, the end of 1938, after the night of the synagogue burning and the things that followed it. Even before the war began, men who were teachers, men whose faith in teaching was their whole faith, gave up, seeing that there was no comprehension, no capacity left for comprehension, and the thing must go its course, taking first its victims, then its architects, and then the rest of us to destruction. ..."
A few pages later, Mayer tells the story of a chemical engineer, who brought Mayer "even closer to the heart of the matter...":
One day, when we had become very friendly, I said to him, "Tell me now--how was the world lost?"

"That," he said, "is easy to tell, much easier than you may suppose. The world was lost one day in 1935, here in Germany. It was I who lost it, and I will tell you how.

"I was employed in a defense plant (a war plant, of course, but they were always called defense plants). That was the year of the National Defense Law, the law of 'total conscription.' Under the law I was required to take the oath of fidelity. I said I would not; I opposed it in conscience. I was given twenty-four hours to 'think it over.' In those twenty-four hours I lost the world."
The engineer recounts how his refusal to take the oath would have meant the loss of his job, and that he would have had difficulty getting another, at least in his chosen field. But he tried "not to think" of himself or his family -- but of "the people to whom I might be of some help later on, if things got worse..."

He finally took the oath: "That day the world was lost, and it was I who lost it." But in fact, the engineer did save lives:
"For the sake of argument," he said, "I will agree that I saved many lives later on. Yes."

"Which you could not have done if you had refused to take the oath in 1935."


"And you still think that you should not have taken the oath."


"I don't understand," I said.

"Perhaps not," he said, "but you must not forget that you are an American. I mean that, really. Americans have never known anything like this this experience--in its entirety, all the way to the end. That is the point."

"You must explain," I said.

"Of course I must explain. First of all, there is the problem of the lesser evil. Taking the oath was not so evil as being unable to help my friends later on would have been. But the evil of the oath was certain and immediate, and the helping of my friends was in the future and therefore uncertain. I had to commit a positive evil, there and then, in the hope of a possible good later on. The good outweighed the evil; but the good was only a hope, the evil was a fact."
As their conversation continues, and to make the case for the engineer's decision to take the oath as strong as possible, they agree that "only" three million innocent people were slaughtered by the Nazis, while the engineer saved as many as a thousand lives. The engineer asks:
"And it would have been better to have saved all three million, instead of only a hundred, or a thousand?"

"Of course."

"There, then, is my point. If I had refused to take the oath of fidelity, I would have saved all three millions."

"You are joking," I said.


"You don't mean to tell me that your refusal would have overthrown the regime in 1935?"


"Or that others would have followed your example?"


"I don't understand."

"You are an American," he said again, smiling. "I will explain. There I was, in 1935, a perfect example of the kind of person who, with all his advantages in birth, in education, and in position, rules (or might easily rule) in any country. If I had refused to take the oath in 1935, it would have meant that thousands and thousands like me, all over Germany, were refusing to take it. Their refusal would have heartened millions. Thus the regime would have been overthrown, or, indeed, would never have come to power in the first place. The fact that I was not prepared to resist, in 1935, meant that all the thousands, hundreds of thousands, like me in Germany were also unprepared, and each one of these hundreds of thousands was, like me, a man of great influence or of great potential influence. Thus the world was lost."

"You are serious?" I said.

"Completely," he said. "These hundred lives I saved--or a thousand or ten as you will--what do they represent? A little something out of the whole terrible evil, when, if my faith had been strong enough in 1935, I could have prevented the whole evil."
So, take the time to be sure to understand the momentous nature of the battle. Speak out about it, wherever and as often as you can. Make clear to everyone you know what is at stake, and convince them to fight, too.

For the present, we have the certainty of the Military Commissions Act -- and the hope that we may still prevent its most ghastly eventualities. I pray that hope will be realized. The most terrible and terrifying thing of all, for those of you who will still be alive in forty or fifty years, will be to look back on this time, and to have to say, "Thus the world was lost" -- and to know that, because you did not do everything you could, you helped to lose it.

Impenetrable Fog on the Road to Hell: "Who Knows?"

In my lengthy post yesterday about the unending horrors contained in the Military Commissions Act, I repeatedly emphasized one major point: the public record conclusively establishes that, ever since a few months after 9/11, the Bush administration's most fervent wish and ultimate goal has been and remains to exercise dictatorial power over everyone, including all American citizens. One of the primary mechanisms for achieving such power is the designation of targeted individuals as "unlawful enemy combatants." Under the administration's procedures, no reason ever need be provided as to why a person has been identified as an "unlawful enemy combatant." Any individual so identified can be held indefinitely -- in principle, for the rest of his lifetime -- in the absence of any charges whatsoever, without recourse to a lawyer, and without any means to challenge his imprisonment. The Padilla case made indisputably clear that the administration sought to apply such absolute power to American citizens. See the earlier essay for many more details.

Most of us hopefully remember the manner in which the first version of the Patriot Act was passed in record time -- and how we soon learned that most members of Congress hadn't read many of its provisions, or even knew what those provisions contained. In the following months, stories appeared with some regularity about how a government agency was using a hitherto unknown law enforcement mechanism that was buried somewhere in the bowels of the Patriot Act -- and almost no one had even been aware of the mechanism's existence.

It's a hell of a way to run a government -- particularly when fundamental rights and liberties are at stake. The critical issue is that this manner of proceeding is typical of government, especially as it becomes more and more bloated and complex, and when legislation often runs to hundreds of pages. How could anyone possibly untangle or keep track of it all? No one can -- and that is precisely the point. Government of this kind far too often becomes a license for power-hungry government officials and sundry bureaucrats to run amok and wreak havoc on the lives of entirely innocent people. At worst, it becomes the road to tyranny.

In yesterday's essay, I underscored that "the writ of habeas corpus is the fundamental right for the political system originally envisioned by the founders of the United States." With regard to the Military Commissions Act, you would think it might be of some importance to our legislators to make unequivocally clear whether the destruction of habeas corpus applies to U.S. citizens or not.

You would, of course, be wrong. In most other circumstances, I would be the last person to recommend that you consult The Corner on any substantive issue at all. I will make an exception here. If you go to The Corner and scroll down about a third of the way, you will come across a series of posts trying to determine whether this legislation does in fact apply to U.S. citizens (most of those posts have "Clarity Please" in the title). The conclusion, as the noted sage, Mr. Rumsfeld, might put it, is simply: "Who knows?"

One post reprints an email, which contains this passage:
Look, I know that this stuff is hard to keep track of, and that you will be inclined to blow off my email. Please don't. This stuff matters. If nothing else, this debate should prove the absolute insanity of passing a bill that fundamentally alters essential and American rights when the public, and even highly educated people such as yourself, can't even figure out what's in it. All in order to provide "clarity"!

Via Marty Lederman, here is the final version of this abomination. As detailed in my earlier essay, I remain convinced that the critical provisions of this bill do apply to American citizens, as Jack Balkin explains.

That is what the Bush administration has wanted from the beginning. Now they've got it.

And unless this legislation is fundamentally altered, we are all headed straight into hell.

September 29, 2006

Suffering and Death in a World of Empty Gesture, Form and Symbol (I): Among the Living Dead

[This discussion continues:

"Thus the World Was Lost" -- with some thoughts about how to wage this battle, where responsibility for the current catastrophe lies, and excerpts from They Thought They Were Free

Duly Elected U.S. Congress Passes "Law for Removing the Distress of the People and the Homeland" -- a review of how we came to be here, and just how incomprehensibly terrifying it is]

During my two-month hiatus from blogging, the result of various infirmities of the body and a few of the soul, I have continued to watch the ongoing and increasing wreckage of the world, and of the United States. It is a genuinely terrifying spectacle, especially when one recognizes that the worst is yet to come. As I have reflected on the horrors of our world and their causes, and as I have considered the near-impossibility of getting through to most people and convincing them to give a damn and to offer meaningful opposition to our rapid descent into the bowels of history and of hell, I have repeatedly come back to one overall theme.

We live in a world founded on lies. Our entire national debate is made up of a series of intricate, interwoven myths, lies and tales fabricated by propagandists. Such propagandists are to be found in all parts of the political spectrum. Today's conservatives and other assorted defenders of the current administration, and of its foreign policy in particular (the most loathsome of which are the self-identified, phony "libertarians," who have debased that term beyond the point of recognition -- it now appears that anyone to the left of Hitler may be regarded as a "libertarian," if his paeans to untrammeled militarism and genocide contain the occasional reference to "American values" and "individual rights"), constantly appeal to "American exceptionalism" and our nation's "founding principles," even as they systematically destroy all the values that once, very briefly, made the United States unique.

The liberals and progressives believe in American and Western "exceptionalism" just as passionately, and they are inexorably led to the same policies, informed by identical underlying fundamentals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of foreign policy. Liberals may denounce the "incompetence" of the administration's catastrophe in Iraq, but they remain incapable of recognizing or identifying the war on Iraq and the current occupation as profoundly immoral. They are unable to say what much of the rest of the world knows to be true: that the attack on Iraq represented an utterly unjustified act of aggression against a country that did not threaten us. It was, if you will, a war crime. It was hardly the first time that the United States government has committed such crimes.

Liberals recognize the condescension and paternalism inherent in Bush's Wilsonian notion of making the world "safe for democracy." They cannot or are unwilling to see that they exhibit the same paternalism and narcissism themselves (see here, too). No serious historian or commentator disputes the Wilsonian roots of Bush's foreign policy; I suppose I should be rude and remind you that Wilson was, of course, a Democrat. This identity in basic foreign policy prescriptions leads all national politicians to the same threatening pronouncements about Iran: it is "unacceptable" for Iran to pursue a nuclear program, unless it does so in accordance with our demands. We will "not allow" Iran to have nuclear weapons. Bush and his henchmen all say this; so do Hillary Clinton, Mark Warner, John Kerry and every other Democrat.

Be clear about this dynamic. There is no argument grounded in history, morality or political theory that justifies one country forcing the rest of the world to conduct itself according to that country's dictates, regardless of actual threats -- that is, there is no argument that makes it right. We indulge ourselves in such absolute demands because we can -- because we can enforce our demands militarily. For the moment, no other nation can oppose us. We can obliterate all of them, and they know it. The United States has only the power that accrues to the biggest bully on the block. The rest of the world knows it; we refuse to acknowledge this obvious truth.

Among other sources, two stand out with regard to the extent to which they distort and deform our national discussion, such as it is. One arises from the founding principles of the United States, and one arises from the current administration. As already noted briefly, everyone and politicians of all stripes appeal to "American values" when they are defending their particular beliefs or programs. Similarly, when people wish to condemn some practice in the strongest possible terms, they call it "unAmerican." An essential part of this elaborate charade is that none of these terms is ever defined. Since everyone employs them, we can be absolutely certain of one thing: such terms can mean anything, which means they signify nothing. They are completely empty gestures, designed to evoke an emotional response. They relieve the speaker and the listener of the unwelcome and difficult task of responsible thought. We have just witnessed this mechanism promiscuously employed in connection with the abominable military tribunals bill passed by the Senate yesterday: liberals and others opposed to the bill repeatedly said that torture is "unAmerican." Once again, reality will make an unwelcome appearance here: for at least the last 50 years, unimaginable brutality and torture have been as "American" as Mom and apple pie. The full truth is much worse than this statement alone implies, as I will be discussing in an upcoming installment of this series. It is the refusal to acknowledge this truth and all its implications that, in significant part, led to legislation that permits the president -- any president -- to torture at his discretion, and that immunizes all those responsible for their acts of revolting barbarism.

Our debates are also dangerously distorted by a ludicrous notion, one which even a minimal understanding of history and of cultural dynamics would cause to implode immediately (although it serves very nicely for narrower partisan purposes): the idea that the Bush administration represents a fundamental rupture in our history, that Bush and his gang have corrupted our "national character" in a unique and unprecedented way. Let me be very clear on this point: in certain significant respects, I unquestionably do regard the current regime as dangerous in ways that are unprecedented. I have detailed the reasons for this assessment in many essays over the last several years. But it is crucial to recognize that, in the deepest sense, the Bush administration is only cashing in on the corruption that had gone before, and that made this regime possible in the first instance. In the absence of foreign conquest, an authoritarian regime only comes to power because a society makes it possible and acquiesces to the assertion of such power. Remember that tens of millions of Americans voted for Bush in the last election, even after the vicious nature of his mode of governance was unmistakably clear. And it is not as if millions of Americans are protesting in any significant way our destruction of Iraq, or making known their opposition to the coming attack on Iran. Moreover, with less than a handful of exceptions, the entire governing class, together with its enthusiastic enablers in our media, share the beliefs that make a still wider and ungraspably destructive war inevitable.

I will be considering all these themes in detail in this series of essays. In addition, I will be examining still one more time one of the central mythologies that continues to dominate most Americans' world view: the mythology and glorification of war itself. I recently watched Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, and I will watch it again this weekend in connection with this series. (For various reasons, I had not seen the film in its entirety before.) It is one of the most profoundly vicious films I have ever seen. The entire film is nothing but an endless series of vacuous gestures and symbols, the sum of which carries one unmistakable message: endless suffering, destruction and grisly death are noble and glorious, even when endured for an end which is arbitrary and meaningless. It enshrines obedience as the primary virtue, even and especially when it is obedience for no justifiable reason whatsoever. And to give one's life in obedience to a senseless purpose represents the highest morality; it is nothing less than glorious. The film glamorizes and glorifies violence and death: it is, quite simply, war pornography.

That the film received great accolades and honors, and that liberals and conservatives alike heap unstinting praise on it, tells you a great deal about the state of our culture, and of our nation's soul -- and all of it is horrifying. Because Saving Private Ryan combines a number of extremely pernicious and dangerous myths, I will examine the film at some length. In the meantime, and as a powerful antidote to the war propaganda represented by that film, I strongly recommend The Americanization of Emily. I have discussed that film, and Paddy Chayefsky's miracle of a screenplay, at some length. It is illuminating to watch the two films, one after the other; I found the exercise very instructive, and you may as well. Spielberg swallows every lie about the alleged nobility and glory of war ever told, and embeds them still more deeply in our cultural life; Chayefsky exposes them for the life-destroying lies that they are.

Let us return to current events, and to the latest manifestation of our descent into hell. As indicated above, I will deal with one aspect of the Military Commissions Act separately: its sanctification of torture. My previous series of essays on torture is summarized in this post. Here, I want to focus on the other monumentally appalling aspect of this bill: its abolition of the right of habeas corpus. It is one thing to spit on our own Constitution and the most fundamental animating principle of our country's founding; it is another to defecate on the cornerstone of modern civilization and on a political, cultural and jurisprudential tradition that dates back to 1215. Both are unutterably disgusting.

The scope and full meaning of this monstrous act require emphasis. You should read a recent Jacob Hornberger article in its entirety: "Decimating the Constitution with Military Tribunals." Here are just a few excerpts:
Given all the glorification being bestowed on three U.S. senators for displaying "principle" in standing against President Bush’s plan to amend the Geneva Convention to permit torture of detainees, followed by their quick compromise abandoning any semblance of principle, it is easy to lose sight of something much bigger: The military tribunals that the president and the Congress are set to approve will constitute the most radical, dangerous, and disgraceful transformation in the U.S. criminal-justice system since our nation’s inception.


The military tribunals that Congress is now set to enact at the behest of President Bush effectively toss those legal principles into the ashcan of the "war on terrorism." No habeas corpus, grand-jury indictments, due process of law, speedy and public trials, trial by jury, and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, incompetent evidence, coerced testimony, and cruel and unusual punishments. The military tribunals will constitute one of the most fundamental altering of our constitutional order since the founding of our nation. And it’s being done without even the semblance of a constitutional amendment.


The truth is that the "war on terrorism" rhetoric has been a sham from the beginning -- a sham to enable federal officials to do what they've been trying to do for decades, especially in another sham war -- the "war on drugs" -- emasculate the Bill of Rights to enable federal officials to run roughshod over people -- and not just foreigners. The military-tribunal legislation is just the culmination of decades of federal officials' mocking and ridiculing the "constitutional technicalities" whose only real purpose, U.S. officials have long claimed, is to let "guilty" people go free.

That's in fact why President Bush and the Pentagon set up their torture camp in Cuba rather than in the United States -- to avoid the constraints of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which they obviously hold in disdain. After all, what other explanation could there be for their incessant attempts to circumvent America's federal-court system?


[N]o one should forget the Padilla doctrine. Even though Jose Padilla, an American citizen, is in federal court now, the president and the Pentagon have made it perfectly clear that they now have the power to arrest any American for terrorism and send him to the military for punishment, bypassing the federal-court system. In fact, there's little doubt that if Padilla is acquitted in federal court, the feds intend to yank him back into military custody as an "enemy combatant" in the "war on terrorism," despite the bar on double jeopardy in the Bill of Rights.

Why are the feds fighting so hard for those military tribunals? Because the tribunals will enable them to directly control both the proceeding and the outcome of the proceedings. They can ensure that the defendants won't describe too extensively the torture and sex abuse to which they have been subjected while in captivity. They can restrict access by the press to both the defendants and the proceedings. They can ensure that the defendants will be more easily convicted, given that their right to counsel will be limited and that hearsay evidence and coerced testimony, some of which will be kept secret from the accused, will be able to be used to convict them. They can keep a short leash on the military officials presiding over the proceedings, something they cannot do with an independent federal judge. They can ensure that a jury of ordinary people will not interfere with what the prosecutors are seeking, as the jury in the Zacharias Moussaoui case did in sentencing him to life in prison instead of granting prosecutors' request to inflict the death penalty on him -- or as the jury did when it acquitted several terrorism defendants in Detroit.

The military tribunals will ensure that those in the executive branch, not those in the judicial branch, will be the final deciders of who is guilty of terrorism and who isn't and how these "terrorists" will be punished. This despite the fact that the federal "war on terrorism" dragnet has netted innocent people in the process -- innocent people who have been tortured, sexually abused, and even murdered by U.S. personnel or their duly authorized foreign agents.
To underscore the momentous nature of the particular juncture at which we find ourselves, I emphasize the primary point by putting it in bold, capital letters:


This point is developed by Bruce Ackerman:
BURIED IN THE complex Senate compromise on detainee treatment is a real shocker, reaching far beyond the legal struggles about foreign terrorist suspects in the Guantanamo Bay fortress. The compromise legislation, which is racing toward the White House, authorizes the president to seize American citizens as enemy combatants, even if they have never left the United States. And once thrown into military prison, they cannot expect a trial by their peers or any other of the normal protections of the Bill of Rights.

This dangerous compromise not only authorizes the president to seize and hold terrorists who have fought against our troops "during an armed conflict," it also allows him to seize anybody who has "purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States." This grants the president enormous power over citizens and legal residents. They can be designated as enemy combatants if they have contributed money to a Middle Eastern charity, and they can be held indefinitely in a military prison.


[T]he bill also reinforces the presidential claims, made in the Padilla case, that the commander in chief has the right to designate a U.S. citizen on American soil as an enemy combatant and subject him to military justice. Congress is poised to authorized this presidential overreaching. Under existing constitutional doctrine, this show of explicit congressional support would be a key factor that the Supreme Court would consider in assessing the limits of presidential authority.

This is no time to play politics with our fundamental freedoms. Even without this massive congressional expansion of the class of enemy combatants, it is by no means clear that the present Supreme Court will protect the Bill of Rights. The Korematsu case --upholding the military detention of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II -- has never been explicitly overruled. It will be tough for the high court to condemn this notorious decision, especially if passions are inflamed by another terrorist incident. But congressional support of presidential power will make it much easier to extend the Korematsu decision to future mass seizures.
Consider Ackerman's point about "future mass seizures" an indication of some of the nightmares that lie in our future. I no longer have any doubt at all that, after another attack in the U.S. on the scale of 9/11 (or worse), we will see round-ups of Muslim- and Arab-Americans, along with anyone else who appears suspiciously "swarthy" (and anyone else at all who has incurred the displeasure of some government bureaucrat). Such round-ups may likely be quickly followed by seizures of "dissident" Americans, those we have repeatedly been told are, in fact, "on the other side." On the applicability of this bill to U.S. citizens, also see Jack Balkin (and here on more general considerations).

In this installment, I must still focus on one additional issue. I realize this is a lengthy essay, but this abysmally historic moment requires careful attention. The final issue is a damnable and unforgivable one: THERE WAS NO SERIOUS OR MEANINGFUL OPPOSITION WHATSOEVER TO THE MILITARY COMMISSIONS ACT. The comprehensive, unceasing attack on the actual founding principles of the United States began over a century ago, as I will discuss in more detail soon. Very few people are willing to recognize how deep the corruption goes, and how deeply embedded in our system of government it is. We are now in the advanced stages of corporate statism -- that is, a system where business and government (i.e., the nominally private and public spheres) are intertwined to such an extent that it is close to impossible to separate them any longer. In countless ways, all of us are "living by permission": we must seek government approval to pursue a profession, we must comply with government regulations when we conduct business, and even when we simply want to engage in recreation. (For some background on these points, see my essay, "The Waiting Game.") Government intrudes into every area of our lives -- including, if certain people had their way, sexual acts between consenting adults, the books we are permitted to read, and the films we are allowed to watch (and such prohibitions are far from unknown in our history).

In this kind of system -- in our kind of system -- almost everyone is on the take, and in on the graft. [To clarify: as discussed in what follows, I mean this in a sense much broader than the mere monetary "rewards" of office that may first spring to mind.] It is sometimes said, and I say it myself, that anyone who seeks political office, particularly on the state or national level, is disqualified by that very fact. The observation, which is almost always true, speaks to the widespread and endemic nature of the corruption involved. I think there are a few politicians who are free of corruption -- but they are very, very few. They are so rare that they are unable to make a difference. All the others are in thrall to the existing system: it is that system that provides their enormously comfortable livings, with all the perks of political office and power (all of which adds up to a lifestyle completely unknown to the majority of Americans over whom they rule). It is that system that daily feeds them the aphrodisiac of power over the lives of others. They tell themselves that they are making our lives "better." On extremely rare occasions (and usually only when they refrain from action), they do. Most of the time, they cause untold suffering and hardship -- and, as their stance with regard to our current foreign policy demonstrates, they actively support or passively acquiesce in action that results in the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of entirely innocent people.

Anyone who craves such power is irredeemably corrupt. Our history over the last hundred years demonstrates that the Democrats and Republicans are equally corrupt. They all feed off the system -- and they all feed off us. None of them wants to dismantle the system that supports and makes possible the lives to which they have become accustomed. For them, the system is life itself. In this kind of system -- in our kind of system -- there is no longer any battle over fundamental principles. The only struggles are over who controls the levers of state power. The only struggles are over who will rule. As a result, they will fight each other over derivative issues, but only to the extent they believe this will aid in their own ascension to power. The system itself is sacrosanct.

In terms of its original vision, our country has been dying for many decades. But to destroy habeas corpus is to rip the heart out of a body that is still clinging to life. If this legislation remains unaltered, we as a nation are a corpse still capable of automatic, meaningless motion and speech -- but the body will collapse soon enough. It is a body deprived of the vitality of life, and there is no longer anything to sustain it. Insofar as the principles that make civilization possible are concerned, we are among the living dead. Now, we all breathe the stench of death itself. The stark, undeniable fact about this latest legislative atrocity is that the Democrats could have stopped it. If they had given a damn, they could have filibustered or stalled it by some other means. Surely all those rules of procedure must be good for something. Unforgivably and damnably, they chose not to. [See "Thus the World Was Lost" for a more detailed discussion of this critical point -- and about what the Democrats should do now, especially with regard to Iran.]

The depth and comprehensiveness of this betrayal, of this abomination, cannot be overstated. What is still more unforgivable, to a degree that I myself find difficult to grasp, is that the Democrats have known this particular battle was coming for more than three years. Yet they revealed that they were totally unprepared. They reacted as if it were a complete surprise, as if these developments could not have been predicted by anyone.

By the fall of 2002, it was entirely clear to any perceptive observer that the Bush administration would attack Iraq. Yet almost all the Democrats granted Bush the authorization he wanted for his unholy war. I have previously identified some of the more notable additional betrayals by the Democrats. It is an impressive list -- impressive, that is, in the annals of abject cowardice: the reprehensible Patriot Act, to which the Democrats acceded not once, but twice; the lack of serious opposition to the Roberts and Alito nominations, to say nothing of the nomination of Gonzales to be Attorney General; and, hardly least and contrary to the explicit language of the Constitution, ceding the power to declare war to the executive. Of course, Democrats want to preserve that last prerogative, so that Democratic presidents can use it for the Democrats' own wars of choice, as they have in the past, with disastrous results.

With regard to the destruction of habeas corpus, and to demonstrate that the Bush administration has made its intentions entirely clear for several years, I will revisit two earlier essays of mine. The first, dated May 22, 2005, is entitled: "Understanding the Significance of Guantanamo: The Symbol of Omnipotent Power." Permit me to remind you of the warning offered here:
For necessary background, you might begin with Hornberger's article explaining in detail why the writ of habeas corpus is the fundamental right for the political system originally envisioned by the founders of the United States. As our Supreme Court expressed it in 1969, the writ of habeas corpus is "the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action."

With that central point fixed firmly in our minds, consider this excerpt from Hornberger's article about the Jose Padilla case. ...
And read the warning I offered at the conclusion of that essay:
[T]hese are among the reasons I consider Bush unquestionably to be the worst and most dangerous president of my lifetime -- and perhaps in all of American history. I only pray that irreversible damage does not occur before Bush leaves office. But I have to admit, very unhappily, that I am not prepared to place a bet on that proposition -- not any longer. The indisputable desire of this administration for absolute power over every single one of us cannot be denied. Bush and his defenders may refuse to acknowledge them, and our media may fail to discuss them, but those are the facts -- if one is willing to face them, and to admit what they mean.

Whether Bush and his enablers will admit it or not, in fact the policies they seek to implement would make the United States itself into one gigantic Guantanamo: where any one of us can be detained indefinitely merely upon the word or desire of one person, with no charges ever filed against us, and where we can be abused or tortured, and perhaps even murdered, at will. And no one and nothing would be able to stop or even question them. That's the future they want so desperately -- and I suggest that you always keep it in mind and never, ever forget it.
Not many people paid much attention to that essay, or put much credence in my argument. Perhaps more will do so now.

The second essay is one that has not been online for over a year, due to technical problems with my archives, moving the blog, etc. It was first published on January 1, 2004. (If you are of a suspicious turn of mind and think I may have created this post only now to demonstrate my prescience or for some other nefarious reason, here are two links to the essay when it appeared: one at TalkLeft, and one at The Sideshow. My very grateful thanks to Jeralyn and Avedon for noting it, and for considering these observations to be of some moment.)

I reprint the essay from almost three years ago in its entirety, to demonstrate how entirely predictable this battle was -- and how utterly unprepared for it the Democrats were, despite the fact that they were on repeated notice. Keep in mind that subsequent developments proved that almost all of Berenson's key "facts" about Padilla turned out to be entirely untrue:



January 1, 2004

We have now been informed as to Bush's "reasoning" with regard to cases such as the Padilla one -- by none other than Bradford A. Berenson, "a Washington lawyer, who was associate White House counsel to President Bush."

Mr. Berenson illuminates these issues as follows:
"How can the President of the United States detain a U.S. citizen on American soil and hold him without charge and without a lawyer, perhaps for years?" This is the question that apparently boggled the judicial mind in the Second Circuit's recent decision directing that Jose Padilla be turned loose by the U.S. military or surrendered to civilian prosecutors in the criminal justice system. Given the near certainty of further review by the full Second Circuit or the Supreme Court, the question remains important.

It also has an easy answer. The key fact is not that Jose Padilla is a U.S. citizen. It is that Padilla, a k a Abdullah al-Muhajir, was an al Qaeda agent who worked directly with terrorist mastermind Abu Zubaydah to plan a dirty-bomb attack on a major American city. He was captured in Chicago-O'Hare airport on his way back from Pakistan to scout potential targets. He was, in short, an active enemy fighter making war on the U.S. and its citizens, just as the 19 hijackers who attacked New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania were.
If all this is so starkly clear to Mr. Berenson, then one wonders (among other things) why it is apparently so difficult actually to charge Padilla with a crime. It sounds as if he ought to be charged with a number of crimes, assuming Berenson knows whereof he speaks.

But the key to this "logic" can be found in two passages. First:
The president's power as commander in chief to do what is necessary to protect the nation in time of war is, as it must be, exceptionally flexible and robust. He can engage and subdue the enemy in any way he sees fit. There is no judicial check on his authority in this vital and sensitive area because there cannot be: As the Framers expressly recognized in the Federalist Papers, the "decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch" that are the hallmarks of unitary executive power are "essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks."

Under the laws of war, the legitimate use of force has always included the power to capture and detain enemy combatants for the duration of the conflict, without charges and without lawyers, for the purpose of incapacitating them, gleaning actionable intelligence, and protecting the nation's security. This power is no less essential when applied to terrorists captured on our shores, even if they happen to be U.S. citizens. As the Supreme Court recognized more than 50 years ago in unanimously upholding President Roosevelt's capture on U.S. soil of a U.S. citizen Nazi saboteur, "citizens who associate themselves with the military arm of the enemy . . . and enter this country bent on hostile acts are enemy belligerents" and may be treated as such.


In practical terms, this means that citizen terrorists may be entirely beyond the government's reach. Never mind the kinds of serious problems that have thus far impeded the successful criminal prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, in many cases, no traditional criminal case could be brought at all against an al Qaeda agent found in the U.S. At the point of apprehension, we may not know what a terrorist is planning, his plans may not yet have ripened into prosecutable crimes, or the evidence we have against him may be derived from intelligence sources that cannot meet the normal standards of admissibility in a criminal courtroom.
Allow me to translate this: "[a]t the point of apprehension," we may not know that the person is a terrorist at all -- or that he is guilty of any crime whatsoever. In fact, he may be perfectly innocent.

And consider this:
Granting immunity from military detention to American agents of al Qaeda captured in the U.S. is thus a potentially crippling disservice to the war effort. If left undisturbed, the Second Circuit ruling would leave exceptionally dangerous individuals in our communities and reduce our ability to prevent further attacks on U.S. soil. It also creates shockingly perverse incentives for al Qaeda to do precisely what we are most desperate to prevent: recruit U.S. citizens to carry out acts of terrorism here.
Keep in mind that the government keeps repeating that the "war on terror" will go on for an indefinite period of time -- and that it may well go on for as long as we live. But if Mr. Berenson, and I assume the administration, had their way, any United States citizen could be apprehended, taken into custody, and held for the rest of his life -- with no charges being filed, no recourse to an attorney, and with no hope of ever being set free, until and unless the President happens to change his mind.

Remember this, too: if this idea were to be established and accepted, it would provide the framework -- in principle -- for an absolute dictatorship. No, that dictatorship would not arrive overnight, but history demonstrates that dictatorships can arrive slowly, by degrees and by increasingly authoritarian steps. It need not happen all at once. But under this "reasoning" and in principle, every United States citizen could be imprisoned for a lifetime. End of story.

The only requirement is that the President declare you an "enemy combatant." He doesn't have to prove it; in fact, he doesn't have to divulge any of the grounds for his judgment. It's just his word -- and your life.

And we're protecting "freedom" here, and spreading "democracy" across the globe? Welcome to The Twilight Zone. Or 1984. You have a very wide range of choices as to literary references. One wonders what those in the administration and certain of their supporters read -- or think about.


Even before this entry from January 1, 2004, I had written a couple of posts about the Padilla case, which I may republish as I have time. During that period, not many people were writing about the case, or about the issues it raised. Hardly any Americans even knew Padilla's name. Many more do today -- now that it is probably too late. I recall receiving a few emails in response to that essay and similar ones. In general, my emailers said I was being unduly pessimistic. I was an "alarmist." I wonder what they would say today, or if they remain determined to blind themselves to the principles involved.

On the subject of the non-opposition from the Democrats, even on an issue that is for once of genuinely transcendent importance, I have a few final comments. In addition to these observations from Jim Henley, with which I agree wholeheartedly, I reprise these thoughts from an essay about why Alito had to be filibustered, if the Washington Democrats had understood what was at stake:
I am not naive or unrealistic: the Democrats may well lose in the end. But when the stakes are this high -- and here, the stakes encompass everything that matters with regard to the future of our country -- you must fight, even if you lose. If the battle is waged with an understanding of the profound importance of the issues involved, at the very least the public will be more aware of the nature of the struggle by the time it is over. As a result, more people will be prepared to fight the next battle more effectively. Up until now, the Democrats have employed the opposite strategy: each surrender makes them progressively weaker, thus rendering them more incapable of fighting when the next crisis arises.


When you are asked to accede to that which you know to be deeply immoral and wrong, and to be ultimately destructive of what once made the United States the great nation it was -- and if you care about honor, decency, your own life and the lives of your fellow Americans -- then you must say no, even if you are almost certain that you will lose.

A very powerful "No" could provide us with more time, time that is desperately needed to right our nation's course. It might save us -- and at the very least, those who say "No" will save their own souls and consciences. If the Democrats in Washington are unwilling or unable to act in this manner, they will have damned themselves. They will no longer be any concern of mine -- nor, I would submit, should they be a concern for anyone who understands the nature of this battle and who gives a damn.


If enough people said "No," we might still avoid the fate that seems more inevitable every day. The famous and now cliched statement is fully applicable here: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Today, the Democrats do nothing, or as close to nothing as humanly possible. Because the Democrats still provide the illusion of opposition -- but only an illusion, without any substance or meaning behind it -- they allow people to convince themselves that we actually have had a debate that mattered. Of course, we never have such a debate any longer: we didn't have one about the invasion of Iraq, we are not having one now about the occupation of Iraq, and it appears that we may well not have one about the next Supreme Court nominee. But the fact that people can pretend that we have deliberated about these momentous decisions is an especially dangerous lie -- a lie made possible by the Democrats' performance.

If the United States should finally end up in the dustbin of discarded, decayed, corrupt civilizations, future historians should not wonder why. This is why: we turned our backs on what we had once stood for when we were sufficiently scared, when it seemed "expedient" to adopt the methods of those we said were our enemies, and when standing for justice, rights, and the dignity and worth of the single, lonely individual mattered the most -- and when the future of the world possibly hung in the balance.

And almost no one in public life had the courage to say that single word and mean it, even to his last breath if that was what this uniquely important battle demanded:

And so it has come to pass: save for a few exceedingly rare exceptions, the Democrats as a party -- i.e., as an institution firmly embedded in the prevailing state system of growing authoritarianism -- and those who support them are not any concern of mine any longer.

And, I would submit, if you genuinely understand and care about the principles that gave rise to this nation, they should not be any concern of yours.

Left unchanged, the Military Commissions Act is certainly our country's death knell, in time. Yet even with these unfolding horrors, there is still one more shoe to drop -- and it may well drop before November. That is the coming attack on Iran. As with every other issue of literally earth-altering significance, the Democrats are completely unprepared; still worse, by their actions and statements, they are ensuring that such an attack is inevitable, and that there will be virtually no opposition of any consequence. The Democrats have certainly offered none to date. But we will undoubtedly hear many fine speeches from them about how we "should have given diplomacy more of a chance" and strewn with other meaningless gutter language -- after Bush's announcement of the bombing runs that have already begun, allegedly to eliminate an "intolerable" threat to "civilization." As with this latest legislation and every other issue of immense significance, the Democrats will show up only after the fact, when it is far too late to avert catastrophe. And do keep in mind one other terrifying fact: this particular catastrophe may be the last.

I will have more on that and other subjects within the next several days.

September 23, 2006

Our Enemies' Indispensable Ally

No one who retains even the smallest vestige of sanity, and who is still capable of grasping facts and their significance, should have even a scintilla of doubt as to who the indispensable ally of our enemies is: it is, of course, the Bush administration and its foreign policy of viciously aggressive, non-defensive, immoral war and occupation.

Some people, those who are informed and perceptive, noticed this quite some time ago. Here is Peter Bergen, writing in the summer of 2004 (with further Bergen excerpts here):
In more than a dozen interviews, experts both within and outside the U.S. government laid out a stark analysis of how the war has hampered the campaign against Al Qaeda. Not only, they point out, did the war divert resources and attention away from Afghanistan, seriously damaging the prospects of capturing Al Qaeda leaders, but it has also opened a new front for terrorists in Iraq and created a new justification for attacking Westerners around the world. Perhaps most important, it has dramatically speeded up the process by which Al Qaeda the organization has morphed into a broad-based ideological movement -- a shift, in effect, from bin Laden to bin Ladenism. "If Osama believed in Christmas, this is what he'd want under his Christmas tree," one senior intelligence official told me. Another counterterrorism official suggests that Iraq might begin to resemble "Afghanistan 1996," a reference to the year that bin Laden seized on Afghanistan, a chaotic failed state, as his new base of operations.
What we have done in Iraq is what bin Laden could not have hoped for in his wildest dreams: We invaded an oil-rich Muslim nation in the heart of the Middle East, the very type of imperial adventure that bin Laden has long predicted was the United States' long-term goal in the region. We deposed the secular socialist Saddam, whom bin Laden has long despised, ignited Sunni and Shia fundamentalist fervor in Iraq, and have now provoked a "defensive" jihad that has galvanized jihad-minded Muslims around the world. It's hard to imagine a set of policies better designed to sabotage the war on terrorism.
It appears that reality has finally caught up even to those who are most resistant to it -- the U.S. intelligence agencies:
A stark assessment of terrorism trends by American intelligence agencies has found that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The classified National Intelligence Estimate attributes a more direct role to the Iraq war in fueling radicalism than that presented either in recent White House documents or in a report released Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee, according to several officials in Washington involved in preparing the assessment or who have read the final document.

The intelligence estimate, completed in April, is the first formal appraisal of global terrorism by United States intelligence agencies since the Iraq war began, and represents a consensus view of the 16 disparate spy services inside government. Titled "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States," it asserts that Islamic radicalism, rather than being in retreat, has metastasized and spread across the globe.

An opening section of the report, "Indicators of the Spread of the Global Jihadist Movement," cites the Iraq war as a reason for the diffusion of jihad ideology.

The report "says that the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse," said one American intelligence official.


The estimate concludes that the radical Islamic movement has expanded from a core of Qaeda operatives and affiliated groups to include a new class of "self-generating" cells inspired by Al Qaeda’s leadership but without any direct connection to Osama bin Laden or his top lieutenants.


The broad judgments of the new intelligence estimate are consistent with assessments of global terrorist threats by American allies and independent terrorism experts.
It appears more certain than ever that an air assault on Iran will occur before Bush leaves office, and perhaps even before the November elections. The shocking immorality of such an attack, with or without nuclear weapons, will rank with the war crimes represented by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.

After such an attack on Iran, the Bush administration's work will be complete -- and they will have ushered in ungraspably destructive conflict on a global scale for decades to come.

To our nation's eternal shame, there is no serious opposition to the administration's plans, even at this fearfully late date. We have only one party: the War Party. I will have considerably more on this subject soon -- but given the pronouncements of the national Democrats that are already part of the public record, they will have no grounds whatsoever to criticize the coming attack on Iran. The full truth is considerably worse: the views of the national Democrats provide invaluable aid to the Bush administration, and to its horrifying plans. [And on the subject of Iraq and why the Democrats similarly offer no meaningful alternative there, see this essay.]

Peace and the supreme value of an individual human life have no representation in our national debate. With regard to the most crucial questions, there is no debate at all.

And so devastation, destruction and death on an ever-widening scale beckon to us all.

September 18, 2006

Bush's Useful Idiots: "You...were wrong to be right; we were right to be wrong"

Tony Judt writes on "The Strange Death of Liberal America," in the London Review of Books:
Why have American liberals acquiesced in President Bush’'s catastrophic foreign policy? Why have they so little to say about Iraq, about Lebanon, or about reports of a planned attack on Iran? Why has the administration'’s sustained attack on civil liberties and international law aroused so little opposition or anger from those who used to care most about these things? Why, in short, has the liberal intelligentsia of the United States in recent years kept its head safely below the parapet?

It wasn’t always so. On 26 October 1988, the New York Times carried a full-page advertisement for liberalism. Headed 'A Reaffirmation of Principle', it openly rebuked Ronald Reagan for deriding 'the dreaded L-word' and treating 'liberals' and 'liberalism' as terms of opprobrium. Liberal principles, the text affirmed, are 'timeless. Extremists of the right and of the left have long attacked liberalism as their greatest enemy. In our own time liberal democracies have been crushed by such extremists. Against any encouragement of this tendency in our own country, intentional or not, we feel obliged to speak out.'

The advertisement was signed by 63 prominent intellectuals, writers and businessmen: among them Daniel Bell, J.K. Galbraith, Felix Rohatyn, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Irving Howe and Eudora Welty. These and other signatories – the economist Kenneth Arrow, the poet Robert Penn Warren – were the critical intellectual core, the steady moral centre of American public life. But who, now, would sign such a protest? Liberalism in the United States today is the politics that dares not speak its name. ...

The collapse of liberal self-confidence in the contemporary US can be variously explained.


[W]hat distinguishes the worldview of Bush’s liberal supporters from that of his neo-conservative allies is that they don’t look on the 'War on Terror', or the war in Iraq, or the war in Lebanon and eventually Iran, as mere serial exercises in the re-establishment of American martial dominance. They see them as skirmishes in a new global confrontation: a Good Fight, reassuringly comparable to their grandparents’ war against Fascism and their Cold War liberal parents’ stance against international Communism. Once again, they assert, things are clear. The world is ideologically divided; and – as before – we must take our stand on the issue of the age. Long nostalgic for the comforting verities of a simpler time, today’s liberal intellectuals have at last discovered a sense of purpose: they are at war with 'Islamo-fascism'.

Thus Paul Berman, a frequent contributor to Dissent, the New Yorker and other liberal journals, and until now better known as a commentator on American cultural affairs, recycled himself as an expert on Islamic fascism (itself a new term of art), publishing Terror and Liberalism just in time for the Iraq war. Peter Beinart, a former editor of the New Republic, followed in his wake this year with The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, where he sketches at some length the resemblance between the War on Terror and the early Cold War. Neither author had previously shown any familiarity with the Middle East, much less with the Wahhabi and Sufi traditions on which they pronounce with such confidence.

But like Christopher Hitchens and other former left-liberal pundits now expert in 'Islamo-fascism', Beinart and Berman and their kind really are conversant – and comfortable – with a binary division of the world along ideological lines. In some cases they can even look back to their own youthful Trotskyism when seeking a template and thesaurus for world-historical antagonisms. In order for today’s ‘fight’ (note the recycled Leninist lexicon of conflicts, clashes, struggles and wars) to make political sense, it too must have a single universal enemy whose ideas we can study, theorise and combat; and the new confrontation must be reducible, like its 20th-century predecessor, to a familiar juxtaposition that eliminates exotic complexity and confusion: Democracy v. Totalitarianism, Freedom v. Fascism, Them v. Us.

To be sure, Bush’s liberal supporters have been disappointed by his efforts. Every newspaper I have listed and many others besides have carried editorials criticising Bush’s policy on imprisonment, his use of torture and above all the sheer ineptitude of the president’s war. But here, too, the Cold War offers a revealing analogy. Like Stalin’s Western admirers who, in the wake of Khrushchev’s revelations, resented the Soviet dictator not so much for his crimes as for discrediting their Marxism, so intellectual supporters of the Iraq War – among them Michael Ignatieff, Leon Wieseltier, David Remnick and other prominent figures in the North American liberal establishment – have focused their regrets not on the catastrophic invasion itself (which they all supported) but on its incompetent execution. They are irritated with Bush for giving 'preventive war' a bad name.

In a similar vein, those centrist voices that bayed most insistently for blood in the prelude to the Iraq War – the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman demanded that France be voted 'Off the Island' (i.e. out of the Security Council) for its presumption in opposing America’s drive to war – are today the most confident when asserting their monopoly of insight into world affairs. The same Friedman now sneers at 'anti-war activists who haven’t thought a whit about the larger struggle we’re in' (New York Times, 16 August). To be sure, Friedman’s Pulitzer-winning pieties are always road-tested for middlebrow political acceptability. But for just that reason they are a sure guide to the mood of the American intellectual mainstream.

Friedman is seconded by Beinart, who concedes that he 'didn’t realise'(!) how detrimental American actions would be to 'the struggle' but insists even so that anyone who won’t stand up to 'Global Jihad' just isn’t a consistent defender of liberal values. Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate, writing in the Financial Times, accuses Democratic critics of the Iraq War of failing ‘to take the wider, global battle against Islamic fanaticism seriously’. The only people qualified to speak on this matter, it would seem, are those who got it wrong initially. Such insouciance in spite of – indeed because of – your past misjudgments recalls a remark by the French ex-Stalinist Pierre Courtade to Edgar Morin, a dissenting Communist vindicated by events: 'You and your kind were wrong to be right; we were right to be wrong.'

It is particularly ironic that the 'Clinton generation' of American liberal intellectuals take special pride in their 'tough-mindedness', in their success in casting aside the illusions and myths of the old left, for these same ‘tough’ new liberals reproduce some of that old left’s worst characteristics. They may see themselves as having migrated to the opposite shore; but they display precisely the same mixture of dogmatic faith and cultural provincialism, not to mention the exuberant enthusiasm for violent political transformation at other people’s expense, that marked their fellow-travelling predecessors across the Cold War ideological divide. The use value of such persons to ambitious, radical regimes is an old story. Indeed, intellectual camp followers of this kind were first identified by Lenin himself, who coined the term that still describes them best. Today, America’s liberal armchair warriors are the 'useful idiots' of the War on Terror.


It is thus depressing to read some of the better known and more avowedly 'liberal' intellectuals in the contemporary USA exploiting their professional credibility to advance a partisan case. ... In today’s America, neo-conservatives generate brutish policies for which liberals provide the ethical fig-leaf. There really is no other difference between them.

One of the particularly depressing ways in which liberal intellectuals have abdicated personal and ethical responsibility for the actions they now endorse can be seen in their failure to think independently about the Middle East. Not every liberal cheerleader for the Global War against Islamo-fascism, or against Terror, or against Global Jihad, is an unreconstructed supporter of Likud: Christopher Hitchens, for one, is critical of Israel. But the willingness of so many American pundits and commentators and essayists to roll over for Bush’s doctrine of preventive war; to abstain from criticising the disproportionate use of air power on civilian targets in both Iraq and Lebanon; and to stay coyly silent in the face of Condoleezza Rice’s enthusiasm for the bloody ‘birth pangs of a new Middle East’, makes more sense when one recalls their backing for Israel: a country which for fifty years has rested its entire national strategy on preventive wars, disproportionate retaliation, and efforts to redesign the map of the whole Middle East.

Since its inception the state of Israel has fought a number of wars of choice (the only exception was the Yom Kippur War of 1973). To be sure, these have been presented to the world as wars of necessity or self-defence; but Israel’s statesmen and generals have never been under any such illusion. Whether this approach has done Israel much good is debatable (for a clear-headed recent account that describes as a resounding failure his country’s strategy of using wars of choice to ‘redraw’ the map of its neighbourhood, see Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy by Shlomo Ben-Ami, a historian and former Israeli foreign minister). But the idea of a super-power behaving in a similar way – responding to terrorist threats or guerrilla incursions by flattening another country just to preserve its own deterrent credibility – is odd in the extreme. It is one thing for the US unconditionally to underwrite Israel’s behaviour (though in neither country’s interest, as some Israeli commentators at least have remarked). But for the US to imitate Israel wholesale, to import that tiny country’s self-destructive, intemperate response to any hostility or opposition and to make it the leitmotif of American foreign policy: that is simply bizarre.


In Five Germanys I Have Known, Fritz Stern – a coauthor of the 1988 New York Times text defending liberalism – writes of his concern about the condition of the liberal spirit in America today. It is with the extinction of that spirit, he notes, that the death of a republic begins. Stern, a historian and a refugee from Nazi Germany, speaks with authority on this matter. And he is surely correct. We don’t expect right-wingers to care very much about the health of a republic, particularly when they are assiduously engaged in the unilateral promotion of empire. And the ideological left, while occasionally adept at analysing the shortcomings of a liberal republic, is typically not much interested in defending it.

It is the liberals, then, who count. They are, as it might be, the canaries in the sulphurous mineshaft of modern democracy. The alacrity with which many of America’s most prominent liberals have censored themselves in the name of the War on Terror, the enthusiasm with which they have invented ideological and moral cover for war and war crimes and proffered that cover to their political enemies: all this is a bad sign. Liberal intellectuals used to be distinguished precisely by their efforts to think for themselves, rather than in the service of others. Intellectuals should not be smugly theorising endless war, much less confidently promoting and excusing it. They should be engaged in disturbing the peace – their own above all.
I very strongly recommend the entire article.

Related: Paul Berman's Obsessions, from which this excerpt:
Without even attempting to prove a case against Berman here, I will only note that he provided a defensible cover for many other self-appointed members of our intellectual class, and offered a dressed-up version of the more prosaic arguments used to defend what was an utterly unjustified war of aggression against a nation that did not threaten us. Berman added a lot of intellectual curlicues and made it appear that, if we failed to heed his call to arms, civilization would disappear from the planet once and for all. His effort constitutes a powerful exhibit for the proposition that if you make any position sufficiently intimidating and construct a complex argument that dares anyone to deconstruct it and point out its numerous flaws, people will swallow anything. Until I get around to a lengthier consideration of Berman's foreign policy prescriptions, think of them as Peter Beinart with more book learning, if that helps.

In the post-9/11 atmosphere, when too many people were willing to succumb to such urgent pleas, Berman added intellectual footnotes to the desire for revenge. When you stripped away the camouflage, the cry was still: "Let's attack somebody! Anybody! That will make us safer!" What he and others meant was that it would make them feel better, which is not exactly the same thing.
(With sincere apologies for my extended absence, I offer my great thanks to those of you who have written inquiring about my health and offering support in other ways. My situation is a bit better now, although still far from good. But I expect to be back to posting regularly later this week or over the weekend. Apart from the perceptiveness and eloquence of his observations -- although I think he is mistaken about one significant aspect of the dynamics involved here -- I offer these excerpts from the Judt article because he touches on some themes that I will be discussing in considerably more detail, in some essays I've been planning during this forced hiatus.)