As the popular saying goes, “In times of universal deceit, truth-telling becomes a revolutionary act.”* Indeed, I discovered a bit of this myself when for this week’s issue of my campus paper, The Wooster Voice, in an editorial I made the following off-hand observations: (1) the president — our president and leader of the free world — likely has several of the defining characteristics of sociopathy, (2) has presided over a murderous and criminal reign, (3) impeachment is a moderate, in fact conservative and, most importantly, the right constitutional remedy, and (4) given the above facts it is shocking enough that the firing squad (or gallows) option goes unmentioned.
I wrote this in full recognition that many will take these statements to be extreme, even awful and deplorable. So I will be completely clear in what I am saying; a fault of the article, in retrospect a glaring one, is its lack of clarity which may make people jump to the wrong conclusions. First, another colorless and uncontroversial fact: our leaders have committed, repeatedly and remorselessly, crimes against peace and war crimes (though not crimes against humanity, in my opinion, although others may disagree) for which the defendants at Nuremberg were hanged — including waterboarding, a political science professor and study advisor at my college, was quick to add. Expecting an outcome, based upon the logic of crime and punishment, is not the same as desiring it. The aggressive war against Iraq hatched in Washington is obviously far from the scale of Nazi criminality — not suggesting that. But let’s have some honesty and consistency in our moral judgments. Otherwise, ethical standards have no meaning and ought to be discarded.
Here I am going to quote from the record of the Trial of the Century. As Norman Birkett, alternate judge for the United Kingdom, declared on September 30, 1946: “To initiate a war of aggression, … is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (proceedings of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, vol. 22, p. 426, via the Avalon Project of the Yale Law School). Or as United States prosecutor Robert Jackson said on November 21, 1945, “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well” (quoted in “Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression,” Office of the United States Counsel for Prosecution of Axis Criminality [Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946], vol. 1, ch. 5, “Opening Statement for the United States,” via Avalon Project).
Anyway, earlier today I watched Robert Redford’s excellent and stunning film Lions for Lambs. “Rome is burning.” Reminded me of a song that went, “How do we sleep when our beds are burning?” Or “Room on Fire,” by The Strokes, in which Julian Casablancas wails, “The room is on fire/and she’s fixing her hair!” But I digress.
*Of course, this is attributed to Orwell, although it is not precisely sourced and actually comes up in many different variations.
NOTE (Nov. 11): Common-sensical commentator Frank Rich hit the nail on the head today.
“So what if America’s chief law enforcement official won’t say that waterboarding is illegal? A state of emergency is a state of emergency. ... Constitutional corners were cut in Washington in impressive synchronicity with General Musharraf’s crackdown in Islamabad. ... In the six years of compromising our principles since 9/11, our democracy has so steadily been defined down that it now can resemble the supposedly aspiring democracies we’ve propped up in places like Islamabad. Time has taken its toll. We’ve become inured to democracy-lite. That’s why a Mukasey can be elevated to power with bipartisan support and we barely shrug.
“This is a signal difference from the Vietnam era, and not necessarily for the better. During that unpopular war, disaffected Americans took to the streets and sometimes broke laws in an angry assault on American governmental institutions. The Bush years have brought an even more effective assault on those institutions from within. While the public has not erupted in riots, the executive branch has subverted the rule of law in often secretive increments. The results amount to a quiet coup, ultimately more insidious than a blatant putsch like General Musharraf’s.
“... Take the Musharraf assault on human-rights lawyers. Our president would not be so unsubtle as to jail them en masse. But earlier this year a senior Pentagon official, since departed, threatened America’s major white-shoe law firms by implying that corporate clients should fire any firm whose partners volunteer to defend detainees in Guantánamo and elsewhere. For its part, Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department did not round up independent-minded United States attorneys and toss them in prison. It merely purged them without cause to serve Karl Rove’s political agenda.
“Tipping his hat in appreciation of Mr. Bush’s example, General Musharraf justified his dismantling of Pakistan’s Supreme Court with language mimicking the president’s diatribes against activist judges. The Pakistani leader further echoed Mr. Bush by expressing a kinship with Abraham Lincoln, citing Lincoln’s Civil War suspension of a prisoner’s fundamental legal right to a hearing in court, habeas corpus, as a precedent for his own excesses. (That’s like praising F.D.R. for setting up internment camps.) Actually, the Bush administration has outdone both Lincoln and Musharraf on this score: Last January, Mr. Gonzales testified before Congress that ‘there is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution.’
“To believe that this corruption will simply evaporate when the Bush presidency is done is to underestimate the permanent erosion inflicted over the past six years. What was once shocking and unacceptable in America has now been internalized as the new normal.”
As Garret Keizer wrote in a recent issue of Harper’s magazine: “It is one thing to endure abuses and to carry on in spite of them. It is quite another thing to carry on to the point of abetting the abuse. We need to move the discussion of our nation’s health to the emergency room. We need to tell the doctors of the body politic that the treatment isn’t working—and that until it changes radically for the better, neither are we.”