Yesterday the Obama administration released a number of “secret documents” from the Bush years. These documents gave the President of the United States dictatorial powers in the war on terrorism. Since the “war on terrorism” cannot be defined as an actual war, Bush gave the Presidency powers undreamed of by Roosevelt and Lincoln—even Nixon—all of whom inflated Presidential powers beyond the limits set by the U.S. Constitution.
According to the Bush memos, the executive branch has the power to cancel Americans’ “unalienable” rights to protection from warrantless search and seizure and to free speech and a free press. Moreover, 92 videos of CIA interrogations have been destroyed—severely diminishing the chances of officially settling whether or to what extent the United States has engaged in torture.
In one memo, former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Woo states, “The current campaign against terrorism may require even broader exercises of federal power domestically."
Current Attorney General Eric Holder spoke before the release of the documents, saying, “Too often over the past decade, the fight against terrorism has been viewed as a zero-sum battle with our civil liberties."
Although I am pleased that such memos are now matters of public record, what they reveal is no new news—we all knew this stuff—the Internet has been buzzing with it for years. The practices were so widespread—and flagrant—that the Bush administration’s connivance against American democracy and liberty was hardly a “secret.”
More disturbingly, we knew this, and the majority of us did not care. On many occasions, students in my argumentative writing classes expressed their willingness, even eagerness, to set aside their rights for (the illusion of) safety and security from terrorists—who, over the years, lost any existential reality and became more mythic—bogeymen to scare us with, instead of the very real Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts, who were untouched by these unprecedented powers and remain alive and active to this day.
Even before 2001, I had students who, in the middle of the Clinton years, complained that Americans have “too much freedom.” Sometimes, they were speaking against attempts to spread rights, protections, and privileges to under-represented minorities (i.e. gays and lesbians). Sometimes, they were speaking about moral and cultural laxness in general—easy divorce, sexy Calvin Klein ads, wife-swapping hillbillies duking it out with Jerry Springer—the same decadent values the Taliban cites as evidence against Western-style democracy. Sometimes, I suspect they were speaking about the growing visibility and self-assertion of non-white Americans—hinting at, but never forthrightly naming “the fear of a black planet.”
In response, I would quote Noam Chomsky—who said that freedom of speech for only ideas and opinions one approves of is no freedom of speech at all, that for freedom of speech to mean anything it must apply precisely to speech that offends, appalls, disturbs, and frightens us.
I would also caution—along lines I had been taught in my evangelical and military-based childhood—that it is easy to give up rights: all you have to do is shrug your shoulders and not care. But to gain rights once lost requires struggle, sacrifice, perhaps bloodshed.
Whatever I said, it didn’t work. My powers of argument and reason, such as they were, were inadequate to the task. I was swimming against the current, spitting into the zeitgeist, which clearly was moving towards authoritarianism—more specifically theocratic totalitarianism—a Nobodaddy in Chief who could provide the nation with free, unfunded infrastructure and security against anthrax and dirty bombs, so long as people just pipe down, toe the line, keep their knees together, and zip it up.
And I, no less a part of the problem, despaired. I wrote too few letters to Congress—and sometimes, when I did, I simply signed somebody else’s petition or plopped a twenty-dollar check in the mail to lobbyists and political candidates who were, I assumed without actually believing it, looking after my interests for me.
The founding fathers were, for the most part, landed gentry with a dream of liberty and democracy that the actual nation has been slow to grow into. To some extent this dream has been stunted by the decline of the agrarian, secularly enlightened, and romantic worldview that spawned it.
The Declaration of Independence coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the capitalist manifesto, The Wealth of Nations. Industrialization separated family members, pitted worker against worker, replaced natural cycles with clocks and flow charts, and robbed regular citizens of the time to research and debate current issues in order to make informed, individual decisions that affect their interests and values. Consumerism and hypnotizing mass entertainments have robbed ordinary men and women of the desire to understand, much less seek, the common good and their children of the education, objectivity, and attention span to enact the common good with humane, reasonable laws.
All is not lost, though. The effects of capitalism and advanced technological work have not all been negative. There are pockets of resistance and common sense. There are new tools and resources, undreamed of by the first Americans. If not a majority, a substantial minority of American and world citizens are not seeking a friendly tyrant or a compassionate conservative or a high priest or even a new federal Mom and Dad. Even if Obama himself proves incapable or unwilling to effect the kinds of changes the nation needs on the governmental level, his election last November indicated an strong popular discontent with the direction the nation is taking, and people still have the power to imagine, proclaim, protest, subvert, and rally together for mutual interests.
Our biggest enemy is not a government intent on advancing its own empowerment at the cost of its citizens’ rights and liberties, but a citizenship too despairing or too self-absorbed or too cynical or too distracted or too hotheaded to affirm and advance the cause (and dream) of unalienable rights and liberty.