A Moral Rubicon
The last few years, however, this proud history and legacy has been tarnished. It is difficult to say today, speaking in the year 2006, but I believe future historians and peoples will look back and say that September 28, 2006 marked the beginning of the end of the American Republic.
To the casual reader, this may seem an alarmist, drastic statement to make. But I disagree; for yesterday, the House of Representatives, and today, the Senate of the United States of America voted to permit the President to determine when to use torture. While torture is still not officially codified, it is now more or less government policy, despite the earlier grand show of protestations by John McCain & Co. The restrictions on torture thus far only apply to the military, but not to the CIA. The fact that the final decision is being left to the executive branch places far more power than should be allocated into the hands of just one man. For several decades, no U.S. president or government has had any difficulty following or defining what was permitted and what was not allowed under the Geneva Conventions-- through several undeclared wars and conflicts, from Korea to Vietnam to Grenada to the Gulf War, and up until very, very recently. All of a sudden, there is now a rush, a mad dash to "clarify" what has up until now been clear to generations of leaders and Americans.
Our legislators voted to abrogate habeas corpus, a right that has its origins in Magna Carta, the document King John signed at Runnymede in 1215. Since the 13th and 14th centuries, the Great Writ has emerged as one of the cornerstone protections in Western civilization. As of today, both houses have decided that the detainees we have at Guantanamo and elsewhere cannot avail themselves of the ability to use habeas corpus in their attempts for redress. Habeas corpus is protection for individuals against the state. Right now, only non-citizens are being barred from this ancient legal right; but this leads to a slippery slope. Who's to say which group of people will be limited in their use or rights under habeas corpus next?
Finally, the amendment of the War Crimes Act of 1996 was also a package of the bill that has passed in the halls of Congress. Originally drafted and legislated to define war crimes as violations of the Geneva Conventions and issued to protect American nationals abroad from suffering at the hands of others, it is now being revised to provide retroactive immunity for any and all persons for post-9/11 actions.
Taken all together, these are the desires of the current administration: the wish to be able to use whatever means necessary to elicit information; the ability to escape punishment for past violations of federal and international law; and the opportunity to erode a foundation of our legal system. The fact that Congress has complied indicates a legislative body not only complicit in weakening what this country stands for, but willing to diminish its own responsibilities to conduct oversight. In this nation, we supposedly have a balance of powers: the judicial, the legislative and the executive branches all have checks and balances. Today is a step towards radically and permanently altering the structure of our government.
As I've stated before, perceptions are very important. It's not just a matter of good public relations (something the U.S. needs a giant shot in the arm of); it's a matter of reciprocal treatment. You think other nations are going to say, "Oh, we'll just keep following the Geneva Conventions, now that the United States has decided to alter the playing field to its advantage"? Most will, but some decidedly won't. It'll be a game of, "You're doing it, so it's okay for us to do it too." Allowing torture is not just wrong on a basic level of human rights; it's also wrong because at some point down the line, some unlucky soldier, diplomat, or government representative may needlessly suffer because some nation, government, or group has decided that it too can afford to ignore international protocols. It's not about coddling terrorists or prisoners; it's about providing equal protections across the board.
Additionally, I've commented on Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. The portions concerning habeas corpus are the one part of this odious bill that I think will ultimately be defeated, or at least retarded; the Supreme Court has made it clear that there are fundamental legal rights and protections that Bush and his cronies cannot tamper with. Still, the fact that our Congress thought it was okay to limit habeas corpus depresses me, makes me sick to my stomach. The path to tyranny, throughout history, has been marked by actions such as these: the abrogation and termination of the rights of the individual versus the rights of the state.
Finally, the evisceration of the War Crimes Act infuriates me. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al have stated that they view the Geneva Conventions in a dim light; indeed, Alberto Gonzales called portions of the Conventions "quaint" and "obsolete." Yet they are obviously perfectly aware that what they are doing is wrong. If the acts permitted under this government are legal, then they have nothing to worry about. Why fight it out in the courts? Why try to amend and change laws? I grew up believing immunity was something granted only to criminals; why does our gummint need immunity? For a better opinion piece on this matter, see here.
It isn't just those of us on the left or in the center that harbor serious doubts about the events of the last few days. Even Andrew Sullivan has come out stating that this "kind of political pressure... is breath-taking and shameless."
There comes a time when every nation faces a turning point in its history. A time when a nation either grows, expands, and rises beyond its past to new heights; or a point where it plateaus, or in many cases, begins to slowly stagnate, and eventually fall. In the case of our United States of America, over the last few days, we've faced a crossing that will place us on an irreversible path. I fear that today we crossed a moral Rubicon.