Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Springtime for Bush

Here are two rather long posts, both looking at America and Nazi Germany. Depressing, yeah. But what we have is a nation of “good Americans” trying to stay nice, distracted, and decently concerned (well, we can’t really turn our backs on it, but after all, it’s a very confusing subject and we wouldn’t want to have another terrorist attack, and our leaders really are looking out for us, and.....and besides that, American Idol is on TV—)

Fred Branfman: 'On being 'good Americans' in a time of torture'
Date: Tuesday, February 28 @ 09:52:40 EST
Topic: War & Terrorism

Fred Branfman, Zmag

"Gestapo interrogation methods included: repeated near drownings of a prisoner in a bathtub."
-- http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/triumph/tr-gestapo.htm

"The CIA officers say 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed lasted the longest under waterboarding, two and a half minutes, before beginning to talk, with debatable results."
-- Brian Ross, ABC World News Tonight, November 18, 2005

"When President Bush last week signed the bill outlawing the torture of detainees, he quietly reserved the right to bypass the law under his powers as commander in chief. Bush believes he can waive the restrictions, the White House and legal specialists said."
-- "Bush Could Bypass Torture Ban," Boston Globe, January 4, 2006

As a teenager, I could not understand how the German people could claim to be "good Germans," unaware of what the Nazis had done in their names. I could understand if these ordinary German people had said they had known and been horrified, but were afraid to speak up. But they would then be "weak, fearful or indifferent Germans," not "good Germans." The idea that only the Nazis were responsible for the Holocaust made no sense.

Whatever the Germans as a whole know about the concentration camps, they certainly knew about the systematic mistreatment of Jews that had occurred before their very eyes, and from which so many had profited. And if they were not really "good Germans," I wondered, what should or could they have done, given the reality of Nazi tyranny?

The issue became personal for me in the summer of 1961, when I hitchhiked through Europe with a lovely German woman named Inge. Still in love after an idyllic summer, we visited Hyde Park the day before I was to return home. A bearded, middle-aged concentration-camp survivor was angrily attacking the German people for standing by and letting the Jews be slaughtered. I was moved beyond words. Suddenly the woman I loved began yelling angrily at him, screaming that the Germans did not know, that her father had just been a soldier and was not responsible for the Holocaust.

Our relationship essentially ended then and there. I understood intellectually that she was just defending her father and was neither an anti-Semite nor an evil person. But there it was. She on one side. The survivor on the other. A gulf between them. Whatever my head said, my heart knew that the world is divided into evil-doers, their victims, and those like Inge who do not want to know.

And that I had no choice but to stand with the victims.

I never dreamed at that moment that I, as an American, would a few years later face this same question as my government committed mass murder of civilians in Indochina in violation of the Nuremberg Principles. Or that more than four decades later I would still be struggling with what it means to be a "good American" after learning that a group of U.S. leaders has unilaterally seized the right to torture anyone it chooses without evidence and in violation of international law, human decency, and the sacrifice of the many Americans who have died fighting autocracy and totalitarianism.

Bush Embraces Torture

To ask what it means to be a "good American" is not to compare Bush to Hitler, or Republicans to Nazis. The question does not arise only when leaders engage in mass murder on the scale of a Hitler or Stalin, which Bush has not. It requires only that they engage in actions that are clearly evil, which Bush has.

Every generation or so an evil arises which is so monstrous, so degrading to the human spirit, so morally bankrupt, that even to debate it is a sign of moral corruption. Native American genocide, slavery, totalitarianism, and Jim Crow laws are evils so unspeakable that we cannot understand today how anyone with a shred of decency could have once supported them. Today torture, a practice far more degrading to us than to our victims, represents such an evil.

The issue has become urgent because Bush has chosen to demand the legal right to torture anyone he wishes. When torture was revealed at Abu Ghraib, the administration - falsely and shamelessly - attempted to shift its own responsibility onto foot-soldiers like Lynndie England. Since then, however, leaks have revealed that the CIA has tortured terrorist suspects all around the world, using techniques like "waterboarding." In response, Senator John McCain proposed an amendment, attached to the 2006 Defense bill, that would ban torture.

Bush's first response to McCain's amendment was to threaten to veto the Defense Bill if it passed. When it became clear that McCain's amendment would pass by an overwhelming majority (it passed in by a 90-9 margin in the end), Bush reversed course and said he would support the amendment. Yet when he actually signed the bill, Bush added something called a "signing statement" in which he reserved the right to do whatever he chooses as Commander-in-Chief to "protect the American people from further terrorist attacks." In short, even as he signed McCain's amendment, Bush let it be known that he intends to torture as he sees fit.

Bush's demand is unprecedented. No leader in all human history, not even Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, has publicly demanded the right to torture. All others have behaved as Bush did before the amendment when he secretly tortured on a scale unseen in American history even while saying he wasn't. Forced into the open by the McCain amendment, however, Bush chose to openly demand the legal right to torture. Most experts assume he will continue to torture.

It is important to understand what this means. Bush justifies his right to torture on the grounds of saving American lives in a global "war on terrorism." Unlike previous wars, however, this war will never end. On the contrary, Bush's bungling of the war on terror--including the increased Muslim hatred of the United States that the practice of torture has caused--makes it more likely that there will be another domestic 9/11, leading in turn to more demands to torture. Bush's assertion of his right to torture, therefore, would make torture a permanent and growing instrument of U.S. state policy.

Also, by opposing the McCain amendment, Bush took direct responsibility for the torture he and his administration have inflicted on countless suspects. As you read these words, people are screaming in agony from Gestapo techniques used in CIA and "allied" torture chambers around the world. Many or even most of the victims are innocent. The New Republic has noted that "Pentagon reports have acknowledged that up to 90 percent of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, many of whom were abused and tortured, were not guilty of anything.... And Abu Ghraib produced a tiny fraction of the number of abuse, torture, and murder cases that have been subsequently revealed."


Mr. Bush's statement that "we do not torture," even as he was threatening to veto the entire Defense bill because it limited his right to torture, is a dramatic example of how torture degrades the torturer even more than his victims. And it is a disgraceful commentary on our nation that no major church, business, or political leader, nor the fawning media personalities who interview him and his officials, has expressed outrage at this bald-faced lie. And one can barely mention an unspeakable Congress, which ignored his lying about torture after spending two years impeaching his predecessor for lying about sex.

The real question for us, however, is what this says not about President Bush and our other leaders, but ourselves. What are we, as citizens, as human beings, willing to live with? Are we willing to live with a President, Vice-President, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, and Attorney-General who either engage in or rationalize torture in our names, even as they shamelessly deny they are doing so?

If we are willing to live with this evil, the torture will continue. If not, it can be brought to an end. Who are we?

Becoming "Good Americans"

We are in some ways more morally compromised than the "good Germans" of the 1930s.

To begin with, we are far less able to claim we do not know. Our daily newspapers regularly report new revelations of Bush Administration torture.

Second, by opposing torture, we face far less severe threats than did Germans who tried to help Jews. Even the strong possibility that we could become targets of illegal spying by this Administration for protesting its torture is far less frightening than the death or imprisonment faced by Germans who helped Jews.

And, third, unlike the Germans, we cannot reasonably claim that it is futile to oppose our leaders. Creating or joining an organized effort to prevent torture can succeed because we possess one great advantage that human rights advocates in Germany did not have: the public is with us.

Most Americans abhor torture and can understand the argument that it does not protect American lives. This is why the McCain amendment enjoyed 90 percent majorities in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, and why it is possible to bring to power leaders who are not committed to torture.

If we can build a movement to limit and ultimately remove from power those who torture, and thus endanger our lives, we will be achieving other important goals as well.

We will be building support for international law, which is one of humanity's few frail protections against far greater violence. If we can implement international law against torture, perhaps we can extend it to preventing the murder of civilians or aggressive war. We will be reaffirming America's once strong commitment to building the kind of new international order that is required to reduce international terrorism, and fostering a world in which U.S. leaders would once again be respected as fighters for human decency rather than despised as threats to it.

We will bring the once-powerful but forgotten force of morality and nonviolent action-- for civil rights, for peace, for women's rights-- back into our politics. A false morality that claims to love Jesus while torturing and killing in his name will be replaced by an authentic morality that seeks to address the root-causes of terrorism and violence.

We will thus also join this renewed moral force with a practical strategy that can actually protect us from terrorism. Torture is only the most dramatic example of how Bush has endangered our lives by bungling the war on terrorism. He has also dangerously neglected Homeland Security, alienated world opinion, helped Al Qaeda grow in numbers and fervor, wasted vast resources in Iraq in ways that increase terrorist ranks, failed to build an effective democracy in Afghanistan, failed to bring peace to the Middle East, and failed to address the poverty that fuels anti-American terrorism. Ending torture is a necessary precondition to developing an effective strategy that will actually protect rather than endanger Americans.

And we will strengthen democracy at home. Nothing is more un-American and undemocratic than the idea that a small group of Executive Branch leaders should be free to torture, kill, and spy at will. This idea is in fact precisely what generations of Americans have died fighting against. Ending Bush's use of torture will be the beginning of restoring an accountable and democratic government to this nation.

Conservative Totalitarianism

Ending torture will have a major impact beyond torture itself for a simple reason: as slavery was the linchpin to the entire pre-bellum Southern social order, torture has become integral to today's conservative ideology. Conservative ideology was once a coherent set of ideas built around limiting state power over the individual. It has today degenerated into a rationale for expanding executive power over the individual, including not only the right to torture but the right to spy on citizens, wage aggressive war while lying about it, prevent gay people from marrying, deny a woman the right to an abortion, publish disguised government propaganda in the media, and even deny us the right to die in peace if conservatives decree that we must live as vegetables or in unendurable pain.

It is no coincidence that the executive's right to torture was defended not ony by Bush and Cheney, but also by conservative ideologues at The Weekly Standard, financed by media mogul Rupert Murdoch and edited by William Kristol, who published a cover story by Charles Krauthammer-- widely admired in conservative circles-- which declared that "we must all be prepared to torture" to save American lives. Or that the The National Review opined that "if McCain's amendment becomes law ... we will then be able to apply only methods formulated to deal with conventional soldiers in a different sort of conflict than the one that faces us now. This is folly."

Today's conservative movement has been reduced to a set of impulses, above all a totalitarian impulse to support the expansion of autocratic power it was founded to restrain. Since its ideological blinders prevent it from developing sensible measures to reduce terrorism, it has turned to justifying only those policies that expand executive power and seek to rule through coercion, threats, and violence.

Whatever a movement to abolish torture will achieve for society, it is clear what participating in it means for each of us as individuals. It means above all that our children and grandchildren will not remember us with shame, that they will not one day have to try to justify to our victims our failure to oppose the torture being conducted in our names, and that the term "Good American" will mean just that, and not an excuse for fear or indifference, like the idea of the "Good German."

When we fight to end torture we not only fight for human decency, international law, democracy, and freedom.

We fight for ourselves.

Fred Branfman is a writer and long-time political activist. His email address is fredbranfman@aol.com and his website is pscdmg@hofstra.edu. He is writing a book entitled Facing Death at Any Age.

Source: Zmag

The URL for this story is:


Published on Tuesday, February 21, 2006 by CommonDreams.org
It’s Munich In America. There Will Be No Normandy.
by David Michael Green

This is it, folks. This is the scenario our Founders lost sleep over. This is the day they prepared us for.

Outside the Philadelphia convention Benjamin Franklin was asked what sort of government he and his colleagues were crafting. His reply? “A republic. If you can keep it.” And that is just the question at issue today. Can we keep it?

Sure, it can sound melodramatic to use the f-word (no, not the one Churlish Cheney hurled at Patrick Leahy), and I have mostly avoided doing so for just that reason. Especially where the politically less informed are concerned, arguing that America is slipping into fascism can be the first and last point they’ll hear you make.

But, nowadays, even George F. Will is worried. You know you’re in a seriously bad place when that happens.

America may not be a fascist country today, but it’s not for want of trying. I have no question but that through Dick Cheney’s dark heart courses the blood of Mussolini. No wonder the damn thing’s so diseased. And I have no doubt that Karl Rove has only admiration and envy for Joseph Goebbels. Hey, why can’t we do that here? (Hint: We are.)

America is not a fascist country (if it was, you wouldn’t be reading this), but pardon me if I don’t defer to Bush defenders and ringside Democrats who consider me hysterical for worrying about the direction in which we’re heading.

These are the same people who’ve spent the last two decades denying the existence of global warming, while we now learn with each passing week how much worse than we had ever imagined is that environmental wreckage. These are the same people who said Iraq would be a cakewalk, and planned accordingly. These are the same people who prepared us for 9/11, the Iraq occupation, Hurricane Katrina and the prescription drug plan, and who have set new records for ineptitude in responding to those crises. These are the people who can’t get body armor on our troops, three years after launching the war, and who are getting flunking grades in terrorism preparation from the 9/11 Commission four years after that attack. These are the same people who have turned a massive surplus into a record-setting debt, and coupled it with equally breathtaking trade deficits. And now they want to cut federal tax revenue even more.

Yes, he is the president, but golly gee, Sargent Carter, he sure seems to make an awful lot of mistakes!

So forgive me if I don’t trust their judgement on matters of rather serious importance. Forgive me if I don’t stand by hoping they’re right as the two hundred year-old experiment in American democracy goes down the toilet. Besides, I thought being a conservative meant taking the prudent course, anyhow. Even if there was only a one in a hundred chance that a grenade was live, would you play with it? Wouldn’t it have been better to have acted ‘conservatively’ with the fate of the planet at stake, and assumed that global warming might be real? And, likewise, shouldn’t we worry about what is happening to American democracy now, while we still can?

The truth is, there is a government in office which seeks such complete power and dominance that even some conservatives have started to notice. Too blind to see the true intentions of this bunch, they can at least figure out that an imperial presidency created by George Bush might one day be inherited by Hillary Clinton (complete with her plans for a revolutionary dope-smoking lesbian Marxist state and global UN domination, enforced by an armada of black helicopters), so now even these fools are getting nervous about where this goes. They know that the only difference between the monarchism our Founders so reviled and contemporary Cheneyism is that the technology of our time allows George Bush to turn George III into George Orwell.

It’s Munich in America, people. We can dream the pleasant dream that if we just stand by quietly while the Boy King gobbles up some of our liberties, he won’t want any more, but that would be a lot like Chamberlain dreaming that a chunk of Czechoslovakia would be enough to appease Hitler. It wasn’t, and it won’t be.

Do I overstate the concern? The New York Times recently editorialized “We can't think of a president who has gone to the American people more often than George W. Bush has to ask them to forget about things like democracy, judicial process and the balance of powers – and just trust him. We also can't think of a president who has deserved that trust less.” The Times should know. Between rah-rah’ing the war for Bush, sitting on the Downing Street Memos as if they were banana import trade policy documents, and covering for Judith Miller while she covered for The Cheney Gang, they have about as much blood on their hands as does Donald Rumsfeld. But if even the Times can work up the concern to print a line like that, we’re in a world of hurt.

And we are, in fact, in a world of hurt. Those shreds of parchment on the floor of the National Archives aren’t from Mrs. Washington’s shopping list, I’m afraid to say.

It is true, of course, that other presidents – even the best of them – have taken enormous liberties with the Constitution, especially during wartime. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, FDR jailed Americans on the West Coast for the crime of having Japanese ancestry, Truman and Eisenhower stood by while McCarthyism ripped a gaping hole through American civil liberties, and Nixon and his plumbers went to work on his political enemies in the name of national security. Of course, we now look back on those episodes as among the most shameful in American history. But the present crew is even more dangerous for their intentions of creating permanent war to justify permanent repression.

Already they’ve torn large chunks out of the Constitution.

Article One creates the legislative branch, that which the Founders intended to be the most powerful and consequential. Today, we have a president who makes the stunning assertion that he is the “sole organ for the nation in foreign affairs”. This Congress seems mostly to agree, even though the Founders gave them the power to declare war, to fund all governmental activities, to ratify treaties and to oversee the executive. Who, us? Bye-bye Article One.

Article Three creates a Supreme Court to adjudicate disputes (especially over governmental powers) and to protect the Constitution. But BushCo can’t be bothered to follow even the Court’s tentative interventions into due process concerning Guantánamo and beyond. And why should it? By the time they get done with loading the damn thing up with ‘unitary executive’ fifth-column shills like Roberts and Alito, it will be a moot court, just like the ones in law school. Once the Supreme Court becomes a wholly-owned subsidiary of the executive branch (about one vote from now), it’s bye-bye Article Three.

The First Amendment guarantees the freedom to assemble in protest. But protest is a joke in Bush’s America. People are kenneled off into pens so far from the president he is never confronted with any contrary views at all, apart from the odd funeral he has to show up at but Rove can’t script. The halls of Congress are ground zero for American democracy, much boasted about at home and jammed down the throat of the world (except when the results don’t favor American corporate or strategic interests). But go there and sit in the balcony wearing a t-shirt with the number of dead soldiers in Iraq printed on it and see how fast you get a lesson in Bush’s interpretation of the Bill of Rights. And that little display at the state of the union address was no freak event, either. That kind of thing happened all the time during the 2004 campaign. At Bush rallies, people were getting arrested for the bumper-stickers on their cars.

The First Amendment also protects freedom of the press. That freedom has not been eliminated, per se, but it has been effectively neutered beyond effectiveness. Between the White House intimidating most of the press, coopting the rest, stonewalling information requests, planting stories in the American and foreign media, and buying off journalists, today’s mainstream media has too often become a pathetic megaphone for White House lies, and that includes those supposed bastions of liberalism, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Bye-bye First Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees “against unreasonable searches and seizures” and requires that “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation”. Can you say “NSA”? “Guantánamo”? “Abu Ghraib”? It’s bad enough that Bush has authorized himself to bug anybody, arrest anybody, convict anybody and silence anybody, but his NSA chief doesn’t even appear to have read the Fourth Amendment. That whole thing about probable cause was lost on him, as he and his president simultaneously trampled the separation of powers and checks and balances doctrines by eliminating two out of three branches of government from their little surveillance loop.

Meanwhile, informed estimates repeatedly assert that the majority of detainees rotting away in Guantánamo are there either because they were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time simply and got swept away like so much garbage into a dustpan, or were reported as al Qaeda so that one Afghan clan could use the US military to burn another. And so there they sit, unable to be charged, to be tried, to exercise habeas corpus, to have representation, to confront witnesses – unable now even to starve themselves to death in protest. If this wasn’t precisely the fear of the Founders when they put this language into the Constitution, then Dick Cheney is a poster boy for the ACLU. Strike the Fourth Amendment.

And take with it the Fifth (no one shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”), the Sixth (“the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury”, the right “to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense”), and the Eighth, providing against “cruel and unusual punishments”). Boom, boom, boom.

In a disgusting display of legal sophistry, the administration would argue that these provisions don’t apply because of jurisdiction, which of course was the entire purpose for putting their gulag in Guantánamo in the first place. As if it is not American territory since we ‘lease’ it from Cuba. As if Castro could send in the police to clean up the open sore of Bush’s human rights travesty there, and the US could do nothing about it, since it is Cuban land. Right.

But even if Fun With Domestic Jurisprudence is to be their game, the actions of the administration also represent a massive breach of international law, since the Geneva Conventions prohibit precisely these sorts of horrors which the Creature from Crawford has visited upon the poor SOBs caught in his dragnet.

Your scissors are probably getting a bit dull by now, but this means that not only is international law in scraps, but you can also go ahead and cut out Article Six of the Constitution as well, which provides that “all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land”. Ah, how ‘quaint’. How very ‘obsolete’.

Such treaties may be the supreme law in some land, but apparently not in Bush Land. Or, at least not if you don’t mind another cute legal charade, in which a new category of POWs called “unlawful combatants” is fabricated with the intention of rendering – with disingenuousness extraordinaire – the detainees as falling outside the Geneva provisions.

That’s precious, as if a ‘lawful’ Bush all of a sudden got religion for the fine points of international jurisprudence. Except, of course, when it came to the need for obtaining a Security Council resolution to invade Iraq. Except when it comes to the International Criminal Court, which the Bush junta has been desperately trying to undermine at every opportunity (gee, I wonder why, given the Court’s mandate to prosecute war criminals). Except for nuclear nonproliferation. Except for the use of white phosphorus in Falluja. Apparently the only legal distinctions these guys follow are the ones Bush orders Alberto Gonzales, that paragon of legal independence and the rule of law, to create for him out of whole cloth. That international law.

There’s not much left of the Constitution now that these guys have tortured it as if it were some personal project in Lynndie England’s basement. Of course, they’ve made damn sure that the Second Amendment is fully protected, to the point where John Ashcroft wouldn’t investigate the gun purchase records of the 9/11 hijackers. You gotta love that. I wish they gave the rest of the Bill of Rights a tenth of the attention the Second Amendment gets. Heck, for that matter, I wish they’d even interpret the Second Amendment properly. Maybe in my next lifetime.

Meanwhile, arguably the three most brilliant inventions of the Constitution are separation of powers, the guarantee of civil liberties, and federalism. Even the latter – which has least to do with foreign affairs or checking executive power, and therefore has been least assaulted – is under duress as the Bush Gang attack state power any time it strays from their regressive political agenda, for instance with respect to euthanasia, medical marijuana or affirmative action.

In fact, all three of these key constitutional doctrines are suffering under a brutal assault from a regime which finds democracy and liberty fundamentally inconvenient to their aspirations for unlimited power. The administration absurdly claims to be bringing democracy to the Mid-East. (After that whole WMD thing went MIA, and Saddam’s links to al Qaeda proved equally credible, what the hell else were they going to say?). But far from the ludicrous claims that they are agents for the spread of democracy abroad, they are busy unraveling it with furious industry here at home.

It is, I’m afraid, Munich in America, and now we must decide whether to appease the bullies and pray for happy endings, or fight back to preserve a two hundred year-old experiment in democracy. Despite all its flaws and failures, Churchill was still right about it: Democracy is the worst system of governance except for all the others. And that makes it worth fighting for.

But the spot we’re in now is actually worse than Munich, because there will be no Normandy in this war, and no Stalingrad. No country with the deterrent threat of a nuclear arsenal can ever be invaded by another country or group of countries, regardless of the magnitude of the latter’s own military power.

That means we’re on our own, folks. If we flip completely over to the dark side, nobody will be storming our beaches and scrambling up our cliffs to liberate us from our own folly. Hell, if they weren’t so worried about the international menace we represent, they’d probably be laughing at us, anyhow, thinking how richly we deserved the government we got.

But there’s nothing funny about this situation. Hitler dreamed of a thousand year reich, but didn’t count on the resilience of an endless army of Slavs, or the technological prowess of a nation of shopkeepers’ great-grandchildren hammering his would-be millennium down to a decade. If the US goes authoritarian (or worse), on the other hand, who will play Russia or America to our Germany? The answer is no one, and it is not apocalyptic paranoia to fear a very, very long period of unrelenting political darkness, once the curtain comes down.

Is this the beginning of the end for American democracy? Maybe. I have no doubt that unchecked Cheneyism intends precisely that. It’s therefore up to the rest of us to stop it. It’s up to us to say yes to Philadelphia, and no to Munich. Because there will be no Normandy.

Now we find out if we can keep Mr. Franklin’s republic, after all.

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (pscdmg@hofstra.edu), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond.


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