The End of the U.S. as a Civilized Nation
By Ted Rall
Clearing House" --- -- SEATTLE--Students of historical hysteria
immediately saw 9/11 as America's version of the Reichstag Fire.
Both incidents were organic acts of terrorism (contrary to
popular misconception, the Nazis didn't set the 1933 fire)
seized upon by power-hungry government officials to justify the
crushing of political dissent and the rolling back of civil
liberties. Hitler began marching his people into the abyss
immediately upon seizing power in 1933, but Nazi Germany's fate
as a rogue nation wasn't sealed until two years later, in the
late summer of 1935.
Before then there had been heinous violations of human rights.
Nazi authorities detained thousands of socialists and communists
in concentration camps (death camps weren't built until 1941).
Many were tortured; some died in custody. Stormtroopers enforced
state-sanctioned boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses.
Brownshirts beat Jews in the streets as the police stood by and
watched. Ignoring Germany's treaty obligations, Hitler poured
millions into the armed forces and threatened to use them
against Germany's neighbors. No one could doubt that Germany was
in the hands of militaristic right-wing thugs.
Until 1935, however, the home of Goethe and Beethoven had not
entirely abandoned the universal values accepted by civilized
states. True, top German officials and street-level Nazi Party
members were breaking all sorts of laws, including
constitutional protections against racial and religious
discrimination. That's precisely the point: the law endured.
Pre-Nazi legal infrastructure and laws, including the 1920s-era
"Weimar" Constitution--still the Western world's gold standard
for protecting individual rights and privileges--remained in
force. Technically, anyway.
Had there been the political will, Hitler and his goons could
have been arrested and tried under German law. The German
government was a lost cause, but the German nation still had a
(slim) chance. Until 1935.
That's when Germany officially codified the Nazis' uncivilized
anti-Semitism by passing the Nuremberg Laws. Jews were stripped
of citizenship and banned from marrying or dating non-Jews. The
laws were a form of legalized harassment, prohibiting Jews from
displaying German flags or shopping in stores at certain times.
Turning Jews into legal pariahs paved the way for the Holocaust.
More immediately, the barbaric ipso facto policies of the Nazi
government had corrupted Germany's lofty and admirable system of
legal guarantees. Even though German law hadn't been of much
help to Jews before--well, there had been the occasional arrest
and prosecution of a brownshirt who had gone "too far"--now
there was every reason for them to succumb to hopelessness.
Germany was no longer a civilized nation in the clutches of
gangsters. It had become a gangster nation.
Similarly, the recently passed Military Commissions Act removes
the United States from the ranks of civilized nations. It
codifies racial and political discrimination, legalizes
kidnapping and torture of those the government deems its
political enemies, and eliminates habeas corpus--the ancient
precept that prevents the police from arresting and holding you
without cause--a basic protection common to all (other) modern
legal systems, and one that dates to the Magna Carta.
Between 2001 and 2006, George W. Bush worked tirelessly to
eliminate freedoms and liberties Americans have long taken for
granted. The Bush Administration's CIA, mercenary and military
state terrorists kidnapped thousands of innocent people and held
them at secret prisons around the world for months and years at
a time. These people were never charged with a crime. (There was
good reason for that. As the government itself admitted, fewer
than ten had actually done anything wrong.) Yet hundreds, maybe
even thousands, were tortured.
Under American law these despicable acts were illegal. They
were, by definition, un-American. Although it didn't help the
dozens of Bush torture victims who died from beatings and
drowning, the pre-Bush American judicial system worked. The
Republican-controlled U.S. Supreme Court handed down one
decision after another ordering the White House to give its
"detainees" trials or let them go. For a brief, shining moment,
it looked like there was hope for the U.S. to find its way back
to the light.
Now, thanks to a gullible passel of Republican senators and an
unhinged leader who is banking that Americans are just as
passive as the Germans of the mid-1930s, we have our own
Under the terrifying terms of the radical new Military
Commissions Act, Bush can declare anyone--including you--an
"unlawful enemy combatant," a term that doesn't exist in U.S. or
international law. All he has to do is sign a piece of paper
claiming that you "purposefully and materially supported
hostilities against the United States." The law's language is
brilliantly vague, allowing the president to imprison--for the
rest of his or her life--anyone, including a U.S. citizen, from
someone who makes a contribution to a group he disapproves of to
a journalist who criticizes the government.
Although Bush and his top officials ordered and endorsed
torture, the courts had found that it was illegal under U.S. law
and treaty obligations. Now torture is, for the first time,
"Over all," reports The New York Times, "the legislation
reallocates power among the three branches of government, taking
authority away from the judiciary and handing it to the
president." Bruce Ackerman, professor of law and political
science at Yale, notes that the MCA trashes the centuries-old
right of a prisoner to petition to the courts: "If Congress can
strip courts of jurisdiction over cases because it fears their
outcome, judicial independence is threatened."
How did we get here? Good Germans--and many of them were decent,
moral people--asked themselves the same thing. The answer is
incrementalism, the tendency of radical change to manifest
itself in bits and pieces. People who should have known
better--journalists, Democrats, and Republicans who are more
loyal to their country than their party--allowed Bush and his
neofascist gangsters to hijack our republic and its values. They
weren't as bad as Bush. They just couldn't see the big picture.
Just as no single rollback led marked the transition from the
Weimar Republic to the Third Reich, no event is individually
responsible for America's shocking five-year transformation from
beacon of freedom to autocratic torture state. It wasn't just
letting Bush get away with his 2000 coup d'état. It wasn't just
us standing by as he deliberately allowed his family friend
Osama bin Laden to escape, or as he invaded Afghanistan, or as
he built the concentration camps at Guantánamo and elsewhere, or
even Iraq. It was all of those things collectively.
The Military Commissions Act signals that our traditional system
of beliefs and government has irrevocably devolved into moral
bankruptcy. Memo to Senator McCain: You don't negotiate with
terrorists, and you don't compromise with torturers.
It doesn't matter how much food aid we ship to the victims of
the next global natural disaster, or how diplomatic our next
president is, or whether we come to regret what we have done in
the name of law and order. Our laws permit kidnapping, torture
and murder. Our laws deny access to the courts. The United
States has ceded the moral high ground to its enemies.
We are done.
Ted Rall is the author of the new graphic travelogue "Silk
Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?" Visit his
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