Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The illusion of security

Jan. 5, 2004

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee begins its confirmation hearing tomorrow for Alberto Gonzales, whom President Bush has appointed the new top law enforcement official of the United States. Even before the first question is asked, Gonzales' confirmation as Attorney General is being considered a foregone conclusion. The obvious question is, "Why?"

As President Bush's personal counsel, it is Gonzales who oversaw a series of memos that attempted to inoculate this administration from having to follow Geneva Conventions barring torture (yes, torture ... let's stop dancing around the word as the media have). On Jan. 25, 2002, The New York Times reports, he sent the president a letter laying out how the war on terror "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners." And as another set of hearing begins this month -- the courts-martial of four enlisted men and women charged in the atrocities of Abu Ghraib prison -- it seems increasingly absurd to throw the book at them while ignoring the actions of a man who played a central role in providing the rationale for misdeeds like theirs.

But such is America today. We live in a world of fear. And too many of us -- a majority judging from the election -- are willing to dismantle the civil liberties on which this nation was founded to construct an illusion of security. Look at recent polls. Just a month or so after the election, the Washington Post published a poll showing the U.S. public didn't like where the president was leading us in Iraq, on Social Security, on education and on health care. And he's the man the public elected. Why? The Post offered a big hint.: 60 percent still like the president's leadership in the unending war on terrorism.

This is the same reason, undoubtedly, why Americans today sit back while the government soberly discusses how and where to hold suspected terrorists, potentially for life, without trial, without counsel, without any vestige of due process. The excuse: The same has been done with other prisoners in other wars. Only this is a war without end. I won't bore you with the litany of reasons why George W. Bush hasn't done a good job of fighting the war against terror -- from diverting our energies and resources away from Osama bin Laden to cutting back aid to cities that can help bolster security on the home front. No, instead, I'd like to remind you of something we really all should know. Life ends. It's unpredictable. Stuff happens. We need to learn to deal with it.

Take this last week. At least 150,000 people, many on vacation at some of the world's most beautiful beaches were killed by a tsunami, an act of nature. Thousands of Americans are still unaccounted for. My cousin Steve was on some of those beaches in India during much of December. He returned home on Dec. 23. Much of life is that way, a matter of chance. This fall, my department lost a student. She was killed, shot through the eye by a "less-than-lethal" pellet from a police revolver for doing nothing more than standing with the cheering crowds after the Boston Red Sox beat the New York Yankees in Game 7 of their championship series.

Life and death. In many respects, if not most, we can't control our path short of barricading ourselves in a closet -- until we die of light deprivation and boredom. We can, however, control life's quality, as individuals and as a society. We can be a civil society, a society of law, a society of giving, a society that exercises its strength by setting standards rather than stooping to exercise its power just as viciously as those we righteously oppose. But that can't begin to happen, and that won't begin to happen, until someone -- religious leaders, Democrats, the news media, moderate Republicans, the Supreme Court -- shows the guts to speak out, consistently and unwaveringly. So far, that has not happened.

Among those who clearly understands the dangers is Chris Hedges, the former New York Times war correspondent who touches on the distorting effects of the war on terrorism in his book, "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." He writes: "As the battle against terrorism continues, as terrorist attacks intrude on our lives, as we feel less and less secure, the acceptance of all methods to lash out at real and perceived enemies will distort and deform our democracy."

It already is.


Blogger Nadine said...

What you write is so true. A natural disaster on the scale of the tsunamis in Southeast Asia can do far more damage than terrorists ever could in their wildest dreams. We need to learn as a society that risks are an inherent part of life -- there are a thousand ways we could get hurt or even die in the course of a normal day. So the notion of repealing civil liberties in order to make us "safer" from perceived terrorist threats is pretty ridiculous. As we saw with Victoria's death, it's more dangerous to stand in a crowd of Boston sports fans than to board a plane which could in theory be used as a terrorist "weapon." But fear is a powerful motivator, and people will hand over their basic rights if they believe it will keep them safe. But if we live in a society with no protections of our civil liberties, how safe are we, really?

January 5, 2005 at 8:08 AM  

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