December 15, 2011

Bill of Rights, December 15, 1791 to December 15, 2011: R.I.P.

There is a beautiful symmetry to this sad development: two hundred and twenty years to the day between the birth and death of the landmark charter of civil liberties conceived by some of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment in the early days of the Republic. And now thoughtlessly tossed aside by a decadent Congress and a craven President. Things change over time, I guess.

The Levin-McCain amendment to the Defense Authorization Act, which allows American citizens to be arrested within the United States by the military and confined indefinitely in prison without trial, if, in the opinion of the President, such American citizens have engaged in some kind of "terrorism" by offering "substantial support" to Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, or to "associated forces" of Al Qaeda or the Taliban, is, in my view, the official death knell of the Bill of Rights. Once a people decides to give a president, or a king, or a dictator, the right to silence the opposition by applying a label to dissidents or others, and to thereafter send such dissidents to a concentration camp (Guantanamo or a military brig), with no time limit on detention and with no requirement of a trial, a power which Congress has now given to the President of the United States, then a Constitutional democracy no longer exists.

As always, there is virtually no reaction in the Mainstream Media. One would not expect any. Would you have expected Pravda to criticize Stalin for liquidating his political opponents or sending them to Siberia? The official position of the Serious People in the media or in politics is that this power will only be used against people who deserve it, and that we can trust President Obama not to abuse such a tyrannical power because, after all, he's a good guy. And the next President, now that this power has been codified by Congress? Well, they'll all be good guys, too, I'm sure. So we can safely dispense with Due Process, or the Fifth Amendment's right to a speedy trial, and the right to counsel, or anything else that gets in the way of the President's fast and efficient determination of guilt based on his opinion.

For example, in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen assassinated on the order of President Obama, I am sure you concluded, along with the President, that he was guilty, and that the accusation, sentencing and execution (all carried out at the same time) were fully justified. You concluded this on the basis of a detailed examination of the evidence against this American citizen, which you obtained from American media reports. While in many instances you are aware that the mainstream media often exaggerate or simply misrepresent the facts of public life (you'll recall how helpful certain reporters at the New York Times were in establishing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that we must invade), in this case, given that Awlaki was the worst of pariahs, a terrorist (as you were told), and given the consequence of being wrong about that (we killed the man, after all), you have very little doubt that Awlaki got the punishment he deserved and that would have been meted out to him after a trial. Of course, in that trial the defendant would have been allowed to present himself and other witnesses on his behalf, his lawyers would have been able to cross-examine the witnesses against him, the reports in the media would probably have been placed in a different context (as always happens when the fine-grain detail of a trial is presented), and a sentence other than death might have been rendered. What a lot of messy detail compared to just dispatching him with a Predator drone guided by a technician in an Air Force base in Nevada!

To say that it's surprising that this very bad development would have reached its culmination during the Presidency of Barack Obama, with his enthusiastic support, must go down as one of the great understatements of the new Millenium, although we're only a few years into it.

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