Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year - American Soulsearching in the Bush Era

As we bring down the curtain on 2007 and take stock in where we stand as a nation at the end of Year Seven in the reign of George W. Bush and the Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight, it's worth taking a look at today's OpEd page editorial in the New York Times.

In substantial part, the piece, entitled "Looking at America," states:

"There are too many moments these days when we cannot recognize our country. Sunday was one of them, as we read the account in The Times of how men in some of the most trusted posts in the nation plotted to cover up the torture of prisoners by Central Intelligence Agency interrogators by destroying videotapes of their sickening behavior. It was impossible to see the founding principles of the greatest democracy in the contempt these men and their bosses showed for the Constitution, the rule of law and human decency.

"It was not the first time in recent years we’ve felt this horror, this sorrowful sense of estrangement, not nearly. This sort of lawless behavior has become standard practice since Sept. 11, 2001....

"Out of panic and ideology, President Bush squandered America’s position of moral and political leadership, swept aside international institutions and treaties, sullied America’s global image, and trampled on the constitutional pillars that have supported our democracy through the most terrifying and challenging times. These policies have fed the world’s anger and alienation and have not made any of us safer.

"In the years since 9/11, we have seen American soldiers abuse, sexually humiliate, torment and murder prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few have been punished, but their leaders have never been called to account. We have seen mercenaries gun down Iraqi civilians with no fear of prosecution. We have seen the president, sworn to defend the Constitution, turn his powers on his own citizens, authorizing the intelligence agencies to spy on Americans, wiretapping phones and intercepting international e-mail messages without a warrant.

"We have read accounts of how the government’s top lawyers huddled in secret after the attacks in New York and Washington and plotted ways to circumvent the Geneva Conventions — and both American and international law — to hold anyone the president chose indefinitely without charges or judicial review.

"Those same lawyers then twisted other laws beyond recognition to allow Mr. Bush to turn intelligence agents into torturers, to force doctors to abdicate their professional oaths and responsibilities to prepare prisoners for abuse, and then to monitor the torment to make sure it didn’t go just a bit too far and actually kill them.

"The White House used the fear of terrorism and the sense of national unity to ram laws through Congress that gave law-enforcement agencies far more power than they truly needed to respond to the threat — and at the same time fulfilled the imperial fantasies of Vice President Dick Cheney and others determined to use the tragedy of 9/11 to arrogate as much power as they could....

"Prisoners are held [in Guantanamo Bay] with no hope of real justice, only the chance to face a kangaroo court where evidence and the names of their accusers are kept secret, and where they are not permitted to talk about the abuse they have suffered at the hands of American jailers.

"In other foreign lands, the C.I.A. set up secret jails where “high-value detainees” were subjected to ever more barbaric acts, including simulated drowning. These crimes were videotaped, so that “experts” could watch them, and then the videotapes were destroyed, after consultation with the White House, in the hope that Americans would never know.

"The C.I.A. contracted out its inhumanity to nations with no respect for life or law, sending prisoners — some of them innocents kidnapped on street corners and in airports — to be tortured into making false confessions, or until it was clear they had nothing to say and so were let go without any apology or hope of redress.

"These are not the only shocking abuses of President Bush’s two terms in office, made in the name of fighting terrorism. There is much more — so much that the next president will have a full agenda simply discovering all the wrongs that have been done and then righting them.

"We can only hope that this time, unlike 2004, American voters will have the wisdom to grant the awesome powers of the presidency to someone who has the integrity, principle and decency to use them honorably. Then when we look in the mirror as a nation, we will see, once again, the reflection of the United States of America."

More on Tolerance - Walter Isaacson's "Einstein"

More on the topic of tolerance, which I suggest is the core animating principle of the U.S. Constitution in my working book, "Toward a More Tolerant Constitution - Of, By, and For the People"....

From Walter Isaacson's much-lauded new biography on Albert Einstein (another on my holiday wish-list of books):

“[Einstein's] success came from questioning conventional wisdom and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals. Tyranny repulsed him, and he saw tolerance not simply as a sweet virtue but as a necessary condition for a creative society. ‘It is important to foster individuality,’ he said, ‘for only the individual can produce new ideas.’…"

Sunday, December 30, 2007

On Tolerance: Christopher Hitchens and "God is Not Great"

The title of a book I'm currently working on is (something like) "Toward a More Tolerant Constitution - Of, By, and For the People" basically arguing that governmental TOLERANCE of individual rights is a (if not the) core animating principle of the U.S. Constitution.

In a related context, Christopher Hitchens hits the nail on the head in his 2007 National Book Award finalist, "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" (one of my holiday wish-list books):

"[T]he mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did. Still less can they hope to tell us the 'meaning' of later discoveries and developments which were, when they began, either obstructed by their religions or denounced by them.

And yet - the believers still claim to know! Not just to know, but to know everything. Not just to know that god exists, and that he created and supervised the whole enterprise, but also to know what 'he' demands of us - from our diet to our observances to our sexual morality. In other words, in a vast and complicated discussion where we know more and more about less and less, yet can still hope for some enlightenment as we proceed, one faction - itself composed of mutually warring factions - has the sheer arrogance to tell us that we already have all the essential information we need...."

"[F]aith ... is the beginning - but not the end - of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning - but by no means the end - of all disputes about the good life and the just city. Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.

"For this reason, I would not prohibit [religious faith] even if I could. Very generous of me, you may say. But will the religious grant me the same indulgence? I ask because there is a real and serious difference between me and my religious friends, and the real and serious friends are sufficiently honest to admit it. I would be quite content to go to their children's bar mitsvahs, to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to 'respect' their belief that the Koran was dictated, though exclusively in Arabic, to an illiterate merchant, or to interest myself in Wicca and Hindu and Jain consolations.

"And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition - which is that they in turn leave me alone. But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing. As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments.... Religion poisons everything."

How, then, does this passage from Hitchens' new book relate to my own book project? It relates in that the U.S. Constitution was specifically designed as nothing more than a device to prevent others, who claim to know everything under the guise of governmental authority, from destroying all "the hard-won human attainments," whether they be matters of religious freedom of the sort Hitchens speaks, or, more broadly, other precious individual liberties. As Justice Brandeis said in 1928, “The makers of our Constitution … conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone - the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”

In other words, so long as my beliefs and actions cause no direct harm to others, the Constitution requires the government to "respect" - i.e., to tolerate - those beliefs and actions; in short, any law, regulation, or other government action that fails to so tolerate me and my beliefs and actions is unconstitutional.

The religious focus of Hitchens' book is relevant as well in light of the increasingly dominant - and inappropriate - role religion has come to play in American politics. For evidence, we need only look so far as the disastrous courses on which our evangelical president has steered the nation largely on the basis of his own religious dead-reckoning; and sadly, if the groveling comments toward the religious right of most of the current presidential candidates are any indication, it appears the situation is not soon to change. If this is so, it will be all the more incumbent upon ordinary Americans to speak out loudly and forcefully in protection of the hard-won constitutional liberties.