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GOTT-October 18, 2006

“Who Are We Now?”

Jonathan Turley (Law, George Washington University), in a brief but passionate cable TV interview last night, first, on the President’s new power under the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (unless the courts strike the Act down) to imprison without trial anyone whom a tribunal appointed by the President himself or the Secretary of Defense declares an enemy combatant:

It’s a huge sea change for our democracy.  The framers created a system where we did not have to rely on the good graces or good mood of the president.  In fact, Madison said that he created a system essentially to be run by devils, where they could not do harm, because we didn’t rely on their good motivations.  Now we must.  And people have no idea how significant this is.  What, really, a time of shame this is for the American system.  What the Congress did and what the president signed today essentially revokes over 200 years of American principles and values.  It couldn’t be more significant.  And the strange thing is, we’ve become sort of constitutional couch potatoes.  I mean, the Congress just gave the president despotic powers, and you could hear the yawn across the country as people turned to, you know, “Dancing with the Stars.”

And on President Bush’s claim, repeated yesterday in connection with signing the act, that the United States does not torture:

That’s actually when I turned off my TV set, because I couldn’t believe it.  You know, the United States has engaged in torture.  And the whole world community has denounced the views of this administration, its early views that the president could order torture, could cause injury up to organ failure or death.  The administration has already established that it has engaged in things like waterboarding, which is not just torture.

We prosecuted people after World War II for waterboarding prisoners.  We treated it as a war crime.  And my God, what a change of fate, where we are now embracing the very thing that we once prosecuted people for.  Who are we now?  I know who we were then.

You can read the whole interview here (toward the top).  Or see it on Youtube here.

Update (3/6/07): The video I link to above has been purged from Youtube.  You can get the transcript and the video from this MSNBC page.  Click “Launch” on the video box on the right of the page for the video.  You are subjected to a half-minute advertisement before you get the video, which contains a little set-up before Prof. Turley appears.

Posted by Keith DeRose | Permalink


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As a Canadian I am reluctant to criticize, but I am astonished that something like this can happen in America in the year 2006.

Coincidentally, I was just reading Harper’s, Sep. 2006 and came across the article, “American Gulag; Prisoner’s tales from the War on Terror”. I wonder where is the prophetic voice of the Church in all of this??

Posted by: paul | October 19, 2006 at 02:23 PM

I’m not going to get into a debate about this, but I think that what many critics of US policy on this issue are failing to take seriously is that we are faced with a very real threat in the West and elsehwere in the non-Islamic world that is unprecedented in history. I am not just talking about al-Qaeda, but about assymetrical global Islamic terror in general. By that I mean small distrributed cells of extremely fanatical terrorists with the potential and desire in the coming years to slaughter vast numbers of civilians, possibly millions if they get their hands on the right weapons.

I’m not saying I’m at all comfortable with US policy in this regard, but I hear a lot of criticism of the US but almost no commentary about how we deal with a threat on this scale, at least not any intelligent serious commentary that is not just regurgitated anti-American platitudes and the “if we all just hug and understand one another terrorism will go away” nonsense.

So my challenge is, where is the prophetic voice of the church regarding Islamic terrorism?

Posted by: Shawn | October 26, 2006 at 08:23 PM

I don’t know, Shawn. It’s not as if there are no alternative courses of action being proposed other than to try to hug & get along. There are a lot of serious suggestions out there regarding things to do in response to this threat. Here’s an extremely common (so common that it’s starting to sound like a cliche), but still very wise, suggestion: Do a whole lot more to secure our ports — where the weapons you seem so worried about are likely to come in. I’m suspecting you’ll just agree with that suggestion, but find it inadequate.

And in the end, we may just disagree about the scale of the threat we face, or, perhaps even more likely, the level of response called for by the threat we face. I don’t think the threat is small, and it’s possible that it will grow greater (though my own suspicion is that an important way to minimize the chances of that is to not overreact in various ways). But I do think, comparatively, that we have often faced graver threats. I think the best response is to take the measure I mention above and do several other similar things (many of which you can probably guess, and that you will probably agree with, but still find, even when combined, inadequate), but, unless the threat grows much greater than it currently is, not to get to the point of sacrificing such central values to the extent that has been done on the fronts of giving up our civil rights and getting into the business of torturing prisoner. Living without whatever added security might be bought by those sacrifices of our values (and here we may again disagree about the effectiveness of such steps) might require us to live with a bit more courage, but my own judgment is that it would be worth it.

But though we may not agree on just how far we should go in our response, perhaps you & I can at least agree on a comparative point: That it’s a shame (& maybe even a disgrace) that we sacrificed our democratic values to the extent that we have before we did more of such things as securing our ports.

Posted by: Keith | October 27, 2006 at 11:12 AM

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