Felicia Muftic " Will it be the rule of law, of the law of the jungle?
May 28, 2009
We are a nation in search of our soul. We are paralyzed by debate on big government versus small government, laissez faire versus government participation in capitalism, fear versus security, more or fewer troops abroad, to torture or not to torture, to abide by the Geneva Convention or not.
We should add to the mix the most important and basic issues of all: rule of law above everything; protection of our rights granted by the Constitution; and a tradition of high moral ideals, because these are where our souls lie.
Take a good hard look at ourselves. What kind of a nation do we want to be? What kind of a nation have we been? Who cares what we do if it works to keep us safe?
The debate between President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney and others on torture, the closing of Guantanamo Bay, and illegal wiretapping is the most fundamental discussion we could have. It defines us as a nation.
I am sure you have seen excerpts of the re-enactment of David Frost’s interview of Richard Nixon with Nixon responding to a question whether something was legal. Nixon: “It is legal because I say it is legal.” We have both Republicans and Democrats scrambling over something similar now: The Bush White House said it was legal to water board, to wire tap citizens without going through established channels of judicial review, to circumvent the Geneva Convention by calling prisoners enemy combatants instead of prisoners of war, and to hold them outside the United States so we did not have to extend Constitutional rights to them.
Why? Because the White House-controlled lawyers declared these acts were legal. Almost all Americans, including Democrats, went along because we “thought it worked” to keep us safe. We knew we were in danger because of Sept. 11. We were told to expect the next strike at any minute, and we had to initiate an attack on Iraq because they were infested with Al Qaida . We were, and some are still, willing to trash our Constitution, laws, and ideals … Let us stop pointing fingers at one another. We were all guilty. Have our moral and legal standards fallen so low that we rely on: “It worked; so it was justified”? I remember when it was different.
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When I was a youngster in Oklahoma during World War II, my father was in charge of our local telephone exchange, and the telephone service to a neighboring Army post and Camp Gruber, a POW camp. I accompanied him on his rounds once in a while. I did not enter Camp Gruber, but at the gates my father explained to me that we were treating the German POWs so well that when they got left behind on work details outside of the Camp, they came back on their own.
Granted, some of the dangerous terrorists being held in Guantanamo are a different kettle of fish and the nature of warfare is different as well, but the point is we were once proud of the way we treated our prisoners and my dad’s voice rang with the tone of moral superiority over our enemies.
Thirteen years later, when I was a student in Germany, we Americans were welcomed. Hard feelings were gone, swept away by the Berlin airlift and the restoration of democracy. The Nuremberg trials were a cleansing; they provided a process that was open and above board. There was a patina of the rule of some law. Not all were hung. Those serving life in a prison were no more than a brisk walk from my West Berlin dorm.
We Americans held our head high because we, for the most part, thought we had acted honorably. We set the standard that others followed. A democratic and law abiding Germany is one of our closest allies today.
The meaning of the rule of law hit home to me in those post war years in Europe.
Through my own eyes and ears, I learned that the rights and government structure in Iron Curtain countries’ constitutions were meaningless . If the Communist authorities thought it was more expedient, they simply ignored laws. The lesson: the rule of law is means nothing unless those practicing it respect it above all.
Are we so frightened we must lose our souls? Surely there are other methods to protect us short of violating our laws. Only hearings will reveal information about how effective the illegal methods were in protecting us and whether there were other effective techniques that could have been employed to keep us safe. But when it comes to the question of the soul of our democracy weighed against fear and illegality, the reaction of the American people to President Obama’s plans to close Guantanamo and end torture says much about what sort of a nation we have become in 2009.