Friday, September 29, 2006

When Democracy Fails Us

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On Thursday night, the U.S. Congress tore up large swaths of the Constitution.

Egged on by President Bush and a variety of pre-November election insecurities, the United States Senate joined the House in making a mockery of the principles on which this nation was founded.

While America slept, the Congress passed a law that allows the government to round up any green-card carrying immigrants and hold them in jail indefinitely on mere suspicion that they might have something to do with supporting terrorism.

While America slept, lulled by news reports that focused almost exclusively on a Republican side squabble over the bill, the Congress denied all non-citizens rounded up in future anti-terror dragnets the right to appeal their status to the courts.

While America slept, reassured by the silence of a Democratic Party too fearful to filibuster, too weak to oppose forcefully, the Congress invited our president to be the judge of what forms of interrogation are authorized under the Geneva Conventions.

The fox, in other words, is now the hen house’s only guard. And that hen house, roof crumbling, may prove to be American democracy itself.

For starters, George Bush will decide -- in secret if he chooses -- what methods of interrogation he considers to be abusive, a New York Times editorial reported. This, of course, is the same man who already has authorized secret prisons overseas and whose underlings already have subjected suspected terrorists to forms of abuse ranging from simulated drowning to being stripped naked and left standing for days in “stress positions.” And that was before anyone passed a law giving him permission.

This law gives permission at wholesale prices. The law, Times reported, also:
-- Allows coerced evidence, if deemed “reliable” by a judge.
-- Limits the definition of torture so severely that it “would effectively eliminate the idea of rape as torture.”
-- Could subject legal U.S. residents and foreigners living in their own countries to arrest and “indefinite detention.”

In short, both the law’s sweep and its speed of passage are mindbending.


Even a moderate Republican, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, said before the final vote that denying prisoners habeas corpus, the right to seek redress in court, “would .. take our civilization back 900 years.” That little speech didn’t keep him from supporting his president along with all but one Republican after his amendment to restore habeas corpus was defeated.

Even those who have fought proudly in Iraq and Afghanistan and fully support all aspects of what President Bush calls America’s War on Terror say that tinkering with the Geneva Conventions could open the floodgates of torture everywhere, endangering any American soldier unlucky enough to be captured by an enemy.

Even those who make their livings as interrogators are sharply divided over whether information elicited through the techniques of torture ever serves a useful purpose. Under the worst forms of abuse, they acknowledge, human beings confess to anything.

OK, you’re thinking. “That's too bad. But it couldn’t possibly affect me, right?”

Let’s see now. Friday’s Washington Post reports: “The (law) empowers the executive branch to detain indefinitely anyone (emphasis added) it determines to have ‘purposefully and materially’ supported anti-U.S. hostilities.”

Hmmm. Could anyone mean – well -- anyone? After all, it is the executive branch under this law that is entitled to pull people off the street. And with no trial required and no need to file charges, who is to say whether that executive branch would have good cause or any cause for doing so? How would we, the public, find out? There are no checks, no balances, no legal processes to be followed. We seem to have a bit of a Catch 22 here.

This much is clear. Our country stands poised to fall backwards some 65 years, when we rounded up more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans and interred them in camps simply on the basis of their heritage. More than five decades later, a chastened U.S. government paid largely symbolic reparations to those Americans in an apology for one of this country’s most shameful acts. Yet now we are setting the stage to do it again -- another round-up, more camps, perhaps this time with special interrogation chambers. A remote possibility? Not if there’s another terrorist attack on our soil.

In his book, “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning,” former war correspondent Chris Hedges warns of how unending warfare corrupts societies and distorts the priorities of those who live within them.

“We often become as deaf and dumb,” he writes, “as those we condemn.”

The Congress’ actions Thursday show how deaf and dumb, how complacent and disengaged, this country has become since Sept. 11, 2001, how far its citizens and representatives have been manipulated by a culture of fear cultivated to an art form by this president and his party.

Today George Bush is right when he tells us, “Be afraid.” We need to listen.

We need to be afraid of our own representatives of both parties and their willingness to dismantle democracy as they jockey for political edge and stretch for a few more votes in a moral vacuum. We need to be afraid of the economic fallout that might occur if tens of thousands of American immigrants, in this country legally, start to leave out of the fear that they can now be arrested with no evidence and held by a jailer who, accountable to no one, can throw away the key. We need to be afraid that some day soon, any American who speaks out could hear that late-night knock on the door emblematic of every totalitarian state where people are forced to lower their voices to a whisper.

Far-fetched, you say? After Thursday's vote in the U.S. Senate, I’m not so sure.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Raising Their Voices in Outrage


After sitting in a week-long stupor while Republicans debated how much torture would be permissable under U.S. law, Democratic members of Congress aroused yesterday to express their outrage -- at the mean things that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is saying about their president.

"You don't come into my country, you don't come into my congressional district and criticize my president," Harlem Democrat Charles Rangel told reporters.

Speaking before the United Nations, Chavez called President Bush "the devil" and the "genocide president" among other things. He repeated his devil remark the next day on a visit to Rangel's district.

Rangel was not alone among Democrats in sticking up for the president. Not to be outdone, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Chavez "an everyday thug" who had ``demeaned himself, and he demeaned Venezuela.''

I appreciate that Chavez may have offended the Democrats' sensibilities with his rude remarks. But why then are the same Democrats not offended by the much ruder actions applied repeatedly by George W. Bush's CIA, actions he now wants them to codify into law?

If the Democrats are unable to take a stand against the codification in law of the immoral actions of torture -- actions by the way that have never been proven to produce any of the essential intelligence the president insists it does -- what are they willing to take a stand on?

Oh yes, I forgot: Hugo Chavez. He is a very mean man.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Will the Democrats Get Off the Mat?

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There is one thing worse than a U.S. president who illegally attacks another country, wiretaps his own citizens without court order and tortures prisoners of war. That is a Congress that gives bipartisan support to these activities, further legitimizing them in the eyes of the American public.

Thus far, of course, only the first, the war against Iraq, has gotten the Congress’ full stamp of approval. The authorization vote for that war is one that haunts many Democrats, who have tried to duck out of their initial support of the war by noting, correctly, that the administration cooked the intelligence and then beat the war drums with the help of an all too eager and gullible press.

If, however, the Democrats sit idly or quietly by while Congress puts its imprint on wiretapping and torture, they will have no one to blame but themselves. And to date, they are showing signs of doing just that.

Granted: As a new warrantless wiretapping bill wends its way through Congress, Democrats did as a bloc vote "no" in committee. But they did so without showing or sustaining the outrage needed to catapult the issue back into the national consciousness. They seem determined not to let Republicans paint them as soft on terror by being measured -- make that muted -- in their response to what’s being billed as anti-terror legislation.

Then along came that all-American “torture with impunity” bill. President Bush wants to monkey with the Geneva Conventions, which for decades have set standards internationally for the humane treatment of prisoners of war. He also says we can’t possibly allow those charged with heinous acts against the United States to know the evidence against them, even when brought to trial, because, he says, that would jeopardize national security. Forget the notion of innocent until proven guilty. In Bush’s new world order, proof needs no more than the prosecutor’s word.

Before a few gritty Senate Republicans offered spirited resistance to some relatively narrow aspects of the president’s bill, it had sailed through the House Armed Services Committee on a bipartisan vote of 52-8.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Democrats have sat by largely in silence while Senators McCain, Warner and Graham, Republicans all, said no to that portion of the president’s bill that would tinker with the Geneva Conventions.

What neither of these senators nor most of the news media have said much about are those broad areas of legal protection that both bills would circumvent. From my admittedly unscientific sampling of elite media offerings, only The Boston Globe and Newsday has covered this part of the issue closely. On Sept. 15, Globe reporters Farah Stockman and Rick Klein wrote:

“President Bush's plan for handling Guantanamo Bay detainees, and a rival bill in
Congress, would both strip prisoners of the right to challenge their detention in federal court, throwing out hundreds of pending claims that are the only recourse for inmates being held indefinitely without charges.

Groups of defense lawyers, nine retired judges, and three retired military lawyers sent letters to Congress this week opposing Bush's proposal and the Senate plan, saying both would sharply curtail the rights of most detainees.”

Though the news media have glossed over much of this issue in salivating over the Republican senators’ stand, these three Republicans do deserve credit for breaking ranks with the president on principle. That’s more than can be said of most Democrats. On a day that Sen. Charles Schumer told The Globe that this year Republicans won’t bully Democrats (“every time they go after us, we stand up and fight back."), Democratic senators maintained their studied silence on the signature bill on torture being debated in their chamber and in the media.

As Walter Mondale once said to presidential opponent Gary Hart, “Where’s the beef, senator?”

Or, as The New York Times put it in a Sept. 15 editorial: “Senators Warner, McCain and Graham have come up with a serious alternative, and they deserve enormous credit for standing up to Mr. Bush's fearmongering -- something many Democrats seem too frightened to do.”

I am not suggesting that voters are without a choice this fall or that they should return a Republican-controlled Congress. Heaven forbid.

I am suggesting, however, that the public’s choice at this point isn’t a very good one. And unless the Democrats shed their timidity and emerge from hiding, I don’t believe their party is likely to pick up either house of Congress come November. As long as the Democratic Party stands for little, it will gain little.

Silence is not a policy. Leadership is defined by taking a stand and voicing the reasons for it, not by hiding in the tall grass and hoping a disgusted public will hurl stones at the bully in the presidential pulpit.

Unless the Democrats start to exert some leadership, both the wiretapping and torture bills will sail through Congress with little public notice. This country will continue to tumble further toward totalitarianism and further solidify its status in the truly democratic world as a rogue roughneck.

In an elegant essay in this week’s Boston Globe, columnist James Carroll put it this way:

“Justice is measured in every society by how the worst malefactors are treated -- the worst not only in culpability, but in capacity for general harm. The best way to combat terrorism is to wrap accused terrorists in the cloth of the law they would rip asunder. More important, to legalize the abuse of a class of prisoners is to prepare for the abuse of all.”

Democratic members of Congress and the voting public have a choice. They can prepare for the abuse of all in silence – and rest assured, it will come. Or they can act to change the conditions that allow it. But that will require a voice – and the courage to use it.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Meaning of Justice


The quote below was drawn from a column by James Carroll in this morning's Boston Globe.
While he didn't say it directly, Carroll implies that a society without justice and due process for all, even the most heinous, is a society one step away from totalitarian rule.

Here are his words:

"Justice is measured in every society by how the worst malefactors are treated -- the worst not only in culpability, but in capacity for general harm. The best way to combat terrorism is to wrap accused terrorists in the cloth of the law they would rip asunder. More important, to legalize the abuse of a class of prisoners is to prepare for the abuse of all."

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Tomorrow's headlines

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It is time to tap the growth industry of future news.

As they say at the Oscars, I'd like to give special thanks to George W. Bush for liberating me from the journalistic constraints of present news. I figure since he and his cronies let neither facts nor reality get in the way -- with great success, I might add -- I don't need to either.

I mean Dick Cheney figured this out years ago -- make something up, say it, say it again and again and again -- and again. Get some earnest Democrat to question you publicly and then slam him so the press can jump into the fray. ("Do you Democrats love the terrorists more than you love America?") It makes great conflict TV and America and the media love great conflict TV.

The truth is, I wish I were more like W. and Dick. But my sense of fair play still forces me to turn to someone else to make things up. Then I can quote them.

This someone is something special, though. Not Dick or W., not even Rummy or Harry Reid pleading for decency (or is it mercy). No, Jimmy the Freak is what we in the media call a "fresh face."

Jimmy was slow coming to the American Dream, though he did build a resume of sorts back in the '60s: Woodstock, Altamont, Aspen and a whole lot of acid. But he got tired of chanting and living on brown rice in the foothills, and, after making megabucks selling breathtaking homes to a bunch of faux liberals, he made his way to Vegas for some action nearly 25 years ago. Never left. Today he's truly a god among bookies. The best. So I figured, who better to lend a little gravitas to future news.

I got right to the point.

"So Jimmy," I asked. "Conspiracy theorists are having a field day talking about The Fix in future elections. What with Diebold manufacturing those voting machines with no paper trails and sending bushels of their profits to the Republican Party. What do you think?"

I knew I was off to a bad start when Jimmy folded his wraparounds and locked me in his "get-real" gaze. "Wag the Dog, man. Wag the Dog," he said. "The Republicans don't need to steal shit. They just have to send in some new plays."

"New plays?"

"Yeah, man. Stuff that freaks out America. Gets people scared and teary eyed and patriotic. Pumps up the anthem, man. Gets 'em spying on their neighbors. It's easy, man."

Wow, I figured. This future news stuff was promising. "So Jimmy, how about some possibilities. Go out on a limb. Give America the odds."

He'd knocked back a few Coors Lites by then so he took pity and gave it a shot.

1. What are the odds that the Repbulicans will offer up at least one orange Homeland Security alert in the two weeks leading up to the election?

"No brainer, man. Kids stuff. That's in the 90 percent certainty range."

2. What are the odds that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will round up a bunch of punks in LA the week before the election, call them Al Qaeda, and arrest them in connection with a plot to drive Smart cars packed with explosives into the main terminal at Los Angeles International Airport?

"50-50. But they might be driving Hummers, man. This is LA."

3. What are the odds that W. will pump up the decibels about Iran's nuclear threat past the painful level, convincing Americans to bomb the heck out of Tehran if for no other reason than the chance to return in peace and quiet and get back to important stories, like Britney Spears new baby?

"Hey, man. I thought you journalists were supposed to ask tough questions? I'll give you
3 to 1 it gets loud, really loud, and 5 to 1 the Republicans in Congress form a conga line behind the prez. I mean these dudes are good. If they'd been around selling real estate when I did, I'd still be eating brown rice."

"So do you think we'll actually bomb Tehran a week or two before the mid-term election, Jimmy?

"That's not what I said, man. Things in Iraq would really have to be in the tank for that to happen. Hyping the Iran nuke threat alone should get enough people juiced to vote GOP. And, you know man, our smart bombs actually are pretty stupid. I don't thinkW. would want to risk a lot of pictures of dead babies the Monday before elections. The whole thing is to control and invent news. Wars get messy. So I think he'll give 'em the sizzle but wait with the steak."

I thanked Jimmy profusely.

"That a relief about Iran," I told him. "I mean we're already over our heads in two wars."

He winked. "Man, you were asking me about the weeks BEFORE the election. I didn't say we weren't going in. Think about it. W. still has two more years to divert us from reality. He'll have a few more wars up his sleeve. Trust me."

Trust me?

I wandered into the casino to pull a few one-armed bandits.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Know Nothing News

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It's time for news media organizations to have the guts to turn down George Bush’s megaphone, not amp it up. On some days recently, that megaphone has resonated so loudly in the world of instantly breaking broadcast news and web site headlines that any Democratic response has quickly been drowned out. Which, of course, is just what Karl Rove wants.

No matter how outrageous Bush's assertions, no matter how they fly in the face of the reality of what even his Pentagon is saying about Iraq, the news media dutifully trot after the president, giving him lead play on the news in speech after speech. Whether he’s howling about “cut and run” Democrats or asserting, yet again, that the mire of Iraq is a central battlefield in his War Against Terror (read War Without End), the format of news is predictable: Amplify the president's dire predictions, let him brainwash the public a little bit more, then dutifully -- for the sake of balance, of course -- give the opposition a quick soundbite or a few lines to disagree.

I realize, like it or not, that George Bush is the president. And, as a former reporter and editor, I know the norms of news: As the holder of the nation’s highest office, the president has the luxury of setting the agenda. Fair enough. But saying the same things over and over is not really setting an agenda. It is running a political campaign, one of the few things this president has ever done effectively.

The news media have no responsibility to help him campaign. To the contrary. Once it's clear what the president's game is, the news media should walk away, shut off the megaphone. News has always had to be selective. On the air and in print, time and space are finite. News also has some standards. It should be based on verifiable fact. It should emphasize what is new. It should place today's speeches in the context of yesterday's promises and actions.

When the president says the same thing day after day -- "be afraid," he tells us earnestly -- the news media do not have to cover each utterance as if it is a revelation.

Give the president his shot. On the first day of what appears will be a monthlong 9/11 anniversary campaign, the news media were right to give good play to the newest version of his same old "we've got to win" speech. Day one, however, was several days ago. On day two, news organizations should have either (a) analyzed his words in the context of history, recent and past and/or (b) given the Democratic Party's perspective at the top of the news in rebuttal. And on days three, four, five and so forth, especially given the unabashed (and unattributed) Republican acknowledgement that the president and his minions will be giving the same speech all month, the news media should have moved on.

Journalists with a "nose for news" know their job is to ignore anything that is not new. There's plenty out there in the real world that is. And if the White House press corps needs something to do, sometimes what's new can be found in the contradictions between the administration's words and its record.

One small example of this kind of reporting appeared on the opinion page of my Boston Globe the other day. Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador, wrote about the contact that key members of the current Bush administration had with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s when the Reagan Administration sought to improve its relationship with Saddam despite the fact that he had already begun using banned nerve gas.

Noted Galbraith: "In 2003, Cheney, Powell, and Rumsfeld all cited Hussein's use of chemical weapons 15 years before as a rationale for war. But at the time Hussein was actually doing the gassing -- including of his own people -- they considered his use of chemical weapons a second-tier issue."

Now that was interesting news. But yet again it appeared in views, on the back page of my newspaper's first section. In the meantime, big-time journalists reprint and rebroadcast ad nauseum the White House's version of the same-old, same-old.

Need evidence?Look no further than Wednesday night's CBS Evening News. There was Katie Couric on the second night of her $15-million-a-year job as CBS news anchor, proving in an "exclusive" interview with President George W. Bush that she should also be awarded a second new title: The First Booster.

Just how tough was she on W? You be the judge. "You have said we can't cut-and-run on more than one occasion," she asks the president in a clip posted on the CBS News website "... Otherwise we'll be fighting the terrorists here on our own streets. What do you mean by that Mr. President?"

What do you mean by that Mr. President! There was no real follow-up to the president's self-serving answer. But then the question itself, with such Republican-powered perversions of language as "cut-and-run" and "fighting the terrorists here on our own streets" made clear whose script Couric was reading even before Bush even bothered to answer.

The CBS news web site trumpeted the interview this way: "As President Bush appeals to the American people to support him in the global war on terror, he insisted to Katie Couric that it cannot be won without succeeding in Iraq."

We all know that this is not news. There is nothing new about it. It's September's broken record, the one Bush and the Republicans intend to play over and over again, without an iota of evidence that any of it is true. They know that few television reporters ask for evidence these days -- just good sound bites.

It really wouldn't take much effort to inform the White House's "news" with a little historical context. Remember Vietnam? Remember the Domino Theory that got us there ("if Vietnam falls to the Reds, country after country will fall like dominoes until those Reds are knocking on our doors")? Apparently George Bush doesn't (given his National Guard record, why would he). It took a decade of heartbreak and dead GIs, more than 50,000, before we extricated ourselves from that war, leaving millions of Vietnamese corpses behind.

Nor does the new CBS News seem to remember that it was the old CBS News, with Walter Cronkite reporting in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, that finally set America on the excruciatingly slow path of extricating itself from Vietnam. And what happened after we pulled out? Nothing. No Red masses marched on our borders -- just as no "islamo-fascist" masses would march on our borders today.

Today the new CBS News seems to be falling over itself to join most of the other broadcast media as a public relations arm of the White House. And Katie Couric, America's sweetheart, the pioneer trumpeted for breaking the gender barrier as prime-time network TV's first solo female anchor, is quickly proving herself to be just another shill.

Sadly, neither contextual facts of history nor the president's words and actions from a year or two ago regularly inform what passes for news in this 24-7 world. It is the loudest megaphone of the day that increasingly draws reporters, drowning out the whispers in the well of past records that could put news in perspective. And since the president will always hold that loudest megaphone, the news media, in direct proportion to how much they gravitate toward the megaphone's amplified noise, risk becoming little more than the most powerful campaign ad available to the Republican Party. (I can see it now. It's late October. And Couric's "exclusive" is replayed across the country in paid Republican campaign ads. Implication: "Katie likes us. Why don't you?")

Ultimately, whether the media's role in promulgating Republican PR is inadvertent or not doesn't much matter. It's a potentially dangerous role -- and, especially at the network of Murrow, Cronkite and Sevareid, it's a sad one, too.