I have had to learn three hard lessons about political life. First, perception “is” reality. Second, loyalty counts more than morality. Third, symbols trump reasoned argument. These are lessons every natural-born politician knows. But, I confess, in my case they may never take firm hold. In my mental toolkit, at least, they are no more than rules of thumb. I use them, when I remember, to test the practicality of judgments I think I have made on the basis of the facts, sound values and cogent argument.
I confess to feeling increasingly like a fish out of water in our ill-named “information age,” so tainted by infotainment and so lacking in historical perspective. Indeed, the denizens of the new media seem to lack the perspective one might expect from the general knowledge once possessed by a person with even a grammar school education. The line between fact and fiction blurs. People know the latest band, but not where to locate Afghanistan on a map. They get their news from Comedy Central. We plunge, it seems, deeper and deeper into Plato’s cave, where shadows have become reality.
I confess that I am in a particularly bleak mood since Congress passed President Bush’s Military Commissions Act. It was a regressive move not only by the standard of the Bill of Rights (1791), but by that of Magna Carta (1215). There seems to have been an utter loss, in that vote, not only of historical perspective but of acquired moral judgment—evidence of a population that has amused itself into insensitivity. Not one version of the legislation—not the administration’s, not the House bill, and not the Senate’s vaunted “compromise”—included the right to habeas corpus or judicial review of imprisonment without charges for suspected terrorists. What has become of the historic rights of Americans and Englishmen?
Not all Western judicial systems include the right to habeas corpus. Defenders of the detention bill object that because it is a specific, American Constitutional right, the U.S. government does not need to honor habeas corpus in the case of foreign nationals. Critics note, however, that under the terms of the new law, by declaring suspects “illegal enemy combatants,” the government can ignore demands for judicial review even by American citizens. Whether Americans or foreign nationals are detained, I wonder why the historic experience of tyranny does not persuade our fellow citizens to regard permanent, anonymous arrest without trial as an egregious abuse of government power.
Canadians and some Europeans seem to understand the despotic use of authority in this supposedly essential practice of the war on terror. The same day Congress passed the detention bill, Giuliano Zacardelli, the chief of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, offered an apology, before parliament, to Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen wrongly deported by U.S. officials to Syria for “interrogation,” because the Mounties had passed along faulty information on him.
Italian authorities have brought charges against 13 C.I.A. agents for the clandestine abduction of Osama Nasr Mostafa Hassan in Italy. German officials are also investigating the abduction of Khalid al-Masri, a German citizen, from Macedonia and his rendition to Afghanistan. The U.S. agents had confused el-Masri with an Egyptian terrorist with a similar name. Even the British, whose laws in this matter were once viewed as a model of toughness, set a limit of a little more than one month on such detention. Yet the U.S. Congress persists in acquiescing in the practice of extrajudicial imprisonment.
People bemoan the methods of the Inquisition. Is our treatment of suspected “enemy combatants” any different, I wonder. The Declaration of Independence charged King George III with “depriving us in many cases of trial by jury.” Is such deprivation less objectionable today, when authorized by a U.S. president? Right through the cold war, we prided ourselves on our system of justice, so different from the arbitrary legality of communist dictatorships. How can we allow ourselves to do what our cold war enemies once did? The disappearance of innocent strangers should not and cannot save our freedom from the terrorist threat.
But that, I fear, is the price we make others pay for the media’s numbing of the American mind.
The editors welcome Maurice Timothy Reidy to America’s editorial board. Tim will serve as online editor with responsibility for updating the America Web site and managing the Web edition of the magazine. He comes to us from Commonweal, where he was an associate editor. He has also worked as a reporter for The Hartford Courant.