Monday, April 30, 2007

Living Under the Guillotine's Blade

April 27, 2007

Imagine you see a man on his knees, arms outstretched, with his head resting on a wooden block. Ten feet above his head, the sharp edge of a guillotine blade hangs suspended. The blade is held back by a rope that is visibly frayed and weak. It appears the rope might snap at any moment, and the blade will descend to plunge through the man's neck. Blood will spurt over the platform on which the guillotine sits, and the man's head, brutally shorn of the rest of his body, will thud onto the darkened platform below, onto the wood stained with the blood from earlier victims. This scene has been enacted many times before.

One aspect of the drama playing out before you is exceptionally strange. No one is forcing the man to remain on his knees, with his head calmly resting on the block. He could get up and walk off the platform at any moment. Yet he doesn't. He appears to be entirely unconcerned about the fatal danger above him, the blade that hangs there with infinite patience, silently waiting for its moment. There are others watching this scene with you. Some of them, like you, shout out warnings to the man. Still he does not get up. You and the others have been unable to move the man, or to disable the blade. Only the man with his head on the block can save himself. He won't. He stays on his knees, with his head on the block. With every moment that passes, the rope holding the blade back weakens. You know, as the man himself knows, that the rope will break eventually.

Yet he stays there. Warnings continue to be shouted; he continues to ignore them. The rope frays still more. Some people in the gathered crowd finally leave. The tension had become unbearable to them. But you and a few others remain. Surely, you think, the man will get up eventually, before the rope breaks. Why would he remain there, when he knows that will mean his certain death? And still he doesn't move.

The minutes pass, and turn into hours. Nothing changes. The man remains in position. The blade waits. The only unknown is the precise moment when the blood will begin to flow, the moment when another life will be brutally destroyed, as so many have been destroyed before.

You feel compelled to remain, and to watch. You are unable to turn away. Death hangs in the air.


This is how we live in America today. The final destruction of liberty, and of life itself, could begin at any moment. Yet we act like the man with his head resting on the block. We seem to believe there is nothing especially unusual in our circumstances, nothing that requires us to take action. Life goes on as it always did. Like the man under the blade, we could choose to alter our fate. We will not. We believe, as perhaps the man under the blade believes, that our situation isn't that bad; we'll be able to get through this, just as we always have. We forget all those who have gone before us, all those who have died bloody and painful deaths. But, we may tell ourselves, we are different from all those others. Their fate will not be ours, because we are special and unique. We forget that all the earlier victims thought the same.

Perhaps it is the case that the man with his head resting on the block isn't very intelligent. It is possible he doesn't understand that the rope holds the blade back, and that when the rope breaks, the blade will descend and cut through his flesh. At this moment in history, it is indisputably the case that Americans generally, and the political class and most of those who write about politics (including almost all bloggers), are not very intelligent. They appear to understand almost nothing about political principles, or how they operate. Gathering dangers hold no reality for such people. They will understand the guillotine's purpose only when the blade first touches their necks, and the blood finally gushes out. Yes, they will certainly comprehend the danger then, when all possibilities for action have been destroyed.

The man in my story has only one blade suspended above him; we have at least four blades hanging over us, any one of which could be fatal.

The first blade, probably the most dangerous one, is the Military Commissions Act. What is it that people fail to understand about this abomination? I know that I and others have explained its immense dangers and its fatal implications numerous times; perhaps we haven't explained it very well. But I don't know how to say it any more plainly than this:
There is no question that the Military Commissions Act, given the language it now contains, grants -- in principle -- full dictatorial powers to the executive. As I explained in the earlier essay, the executive and certain entities it controls can designate anyone, including any American citizen, as an "unlawful enemy combatant." That person can then be imprisoned for the rest of his life, with no recourse whatsoever. Period.


The critical point is what, in principle, the grant of power includes. As noted, the grant is absolute: it includes everything. As I have pointed out, the determination of the Bush administration to achieve absolute power has been indisputably clear since shortly after 9/11. And this is hardly the first time that I and others have noted that the mechanisms for a complete dictatorship have now been put in place.


With proper preparation, and with the requisite understanding that freedom itself was imperiled, the Democrats could have achieved these aims. All of us would be forever in their debt. Surely liberty itself is worth such a battle, isn't it? But the Democrats did none of these things, so the bill passed. Thus, they share in the guilt and responsibility. The guilt and responsibility that accrues to the Democrats is not as great as that of the Republicans, but it is surely great enough. And when your freedom, and that of your family and friends, and that of every single one of us, is destroyed in this manner, how do you even go about measuring degrees of guilt? How do you say this failure is worse than that one? The bill passed. They all failed, Republicans and Democrats alike. In principle, torture was enshrined and liberty was destroyed.


Some argue that the Supreme Court will find the act, or at least certain key provisions, unconstitutional. That, too, is a hope, but I myself am far from certain that the Court will rule in such a manner. In any event, we do not know what the ultimate outcome will be as far as the judicial system is concerned.

So we are confronted with one stark certainty, opposed by fragile and uncertain future hopes. We know the Military Commissions Act destroys liberty at its very foundation. We do not know if this fatal injury will ever be ameliorated. The Act should have been stalled at the very least. It was not.

Destroying the very basis of liberty is not an event that occurs every day. Mark the date. Historians may well have cause to note it.
The Democrats have proposed the "Restoring the Constitution Act," although its passage hardly appears to be a matter of great urgency to them. If they do not view the destruction of the foundation of liberty as a genuine emergency requiring almost instantaneous action, what would constitute an emergency? Beyond this, proposing new legislation to "fix" the original bill is precisely the wrong way to fight this battle, as I explained in "America, Now Without the Revolution":
If we genuinely seek to walk the long road back to a constitutional republic, the Act must be repealed. It must be wiped from the books completely. Instead, the Democrats propose to enact another bill, "correcting" the errors in the first. Inevitably, this will lead to endless debates, in Congress, in the courts and everywhere else, about how the two bills should be construed in relation to each other. These debates and confrontations will go on for years -- and all the while, the Military Commissions Act will remain the law of the land, a law that destroys the very concept of law in terms of what it had once meant.

You do not "fix" evils of this kind. You obliterate them as required. It is required here. At long last, let the Democrats understand the nature of this battle, as I discussed it in the earlier essay. Let them educate themselves, other members of Congress, and the American public. Let them attempt to mobilize Americans to demand that the Act be repealed, on a scale and in a manner that cannot be ignored. All our political leaders endlessly praise those who give their lives in defense of liberty, as they should when it is true. (It is not true in Iraq.) If they are sincere in that praise to any degree at all, can't they fight a legislative battle to restore the basis of liberty? They are being asked to take up only intellectual arms. For God's sake, they can do it sitting down the entire time.

But, you say, Bush will veto legislation repealing the Military Commissions Act. I initially note that Bush is equally likely to veto any attempt to "fix" that Act. But if the Democrats waged the necessary campaign and enlisted a significant part of the American public on their side, then let him. He will stand alone, revealed as the enemy of liberty and civilization that he is.
But here is where stupidity enters the picture. Just as the man does not grasp the operation of the guillotine or the fact that, if he does not move, the blade will kill him, our political class (and most writers and bloggers) appear not to understand the profound dangers of the Military Commissions Act because of only one fact: its full powers have not yet been implemented. In an earlier essay, I quoted Jacob Hornberger on this point. Hornberger deconstructs two common objections to the statement of fact that the Executive now possesses full dictatorial powers. With regard to the second objection, he writes:
"Well, then, where are the mass round-ups, and where are the concentration camps?"

Again, people who ask that type of question are missing the point. The point is not whether Bush is exercising his omnipotent, dictatorial power to the maximum extent. It's whether he now possesses omnipotent, dictatorial power, power that can be exercised whenever circumstances dictate it — for example, during another major terrorist attack on American soil, when Americans become overly frightened again.
I went on to note:
I've made this point repeatedly over the last several years, and it is only a measure of the remarkably primitive quality of our national conversation that so many Americans seem incapable of grasping it.

To put the point the other way, which will hopefully penetrate the wall of resistance erected by so many people: the only reason you aren't in a concentration camp right now is because Bush hasn't decided to send you to one -- yet. But he claims he has the power to do so -- and there are almost no voices of any prominence to dispute the contention. What is even worse than the loss of liberty is the fact that most Americans aren't even aware that the loss has occurred. If there are any national leaders who understand these issues and have the courage to fight for our freedom here at home, they ought to realize that the battle must be waged now. Given the hysteria that followed 9/11 -- and the hysteria that would certainly follow another terrorist attack in the U.S. of the same or even greater magnitude -- protesting against round-ups at that point would be entirely futile, and would come far too late.
Hornberger's comments and mine on this issue were written before passage of the Military Commissions Act. Bush had asserted these dictatorial powers earlier and utilized them, but only very selectively. The Military Commissions Act codified those powers, and made dictatorship and torture the law of the land.

But to watch the actions of our political class and to read most political writers, none of this requires urgent action. The guillotine has no reality for us; it will become solid only when we feel the touch of the blade. You may be certain of one fact: when powers of this kind are granted to political leaders, men and women prepared to use them in full will come along sooner or later, probably sooner in our case and almost certainly after another major terrorist attack within our own shores The round-ups will come, as will the concentration camps, as will comprehensive censorship. The executions without trial will come, as well. The torture is already here, and has been for some time.

The second blade is related to the first one; it could be fatal on its own, and it would certainly be fatal in conjunction with the Miitary Commissions Act. I will let one of the rare writers who grasps these dangers consistently, whether they are proposed and supported by Republicans or Democrats, explain it. In a new article, Jim Bovard writes:
The Defense Authorization Act of 2006, passed on Sept. 30, empowers President George W. Bush to impose martial law in the event of a terrorist “incident,” if he or other federal officials perceive a shortfall of "public order," or even in response to antiwar protests that get unruly as a result of government provocations.


It only took a few paragraphs in a $500 billion, 591-page bill to raze one of the most important limits on federal power. Congress passed the Insurrection Act in 1807 to severely restrict the president’s ability to deploy the military within the United States. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 tightened these restrictions, imposing a two-year prison sentence on anyone who used the military within the U.S. without the express permission of Congress. But there is a loophole: Posse Comitatus is waived if the president invokes the Insurrection Act.

Section 1076 of the Defense Authorization Act of 2006 changed the name of the key provision in the statute book from "Insurrection Act" to "Enforcement of the Laws to Restore Public Order Act." The Insurrection Act of 1807 stated that the president could deploy troops within the United States only “to suppress, in a State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy.” The new law expands the list to include "natural disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency, terrorist attack or incident, or other condition"—and such "condition" is not defined or limited.

These new pretexts are even more expansive than they appear. FEMA proclaims the equivalent of a natural disaster when bad snowstorms occur, and Congress routinely proclaims a natural disaster (and awards more farm subsidies) when there is a shortfall of rain in states with upcoming elections. A terrorist "incident" could be something as stupid as the flashing toys scattered around Boston last fall.

The new law also empowers the president to commandeer the National Guard of one state to send to another state for up to 365 days.


The story of how Section 1076 became law vivifies how expanding government power is almost always the correct answer in Washington. Some people have claimed the provision was slipped into the bill in the middle of the night. In reality, the administration clearly signaled its intent and almost no one in the media or Congress tried to stop it.


Section 1076 was supported by both conservatives and liberals. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking Democratic member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, co-wrote the provision along with committee chairman Sen. John Warner (R-Va.). Sen. Ted Kennedy openly endorsed it, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), then-chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was an avid proponent.


This expansion of presidential prerogative illustrates how every federal failure redounds to the benefit of leviathan. FEMA was greatly expanded during the Clinton years for crises like the New Orleans flood. It, along with local and state agencies, floundered. Yet the federal belly flop on the Gulf Coast somehow anointed the president to send in troops where he sees fit.

"Martial law" is a euphemism for military dictatorship. When foreign democracies are overthrown and a junta establishes martial law, Americans usually recognize that a fundamental change has occurred. Perhaps some conservatives believe that the only change when martial law is declared is that people are no longer read their Miranda rights when they are locked away. "Martial law" means obey soldiers’ commands or be shot.


Some will consider concern about Bush or future presidents exploiting martial law to be alarmist. This is the same reflex many people have had to each administration proposal or power grab from the Patriot Act in October 2001 to the president’s enemy-combatant decree in November 2001 to the setting up the Guantanamo prison in early 2002 to the doctrine of preemptive war. The administration has perennially denied that its new powers pose any threat even after the evidence of abuses—illegal wiretapping, torture, a global network of secret prisons, Iraq in ruins—becomes overwhelming. If the administration does not hesitate to trample the First Amendment with "free speech zones," why expect it to be diffident about powers that could stifle protests en masse?
Note the crucial dynamic identified by Bovard, one I have noted on many occasions: the government is granted massive powers "for our own good," and to "protect us." An emergency arises, and the government abjectly fails to protect us. The failure is used to argue that the problem is that the government didn't have enough power, so it is granted still more expansive powers. Then the government fails again, at which point it is given still further powers. This has been the pattern in the United States since the late nineteenth century, as it has been the pattern in many other countries in the past. At every step, almost all politicians and writers cheer as the leviathan state grows, and as individual liberty is destroyed. The number of times this pattern can be successfully repeated depends upon how hungry for power the political class is, and how ignorant (or stupid, if you will) the public is. Our political class has a boundless hunger for power which will remain unsatisfied until its power is absolute, and the American public adamantly refuses to learn a single damned thing. Our road to Hell is open and unobstructed.

The reaction to the first two blades on the part of politicians and most political writers is also the same: there is next to response at all. As Bovard notes, the president can declare martial law because of "natural disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency, terrorist attack or incident, or other condition" -- which means he can declare martial law whenever he wants. Since we have a press that primarily acts as a handmaiden to the powerful and which, with very rare exceptions, transmits government propaganda to a degree that effectively makes it another branch of government, who would challenge the president's assertion of such powers? And we have seen the public's ready acceptance of grievous restrictions of freedom in the hysteria following 9/11, and that acceptance continues today. When is the last time you heard of anyone seriously protesting the government's idiotic search protocols at an airport, or objecting to any of the much more serious incursions into what had once properly been regarded as a citizen's zone of privacy? We have become a nation of whining, sniveling cowards. When we are sufficiently scared, and when the government tells us it acts only to "make us safe," we will do whatever we are ordered to do. If we ask any questions at all, it will only be much later, when the liberties we have so blithely surrendered cannot be recovered.

That the president can declare martial law whenever he wishes, on a whim or to finally realize his dreams of absolute power (and I know this may shock you, but such dreams do not belong only to Republicans), causes virtually no one to think that action to prevent such a catastrophe must be taken -- and that it must be taken now. Many Americans don't even know this blade is there; most of those who do see it appear not to care at all that it exists. When the troops appear in your city and on your street, and when some of your neighbors and friends begin to disappear (remember the first blade), why, then you might care, when there is nothing whatsoever to be done about it, lest you too be spirited away in the dead of night.

The third and fourth blades are forged in the realm of foreign affairs, but their effects extend to the United States on the domestic front. Stupidity puts in another appearance here. Most Americans, including our governing class and our commentators, cannot grasp the operation of political principles when they are confined here at home. When connections must be made between events overseas and domestic politics, our brains are entirely incapable of making the integrations. In addition, our narcissism is almost perfect: when death and chaos are visited upon peoples abroad -- peoples who are almost without exception darker than we are (or at least, darker than most of our leaders are), poor, and largely defenseless -- we barely notice. It's not as if Americans were being killed; even then, as the death toll of Americans in Iraq continues to rise, we see no reason to bring matters to a quick conclusion. As long as it's over there, what do we care?

Every prominent politician, Democrat and Republican, agrees that we have the "right" to attack Iran if Iran does not conduct itself in accordance with our demands. The source of this "right" has never been explained, since it cannot be explained. This is an axiomatic truth for our governing class, and it applies to every country in the world that cannot respond to a U.S. attack in a serious, large-scale manner. Note Hillary Clinton's comments only a couple of days ago about Iran, and our "right" to take "offensive military action." I have explained in some detail why an attack on Iran in the current circumstances and in the foreseeable future would be a monstrous crime; see "Morality, Humanity and Civilization: 'All that remains...are memories.'" But keep the possible consequences in mind: many thousands dead, and millions dead if we were to use even "tactical" nuclear weapons; spreading chaos across the Middle East and very likely beyond; possible economic calamity, which could lead to a significant collapse of the U.S. economy, as well as the economies of many other nations, and on and on. The consequences would spread around the globe, and would be felt for decades to come.

There is still a further result, beyond the fact that an attack on Iran would make us the equivalent of Nazi Germany and its attack on Poland. I discussed it in the second part of my "Dispatch from Germany" series, where I again quoted Jim Bovard:
Attacking Iran will put American civilians in the terrorist crosshairs, with little or no federal Kevlar to protect them. The key question is not whether terrorists will attack but how the American people will likely respond and how politicians could exploit the situation.

There is no reason to expect the American people to be less docile than they were after 9/11. The percentage of Americans who trusted the government to do the right thing most of the time doubled in the week after 9/11. It became fashionable to accuse critics of Bush administration policies of being traitors or terrorist sympathizers. ...

The Bush administration has a record of exploiting terrorist attacks to seize nearly boundless power. After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration effectively temporarily suspended habeas corpus, railroaded the Patriot Act through Congress, authorized warrantless domestic wiretaps, and nullified restrictions on torture by the CIA and U.S. Military. The Bush administration now claims that the Authorization to Use Military Force resolution passed by Congress in September 2001 raised the president’s power above the Bill of Rights.

If there are new terror attacks at home, how much more latent presidential power will administration lawyers claim to discover within the penumbra of the Constitution? How broad would the roundup of suspects be? How many years would it be until Americans learned of how much power the government had seized? Is there any reason to expect that a series of attacks would not quickly result in attempts to proclaim de facto martial law?


If Bush does bomb Iran, the chain reaction could wreck American democracy. The Bush administration shows no signs of developing either an allergy to power or an addiction to truth. The American republic cannot afford to permit a president to remain above the law and the Constitution indefinitely. Anything that raises the odds of a terror attack reduces the odds of reining in the government.
So you see how the third blade, an attack on Iran, ties into the second blade, the president's unlimited ability to impose martial law, which ties into the first blade, the Executive's ability to declare anyone an enemy of the state on any basis or no basis at all, and then to imprison and torture them for the rest of their lives.

I have suggested a number of actions that might be taken in an attempt to prevent an attack on Iran. A few people have noted that post, and some have followed through on some of those suggestions individually. But no one and no organization in this country is trying to motivate a sufficient number of people to take action on the scale required. Given the frequency with which our politicians announce that the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran is too great a danger to "civilization" to be "tolerated," most of us have to know this blade is there. We see it, and we don't care. The blade hangs over our heads, and over the entire world. We will not move.

If we are fortunate enough to make it through the remainder of Bush's term without a U.S. attack on Iran, it will not be because of anything anyone has done to prevent it. No one has done anything to prevent it. It will simply be because we were lucky. But as the remarks from Hillary Clinton and every other leading Democrat make clear, the danger will not pass away with Bush's exit from the national stage. As long as our governing class and the foreign policy establishment remain committed to American global hegemony as our foundational foreign policy goal (see "Dominion Over the World"), I consider it certain that the U.S. will attack Iran at some point, if not during this administration, then probably during the next one.

The fourth blade is, of course, the unending occupation of Iraq. As I explained yesterday, it will be unending, even if the number of American troops is reduced to 50,000 or 70,000 in the next few years. We will be there for decades into the future; no prominent politician, Democrat or Republican, opposes that plan, which was the plan from the outset. As a number of knowledgeable people predicted prior to the Iraq invasion, Iran has been the primary victor in this imperial disaster. The episode with the British sailors recently demonstrated, as have any number of other incidents, that the longer we remain in Iraq, the greater the likelihood that some incident, real or manufactured, will lead to open conflict with Iran, and to the attack on Iran that every leading politician seems to long for. Our ruling elites are determined to effect "regime change" in Iran in any case, but a border incident or one of some other kind might hasten the schedule, and make a U.S. attack easier to "sell" to a gullible American public.

So we see how the fourth blade connects to the third, and how all the blades interconnect and multiply the dangers. We have already destroyed Iraq, and we may yet destroy Iran and much of the Middle East. We may cause an international economic collapse, or severe economic dislocation at a minimum. We may see the final end of liberty here at home, and the installation of a dictatorship via a declaration of martial law.

And almost no one speaks of the incomprehensible catastrophes that lie in wait. Almost no one takes action to prevent even one of them. Our lives proceed as if nothing at all unusual is transpiring in our world, either abroad or at home. Occasionally, a few people shout warnings. They are almost entirely ignored.

The blade is suspended above us. With every moment that passes, the rope that holds it back frays and weakens still more.

Death hangs in the air.

We will not move.

posted by Arthur Silber at 10:54 AM

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