The phrase "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" has been running through my mind a lot lately. The photos of prisoners taken at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison pissed me off. I'll admit to paying insufficient attention in civics class, and to politics in general, but I somehow came to believe that the bill of rights and our constitution were what set us apart from the rest of the world and were what made our form of government superior to all others.
When it gets right down to it, I believe that as Americans we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard than other people. And when we fail to do so, we not only look bad in the eyes of the world, but we indicate that we don't really believe the things we claim to believe.
Earlier today I happened across a political commentary published in the Los Angeles Times concerning a news conference the U.S. Justice Department held regarding Jose Padilla, the American citizen accused of being an "enemy combatant." Jonathan Turley writes:
In a moment of extraordinary and chilling honesty, Comey explained that Padilla had to be stripped of his civil liberties because, if he used them (including his right to remain silent or his right to a lawyer), he might have been able to win his freedom. Thus, the government had to keep him away from lawyers and judges at all costs. Gone was the pretense of legality or principle. The Justice Department had finally found its natural moral resting point: Civil liberties are tolerated only to the extent that they will not interfere with the government's actions. Meanwhile, Zacarias Moussaoui, a foreign citizen accused of terrorism, was presumably given his rights in federal court because, given the case against him, the government thought those rights would do him little good.
It seems to me those who support the suspension of civil liberties to protect Americans from terrorists have not been paying attention.
During Vietnam, someone was quoted as having said "In order to save the village we had to destroy it." I know why the speaker believed this was true (the buildings were being used by the communists to house and resupply their troops; without the removal of the buildings, all attempts to clear the village of communists would have been futile), but it overlooked the fact that without the village, there would be no villagers to save. And that is what happened, the people of the now-destroyed village were relocated to refuge camps, having lost their ancestral homes, their connections to one another, and pretty much anything they held of value.
In a way, we now face the mirror image of this problem. By taking away civil liberties, we may prevent terrorist action (save the buildings), but by suspending those self same rights, we destroy the very thing that makes us Americans.
Or, as Turley put it: "We have lost that moral distinction between ourselves and our enemies if we believe that our success is measured by the confessions that we coerce rather than the civil liberties that we defend."