Rhetoric of tyranny

As per usual, I put my students in small groups of 4 or 5 today in class. I find this method helps the more shy students participate, while allowing the know-it-alls to be big fish in smaller ponds. In any case, I have the students introduce themselves and each week I have them tell something about themselves. In the past couple of weeks the something else has been trivial like their favorite color or their favorite movie. This week I upped the ante and asked the students to tell their group mates what problem they think is the biggest the world faces.

I was sitting with one group where a student told the group the world biggest problem was that there was enough selection in foods. He wanted more variety. When it was my turn to share I said something like ‘abject poverty like in Africa’. The ‘not enough food’ guy told me that my answer was trite. I think it was an ‘I don’t think that word means what you think it means’ moment.

Anyway, another group had a student that said the President was the biggest problem the world faced. To prove her point, she said she had an article she’d send me after class. Here it is:


Absolute power corrupts absolutely. This can’t be happening in the US.
But it is.


We are our own biggest enemy. We cannot allow this to continue.
Personal freedoms are more important that “security”. Especially when
the security is false. To really understand what’s going on you must go
back and read your history. Read about George Washington, Thomas
Jefferson, Ben Franklin, James Madison, John Adams. That’s what freedom
is all about. If our soldiers are dying in Iraq to try to build a
democracy out of a land run by a tyrant that: 1) would arrest people
just because he didn’t like what they stood for, 2) jail them without
reason or explanation, 3) not allow fair trail by jury, 4) torture them
until they died. That’s why our soldiers are dying. And what will they
come home to? A country where people can be declared an “enemy
combatant” just because the President says so. People can be jailed
without reason or explanation. Not allowed a trial where they can be
presented with evidence against them. And be tortured until near death.
In fact, I could be arrested for this email because it might be viewed as
fomenting terrorism against the US. I could be tortured and locked away.
And as of Tuesday the 17th, it would all be legal. I’m sick that our
leaders are so corrupted by power that they even tried to pull this off.
I’m sick that the Congress rolled over an played dead and sacrificed my
personal freedoms for a false threat. I’m sick that the news wasn’t
reported widely (perhaps out of fear of reprisals). Just google habeas
corpus and see how few stories pop up. I’m appalled. Al Queda’s power is
an insignificant speck compared to the disastrous leadership of this

The comments are from the person who sent me this.

And here is my reply:

Hi xxx-

Thanks for sending this along. Let me respond first by saying that I’m very sympathetic to the issues raised by your friend. Personal liberty is a standard I often bear. I’m very suspect of government because I realize it is made up of people. People for better (e.g. market outcomes for the most part) or worse (e.g. greed) are self interested. Government provides the few people that run it with a significant amount of power and the means to subjugate others to their will.

I’ll also say I’m a card carrying member of the ACLU and I donate to Amnesty International.

With that qualification, I’ll respond to your friends points, point by point.

“1) would arrest people just because he didn’t like what they stood for, 2) jail them without reason or explanation”

I assume she is referring to the detainees in places like Guantanamo and Abu Garab. The government tells us these people were detained not because of what they stand for but for their actions. These people were taken not because we didn’t like them and there ideas, but because they were actively involved in aggression towards the U.S. Granted you have to believe the government claims to believe the people detained are justly detained.

“3) not allow fair trail by jury”
However, given recent Supreme Court decisions we won’t have to take the governments word for it. Those rulings basically say that all the detainees must be given due process. Now, you can be uneased about what that process looks like (their cases won’t be reviewed as per usual American legal processes, for example), but its very hard to say they won’t be given fair trails.

“4) torture them until they died.”
This is a red herring. We have no idea the extent of problems like Abu Graib. Is it an isolated incident? Was torture wide spread and sanctioned? Nobody knows. All we can do is denounce it and hold our leaders accountable (by voting against incumbents for example) for any exposed malfeasance. Torture is unacceptable. End of story. That said, Congress recently passed a law to specifically outlaw torture and to give it better definition. The law, by the way, was authored by John McCain a man who endured torture while a captive of the North Vietnamese.

“A country where people can be declared an “enemy combatant” just because the President says so”
The President has this right because it was given to him by an act of Congress. Congress, in essence, declared a state of war after 9/11 (this law is called AUMF). An “enemy combatant” is an old term to refer to people that are fighting against your country in a War. The President issued an order that explicitly defined them as “an individual who was part of or supporting the Taliban or al Qaida forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners. This includes any person who committed a belligerent act or has directly supported hostilities in aid of enemy armed forces.” (See this wikipedia article).

The point of citing all of these laws is just my attempt to show that we’re still being ruled by laws. The Congress can change the law (i.e. say we’re no longer at war) and because the definition is pretty clear, the President can be shown to be in violation of the law. For example, its clear that your friend, by sending this email, would NOT fall under the definition of enemy combatant. Furthermore, all these laws can, and some of them have been, reviewed by the Supreme Court. In more than one instance, the President’s interpretation of AUMF (i.e. the status of Guantanamo detainees) has been overruled by the Supreme Courts constitutional interpretation. There’s a case in the lower courts right now that is contesting the President’s wire tapping program.

Finally, your friend calls al Qaida a “… false threat.”
I hope its obvious that this is just an incorrect statement. Al Qaida has shown itself to be a dire threat. The 3000 dead on 9/11 can attest to that. Its not unthinkable to think they’re looking to get a nuclear weapon, for example. You don’t have to stretch your imagination far to see that the impact of their successful use of one such weapon would be catastrophic in terms of lives and to our system of government. Al Qauida is a threat whether or not Bush is President.

In any case, while your friend seems to be in poor spirits about our system of government in this post-9/11 era, all that has transpired has actually lifted my confidence in our system. If you can believe it! Yes, the President did try to overreach his authority, but the President doesn’t act in isolation. Our Courts, Congress and non-governmental institutions like the Press, Amnesty International and the ACLU have been there to check his power. In some sense, we’ve had to endure the pain of a Bush presidency so that we can get this right. We must create a system that can endure terrorist threats while balancing individual freedom.

I think you’d agree its important for us to get this right.

Thanks again for sending this too me.

Have hope,

UPDATE: The guest on the Keith Olbermann video linked to above implies the McCain torture law, alluded to above, would allow the President to detain Americans. This seems false according to this wiki article. The stated purpose of the law is to apply to alien combatants. There is a troubling section in the definition of the combatant, though: “a person who, before, on, or after the date of the enactment of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, has been determined to be an unlawful enemy combatant by a Combatant Status Review Tribunal or another competent tribunal established under the authority of the President or the Secretary of Defense.” Do these tribunals have jurisdiction over American citizens?


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