The Definition of Tyranny
By BOB HERBERT
Congress is dithering and the American public doesn’t even seem particularly concerned as the administration of George W. Bush systematically trashes such fundamental American values as justice, due process, respect for human rights and submission to the rule of law.
In the kangaroo courts that the administration concocted to try detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a defendant could be prevented from seeing the evidence against him, would not have the right to attend his own trial and would not have the right to appeal the sentence to a civilian court.
That’s slapstick justice, a process worthy of the Marx Brothers.
“You have been accused of being a terrorist.”
“Where is the evidence?”
“We can’t show it to you.”
“So is this court. We find you guilty. Take him away.”
The Supreme Court now says, in a vote that was closer than it should have been, that this sort of madness cannot be permitted. In its recent decision striking down the tribunals for terror suspects at Guantánamo, the court said of the defendant, Salim Ahmed Hamdan: “He will be, and indeed already has been, excluded from his own trial.”
The court said, in effect, that this is not the American way, that ours is not a Marx Brothers republic. Not yet, anyway. (It most likely will be if Mr. Bush gets to appoint one or two more justices to the court.)
The Bush-Cheney regime believes it can do whatever outlandish things it wants, including torturing people and keeping them incarcerated for life without even the semblance of due process. And it’s not giving up. The administration now wants Congress to authorize what the Supreme Court has plainly said was wrong. White House lawyers, in a torturous (pun intended) interpretation of the court’s ruling, seem to be arguing that the kangaroo courts, otherwise known as military commissions, will be quite all right if only Congress will say so.
They’re not all right. They’re an abomination (like the secret C.I.A. prisons and the practice of extraordinary rendition) that spits in the face of the idea that the United States is a great and civilized nation.
“Can you imagine if the Hamdan decision, among others, had gone the other way?” said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been waging an extraordinary fight to secure basic legal protections for prisoners at Guantánamo. “I mean we’d be looking at a dark nightmare.”
The court’s decision brought into sharp relief the importance of one of the most fundamental aspects of American government, the separation of powers. Checks and balances. The judicial branch put a halt — a check — on a gruesomely illegal practice by the executive.
Mr. Bush has tried to scrap the very idea of checks and balances. The Republican-controlled Congress has, for the most part, rolled over like trained seals for the president. And Mr. Bush is trying mightily to pack the courts with right-wingers who will do the same. Under those circumstances, his will becomes law.
Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the majority opinion in the Hamdan case, referred to a seminal quote from James Madison. The entire quote is as follows: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
As the center noted in a recent report, “The U.S. government has employed every possible tactic to evade judicial review of its detention and interrogation practices in the ‘war on terror,’ including allegations that U.S. personnel subject prisoners to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”
There is every reason to be alarmed about the wretched road that Bush, Cheney et al. are speeding along. It is as if they were following a route deliberately designed to undermine a great nation.
A lot of Americans are like spoiled rich kids who take their wealth for granted. Too many of us have forgotten — or never learned — the real value of the great American ideals. Too many are standing silently by as Mr. Bush and his cronies engage in the kind of tyrannical and uncivilized behavior that has brought so much misery — and ultimately ruin — to previous societies.