And now, a moment of silence for American democracy

From the Editor

This week I had planned to write about the Trans-Texas Corridor, Rick Perry’s scheme to essentially hand over a significant chunk of private real estate to a Spanish swell named Cintra. The whole deal looks like someone managed to reverse-engineer the Spanish land grants: The Texas crown will take property from its rightful owners and essentially give it to another private entity which will profit from it.

But the second-largest land grab in state history nonetheless pales in comparison to the death of American democracy, which passed away quietly on September 29 when Congress gave the executive branch nearly unchecked power to detain, mistreat, and prosecute without effective defense virtually anyone it fingers in its “war on terror.” As The New York Times succinctly summed up Bush’s new hunting license: “it allows the president to identify enemies, imprison them indefinitely and interrogate them.”

The new “detainee treatment” bill, as it is disingenuously called, defines enemy combatants as individuals who have “purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States.” Even if you slept through English Lit and Poli Sci, you probably have figured out that terms so vague yet powerful can be very dangerous. The blade for this new-era guillotine will be fashioned by “competent tribunals” select-ed by … wait for it … either the president or the secretary of defense.

So, in one fell swoop out go habeas corpus and checks and balances, the cornerstones of our way of life. We pat ourselves on the back for being free to choose (those of us who can afford to) where we send our children to school, where we worship, on what luxuries we spend our money. But the truth is, you can pursue those not-inconsiderable pleasures in many countries, especially if you have the means (it’s no coincidence that your Cheneys and Bushes, who use their offices to amass wealth that insulates them from the law, are little concerned with civil liberties — they assume, consciously or not, that they will live like kings, above reproach or consequence).

What you want if you’re an American is the right to challenge the state’s reasoning before an impartial authority if it imprisons you or a loved one. This centuries-old common-law concept is recognized by many scholars as the mechanism that makes a society truly free. You also want — and this may seem counterintuitive, but we’re trying to hold and market the moral high ground, remember? — habeas corpus and other constitutionally guaranteed rights to apply to all persons, not just American citizens. You want to live in a country where the folks who run don’t have to worry about being “disappeared” in the middle of the night; where USA Today can run a full-page ad paid for by without worrying that the government will shut down its presses.

We shouldn’t put the executive branch that started and is engaged in fighting a war in charge of identifying, trying, and executing suspected enemies of the state related to that campaign any more than we should put the prosecution in charge of running a murder trial. Either way, you’re likely to have something close to a 100-percent conviction rate that is in no way related to the rate of guilt. Yet that is what our Congress has done, playing the cowards as usual — confiding to reporters that they suspect (hope?) the Supreme Court will overturn the portions of the bill that undermine fundamental constitutional guarantees, arguing that they couldn’t defend voting against the bill back home — from which I gather they mean they’d rather live on their knees than die on their feet. I’m still idealistic enough to think that there’s no point to serving in Congress, making the daily concessions and bargains that the job requires, if you’re not going to call in your favors and fall on your sword when it really counts. But that day, the day that really counted, was last Friday, and the majority of our senators chose to cling to power rather than stand up for our American ideals.

It’s up to us to show them that they read us — their employers, their constituents — wrong. Write and call your representatives now, vote in November, and, while you’re at it, visit


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