Categories
Law Politics The War on Terrorism

Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr.

Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane of the Times have a solid piece today on Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr., the former head of CIA’s Directorate of Operations.  The piece seems to suffer from a bit too much editing – but it gives the reader a flavor of the lurking back story behind Mr. Rodriguez’s role in the destruction of the interrogation tapes.

As an example of editing gone wrong, the story begins with this intriguing opening:

It would become known inside the Central Intelligence Agency as “the Italian job,” a snide movie reference to the bungling performance of an agency team that snatched a radical Muslim cleric from the streets of Milan in 2003 and flew him to Egypt — a case that led to criminal charges in Italy against 26 Americans.

That’s about as far into the matter as this story goes – although I’m sure the story isn’t breaking here for the first time.

I was left with both an admiration for Mr. Rodriguez’s character and an anger that it seems unlikely that he will face any consequences for blatantly and deliberately breaking the law.  His lawyer characterizes the coda that led him to destroy the interrogation videos as well as cover up the abuses in “the Italian Job” operation as this: “I’m not going to let my people get nailed for something they were ordered to do.”

In describing his reason for destroying the tapes, the Times concludes:

Mr. Rodriguez, who was nearing retirement, saw the tapes as a sort of time bomb that, if leaked, threatened irreparable damage to the United States’ image in the Muslim world, his friends say, and posed physical and legal risks to C.I.A. officers on them.

Again – I sympathize with him.  And his distrust of the administration – as well as any political administration – is well-founded.  Sympathy cannot override the necessary condition of any free society: that the law must be held above any individual.

Categories
Election 2008 Law Liberalism Libertarianism Morality Political Philosophy Politics The Web and Technology

The libertarian liberal

Liberty Bell

[digg-reddit-me]My post of a few weeks ago got a bit of attention. I was called a Communist by one person. Someone else suggested I was a secret member of the long-defunct FBI program COINTELPRO. Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos approvingly linked to it from the main page of The Daily Kos. The Freedom Democrats had a small discussion, including the notation that they could tell that “the person who wrote it is not really a libertarian.” Enough people on reddit believed the post would cause damage to the candidacy of Ron Paul and down-modded it.

I have written this article in response to a few comments:

Libertas questioned:

Umm.. how exactly does ‘Kos Libertarian’ differ from the standard Democrat, other than opposing the various lobbies?
…What you are describing is not Libertarianism; it is the noble, but slippery slope to government expansion and to the loss of freedom.

A “Jay” opined:

It appears then that ‘Libertarian Democrats’ need to go look up the definition of ‘corporation’. If you would have done that first you might not have made an ass out of yourself and completely discredited yourself with such an absurd quote.

symphonyofdissent argued that:

… there is a real distinction between a progressive and a left-libertarian…Progressivism does not view the individual as the critical unit, but instead views society as a whole. The sacrifice of individual liberty is justified if it benefits society on the whole Libertarianism views individuals as the primary unit of interest.

erw wrote:

i think checking corporate power is seen as a non-issue for libertarians, since they believe:

1) the place to check corporate power is in the courts, if and when they harm you or your property.
2) corporate lobbies and special treatment are all by-products of a large federal government…

i think it just shows how much influence ron paul has. he is pulling democrats into his camp with fearless stances.

Fred Fnord had a thoughtful comment, which you should read in full.

This post is responding to a number of these points. As always, feel free to comment. 1


The essence of libertarianism
I cannot do justice to the philosophy of libertarianism in a single post, and I will not try. But I think we can all agree that there are two main ideas at the base of a libertarian politics:

  1. I exist as an individual and I own myself; and
  2. “Where the State begins, individual liberty ceases, and vice versa.”2

In a pragmatic sense, the goal, or the teleological end, of libertarianism is the promotion of individual liberty.

Coming to the libertarian liberal philosophy

To summarize the point both I and Markos Moulitsas were making:

Kos Libertarians3 believe we do not need a government small enough to drown in a bathtub as Grover Norquist famously said. Rather, we need a government that is as small as possible, while still allowing it to act as a check against corporate power. In other words, Kos Libertarians believe we need a government that not only butts out of our life, but that guards our rights against others.4

History has proven time and again that individuals and liberties will be trampled upon by the powerful without preemptive action by the government. Corporations take advantage of their special status5 in order to circumvent legal responsibility for their actions. The kind of libertarianism favored by many towards the right-wing of the political spectrum involves going back to the 1890s, when corporations were first granted the rights of individuals and had few regulations imposed on them; and also when the government had fewer powers and intruded less on the life of the ordinary person.

But the changes that occurred after that point happened for a reason. The traditional libertarian remedy of requiring individuals to bring suit against companies for any harm done to them failed. Corporations exerted enormous power and subverted the courts to their will. They forced workers to toil in unsafe conditions; they made faulty products; they exploited natural resources without giving anything back to the community; they polluted the air, water, and soil. If the government had not stepped in in the early 1900s under Teddy Roosevelt and in the 1930s under Franklin Roosevelt, the capitalist system of free markets guided by “an invisible hand” would have perished. Government began to assume more power in a large part to act as a check against the corporate abuses of their growing power.

Yet by the 1980s, it was obvious to many Americans that the government could do great harm, even when it was trying to act beneficently. The welfare program helped entrench people in ghettos; the Vietnam War, fought to save the Vietnamese from Communism, had accomplished nothing; the national security system created to respond to the domestic and international threat of the Cold War had turned against dissenters and political opponents; the growing domestic spending led to huge deficits and inflation. The government was clearly a problem.

The libertarian liberal philosophy is a response to this moment in history – synthesizing the critique of capitalism inherent in the New Deal and the critique of government inherent in the Reagan Revolution.

What does a libertarian liberal believe

At the heart of American liberalism, there has always been a contradiction. American liberals have long fought for individual rights against the state – especially in matter relating to criminal law, civil rights, minority rights, and free speech.6 At the same time, American liberals fought for greater state intervention in the economy and daily life of the nation. The American liberal tradition had not acknowledged that by giving the state greater power, we were in effect conceding individual freedoms. Even if that power was required to be used to help individuals, it would inevitably have negative side effects, making these individuals dependent on the state and giving the government more power and ability to manipulate individuals.

Today, many liberals have come to see this reality. While we still believe that government can be used for good, we are much more cautious about what government can and should do.

The libertarian liberal approach is pragmatic rather than ideological. It is about maximizing individual liberty with one caveat: the moral duty to empower the impoverished and the disadvantaged. Maximizing individual liberty means using the government as a check against corporations; it means setting up checks and balances within the government itself; it means a strong media, willing to challenge the government and corporations; it means strong individual rights to keep the government and corporations in check; it means elections that are meaningful. To maximize individual liberties, we need to constantly balance the many competing forces in such a way as to give each person the rights that are their birthright.

The difference between a liberal and a libertarian liberal

The goals of liberals and libertarian liberals are similar if not the same. The difference is in the approach. For example, let’s look at health care. As a traditional liberal, Dennis Kucinich does not see value in a libertarian view of the problem. Government, for him, cannot be the problem; it must be the entire solution. He wants to eliminate the system as it is and impose a government-run health care plan on everyone, whether they want it or not. To take another example of a more pragmatic traditional liberal, Hillary Clinton, does not want to eliminate the system, but wants to work within it. She wants to take a number of steps to make it easier for the average person to buy health insurance, including opening up the plan used by members of Congress to the population at large. But she also plans to mandate that every person get and maintain health insurance.

Barak Obama’s plan is similar to Hillary’s but with one crucial difference. He too plans on taking a number of steps to make health insurance more affordable, and to open up Congress’s plan to the rest of the country, to invest more in health care infrastructure, and take a number of steps to reduce costs. But he will not force anyone adult to get health insurance. 7 This is the difference between a traditional liberal and a libertarian liberal. 8 Both see a problem – a problem that the free market is making worse – and both believe that the government must act. Neither believes that a complete overhaul of the system can happen – for pragmatic reasons, if nothing else. Both lay out similar steps that need to be taken – to reduce prices, to enable individuals to afford health care, and to make it more available. But Hillary believes the government needs to force independent and competent9 people to get health care; Obama does not.

There are arguments to be made as to why the government should force people to get health care – Paul Krugman has been harping on these for some time – but if one believes that the government should only use force when it is absolutely necessary, as a libertarian does, then Obama’s program is better because it respects individual rights. The best use of government in a libertarian liberal view is when it is able to empower individuals and act as a check against corporate abuse of individual liberty. Obama’s plan does this; with Hillary’s plan individuals are empowered to act against corporations, and corporate power is checked – but the government is given yet more leverage over every individual, creating another regulation for individuals to comply with, and another reason for the government to penalize the exercise of freedom.

  1. As some people have noticed, your comment will not appear until I have approved it. This is only an anti-spam measure. I approve every comment that is not clearly spam; and I try to check as often as possible. []
  2. By Mikhail Bakunin. I don’t mean to cite Bakunin as a typical libertarian, but only to take this quote and use it to express in a simple form one of the main precepts agreed to by all libertarians. I thought of using Ronald Reagan’s “Government is not the solution, it is the problem,” but that seemed a bit too specific. It was a conclusion, rather than a base. []
  3. I think the term “Kos libertarian” best describes the current movement of libertarian-minded Democrats, but that the term “libertarian liberal” best describes the pragmatic politics and philosophy. []
  4. As a commenter pointed out, the original phrasing (“that protects our rights against others”) can be read as an unfair interpretation of traditional libertarianism. Traditional libertarians would see the courts as the appropriate place for the government to mediate between parties and protect basic rights. What I should have said was that “Kos libertarians believe we need a government that not only butts out of our individuals lives, but guards our rights against others.” Libertarians liberals believe that the government must take an active role in pro-actively guarding individual rights. []
  5. Specifically limited liability provisions. And in response to “Jay”, although corporations are legally considered individuals, this is something commonly called a “legal fiction.” Philosophically, morally, pragmatically, physiologically, psychologically, and in every other way they are not. They are collectives. []
  6. The American liberal’s record on free speech in the past twenty years though is significantly more checked. []
  7. There is a rather large debate going on now between Paul Krugman, Barack Obama, Robert Reich, and Hillary Clinton about this. Hillary is saying Obama’s plan won’t cover everyone because it won’t have a mandate; but Hillary’s plan actually won’t either – it will just require that everyone get insurance. Krugman has stepped in to attack Obama mercilessly again and again and again as the Clinton shill he has become; and Reich stepped in to look at both sides, and come down on the side of Obama. Jaydiatribe has a good overall view of the conflict. []
  8. I wouldn’t necessarily say Obama is a libertarian liberal, but on this issue, it fits. He also seems closest to the position of all the current crop of candidates. And certainly, as a member of a different generation, he has learned the lessons of the 1980s better than Hillary. []
  9. Added “independent and competent”. I, for the life of me, cannot think of the correct term to use here. There is a philosophical term on the tip of my tongue used to describe people who are able to make independent, self-conscious decisions. []
Categories
Election 2008 Foreign Policy Giuliani Law Libertarianism Obama Politics Post 9/11 Generation The War on Terrorism

Why I write this blog

It’s been about two months since I’ve started this blog. I started it knowing only that I wanted to write, and that I already had a dozen ideas for posts or articles. There were many times as well when I would read this or that article and be frustrated at the inaccuracies, and I wanted to correct them, or add to them, and I thought could advance the collective conversation.

This blog has in many ways been more successful than I anticipated – with over 125,000 pageviews and over 80,000 absolute unique visitors in this short time. I’ve been writing only in my free time here and there – a few minutes before lunch at work, after I get home at night, and on weekends.

Recently, I have been trying to determine what exactly it is that I have to offer, and therefore what this blog should be about. My most popular link so far was this funny cat video I came across on a Saturday night and embedded; next was this bit of electoral analysis which has proved remarkably prescient, especially in its title “The Beginning of the End of Hillary 2008”; then comes this uneven piece on the rhetoric used in the debate on what to do about terrorists and terrorism. As you go further down the list, there is one piece of pop-political-philosophy discussing the differences between two libertarian-minded political trends; a mention of Chris Rock’s comments introducing Obama with related video; the contrasting stories of the interrogation of two Al Qaeda related prisoners in the aftermath of September 11; and a video of a cheerleader getting trampled by a football team. The posts cover a wide range – from clear fluff to horse-race analysis of the presidential campaigns to more serious discussions of issues.

What is it that I have to offer?

Given my position – having a full-time job and blogging on the side – I cannot do what I would most want to do, in-depth first person research on every topic.1 But I think there are other things I have to offer. I am a voracious consumer of media – especially about news and politics. I listen to many unedited candidate and policy-maker speeches.2 I care deeply about a number of issues and follow them closely in the news including the issue of liberty in America today, the fate of Pakistan, the attempt to create a practical and moral foreign policy, and the construction of a strategy to wage a smart and effective War on Terror. I read opinions from a broad political spectrum, and take them seriously. Or at least most of them. I have read books by Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Barry Goldwater, as well as books by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, and I regularly read both conservative and liberal blogs and magazines, as well as some radicals that are not so easily classified. 3 I believe I have generally sound judgment and a sense of the political winds, as well as a unique and insightful views on current events.

So what I have to offer is this: a funny video every Saturday; analysis of where the politics is headed in the near and slightly-less-near future; and serious policy discussion (leavened with some humor).

What this blog is about

There is one issue which above all shapes my thoughts today and is the impetus behind this blog: the precariousness of the American experiment. I am convinced that America’s status as a liberal4 democratic republic is in existential danger. This danger is not only from terrorism, but from our government’s response to terrorism. I have come to believe that the Bush administration has undermined and subverted many of the institutions and ideas that have kept executive power in check since our founding: the media, the Supreme Court, the independence of executive agencies, the military, the Congress, and the rule of law. At the same time, the Bush administration has posited monarchical powers for the presidency, they have been relatively reticent in using them. 5 For example, while Bush has asserted the authority to declare any person a terrorist and enemy combatant and hold them secretly and indefinitely without trial or charge and torture them for information, and given such a broad definition of terrorism as to include anyone who even criticizes him, he does not seem to have used this power to the extent he has asserted he can. This has led many people to see the rhetoric of those raising the alarm about these issues as unhinged from the reality of their lives. But because Bush has asserted such powers and undermined every check on his power, we are closer than ever to a police state.

Let me be clear – I think in every practical sense, America today is far from a police state. But with the theoretical foundations laid down by this administration, and the subversion of any check on executive power, we seem to be only one 9/11 away from a fall from authentic liberal democracy. It is this concern that is the prism which affects how I see every issue: it is why I became a Barack Obama supporter; why I am afraid of Rudy Giuliani; why I am so opposed to torture; why I am so concerned about our strategy in the War on Terrorism; why I started this blog; and why I will continue to write and seek other ways to affect America’s fate.

  1. I am trying to do this though, and to do it more – sending emails, letters, and in other ways trying to contact the subjects of my pieces; and also trying to get more information in this way. []
  2. Through C-Span, the Constitution Center, and the Council of Foreign Relations primarily. []
  3. I believe there is a third way in politics – but that neither Bill Clinton nor his wife have found it, relying instead on cynical triangulation and the papering over of large differences with clever rhetoric. []
  4. In the classical sense. []
  5. Only relative to what they have asserted is their power. For example, the Bush administration has asserted that it does not need Congressional approval to go to war, but it still asked for it. []
Categories
Domestic issues Election 2008 Law Politics The War on Terrorism

Our Lady of the Law

I’m still hoping someone out there has the full text of this speech by former Governor Cuomo that is being called “Our Lady of the Law”:[digg-reddit-me]

Cuomo said we have to make them understand that we are after

“something sweeter than the taste of partisan victory”

The clear message was that he fully expected that it was the obligation of lawyers everywhere to speak up in support of the Rule of Law or as he persisted in calling it “Our Lady of the Law.” That he expected us to take to the streets, to the OpEd pages, the airwaves, and to every other medium available to us…

Categories
Domestic issues Election 2008 Law Politics

Does winning the Supreme Court galvanize social movements?

JB over at the Balkinization blog has an insightful post about whether or not “winning in the Supreme Court” galvanizes social movements.  His conclusion: in the short term, it galvanizes the loser of the case, and in the long-term, tends to work for the winner.  In analyzing what is likely to happen after the Heller decision, which JB assumes will be in favor of gun owners, he writes:

Conversely, it is possible that right wing groups like the NRA, unlike the women’s movement, the pro-choice movement, the civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement, will not be demobilized in the short run by a major victory in the courts but in fact will be ever more galvanized. But I wouldn’t bet on it. My guess is that following what I predict will be a significant victory in Heller, the NRA and other gun rights groups will overinvest in litigation to push for additional gun rights victories in the courts, and they will simultaneously experience a short term drop-off in contributions and movement energies.

Categories
Domestic issues History Law Political Philosophy Politics The War on Terrorism

A Defense of Compromise and the American Experiment

In response to a blog post by lynx on natural rights, as well as comments made on my post[digg-reddit-me] about whether or not terrorists have rights, and another post of mine that discussed torture, comments made by Andrew K at essembly.com, and in various reddit discussions:

A few definitions

freedom – the ability to act without restraint; referring to politics: the right of self-determination as an expression of the individual will. (see footnote 1)

society – a collection of individual beings who together form a community with a shared culture and a shared set of rules or laws.

a rule or law – a restriction on the freedom of an individual or institution.

radical – someone who rejects the way things are in favor of revolutionary change.

Absolute freedom

Based on these definitions, it is clear that any society is, by it’s nature, the result of the compromise of individual freedom. Absolute freedom is a state enjoyed only by tyrants. In a society of equals or near-equals, the freedom that is enjoyed is the result the compromise of each individual’s absolute freedom. These compromises are memorialized in laws, constitutions, rules, mores, ethical principles, and customs among other means. They are enforced through various methods – from social pressure to the courts of law.

As with every human endeavor, the system of compromises that allows society to exist is deeply flawed. Rules are unequally applied; mores are arbitrary; laws are broken. But even in the purest theoretical state, absolute individual freedom is impossible in a free society.

The American experiment

What we are left with then is disarmingly simple: we must try to figure out what is the best compromise of individual freedoms that will allow us to live together in a society. The dream of greater freedom, of a more free society, has motivated people throughout history: from Gandhi to Plato, from Che Guevera to Simon Bolivar, from Alexander Hamilton to James Madison, from Robespierre to Abraham Lincoln.

As often as these experiments have been tried, they have failed. In the name of freedom, Robespierre instituted a Reign of Terror; Plato banished poetry and democracy; James Madison protected slavery; Abraham Lincoln waged a bloody civil war; Che Guevera fought for a dictatorship. This is what men have done in the name of freedom.

Despite these flawed individuals and their flawed conceptions of a free society, advances have been made in the past few centuries. (See footnote 2.) The American Revolution established the principle that the consent of the governed is required in a free society, and that certain rights are inherent, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The subsequent Constitution and Bill or Rights established a government that for the first time, attempted to balance power sufficient to maintain a stable society with numerous checks and restrictions to limit abuses of this power. The 14th Amendment committed the federal government to guarding and preserving the rights inherent in the founding documents. Finally, the New Deal and subsequent programs made the state responsible for providing basic economic opportunities to its citizens and for protecting them from the excesses of capitalism.

The most important liberties in any free society are those which are essential to allow for the effective consent of the governed in creating and maintaining the policies and laws of the government. There has been much debate about what is needed, but on the whole, most agree that this list encompasses the basics:

  • an independent judiciary;
  • fair and transparent elections;
  • a free press;
  • a military subordinate to civilian authority;
  • habeas corpus;
  • freedom of speech;
  • freedom of assembly.

Without these, a government is not able to gain the free consent of it’s people.

At the time of the American revolution, individual liberty and the right to pursue one’s happiness beyond these basic rights were acknowledged in theory, but violated in practice – especially at the state level. Since then, as the government has become more powerful, regulations have been created to restrain the government more. But government power has outstripped regulation and especially since the New Deal, these non-basic liberties have been eroding. (See footnote 3.)

Our society is still substantially free – even today. There are growing defects apparent in our institutions of government; there are many attempts – some successful – to undermine the freedom of the press, habeas corpus, the independent judiciary, and the civilian authority over the military. Yet despite these attacks on basic liberties, and the glaring exceptions that are generally gathered together under the heading of consensual crimes, individuals in contemporary American society still have substantial freedom to pursue their happiness as long as their desires do not conflict with the rights of others.

Compromise

There is the rub. In a society, the rights of one individual is often pitted against the rights of another. Does the absolute freedom of speech mean I can lie about a product I am selling; or endanger others by inciting violence; or slander the reputation of my neighbor? How does the absolute freedom of religion deal with religions that seek to impose their views of ethics on all others? Does the freedom to assemble mean that I can gather together with 500 of my closest friends in your backyard?

Compromise is the basis of our system of government, and the basis of our society. A significant part of the effectiveness of terrorism is that it exploits the liberties inherent in a free society. Terrorism is the price we pay for freedom. But upon due consideration, and with the goal of preserving our way of life and with the consent of the people, compromises may be made in order to reduce the dangers of terrorism. Our compromises should be in proportion to the problem: suspending habeas corpus during an insurrection is one thing; suspending it indefinitely as a result of possible future plots is quite another.

We must zealously guard the aforementioned pillars of a free society: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, etcetera. But we must guard them not because they are ideals which are perfect; but because they are the pillars of a free society. If we begin to focus on the absolute ideals and lose focus on the society in which we live, we risk going down the path of Robespierre, who in the name of liberty, fraternity, and equality became a tyrant.

Every society is the result of a particular set of compromises and is delicately balanced between anarchy and tyranny. The problem with radicalism is that it has no patience for balance – instead, seeking to create society anew. The desire to start again, to erase all the evils of the world with a new social compact, is a compelling idea that has seduced many. Inevitably, it has led to tyranny as the delicate balance holding society together is disturbed.

Perhaps more than anything this was the miracle of the American Revolution – the fact that is was a non-radical revolution that never sought to remake its society.

Why I’m angry

It is because I believe our society is not entirely corrupt and because I believe it allows genuine freedom for most of its citizens that I am so angry at the current administration. As I have written previously and will again: I believe that the Bush administration has been fighting a war against our theoretical rights and liberties, against the system of checks and balances, and against the Constitution in the name of expanding executive power. They refer to it as allowing greater freedom for the president to execute policy and protect national security.

A challenge to those who disagree

  • define freedom (if you disagree with the definition given)
  • define society (same as above)
  • explain why compromise is not necessary (if you believe so)
Categories
Election 2008 Foreign Policy Law Morality Politics The War on Terrorism

Vince Flynn & The Preemptive Surrender of American Values

The Constitution

To demonstrate my previous point that:

“[T]he Republican position is this: the terrorists have won. The terrorists’ ideas and actions make America’s liberal democracy irrelevant. We must take what steps are necessary to protect the public safety; civil liberties are only for those who deserve them. Although the President took an oath to defend the Constitution, he now must defend American lives at the expense of this old document.”

Vince Flynn has written a novel he has ironically titled Protect and Defend. (See footnote if you miss the irony.) Apparently, it is now the top fiction bestseller on The New York Times, and the author is going on a promotional tour. Glenn Beck has said that Mitt Rapp, the hero of Flynn’s thriller, makes “Jack Bauer look like a puss”. Here a taste of what the novel is like from an exchange towards the end of chapter 45 during which the President of the United States, the Attorney General, and the hero Mitch Rapp are on a conference call in a crisis situation that perfectly illustrates my point:

“Mitch, [Attorney General] Pete Weber here. We all know you and [CIA Director] Irene are close but you really need to take a few steps back and remember that you took an oath, an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. We all took that oath and that means that none of us is above the law, including you.”

There was a long pause and then in a voice filled with frustration Rapp said, “You have got to be kidding me!”

Rapp’s stark response caused everyone in the room to take a quick look at each other.

“Excuse me?” the attorney general asked defensively.

“The Director of the CIA was just kidnapped and her entire security detail was wiped out and you want to lecture me about an oath and a two hundred year old piece of paper?

“Our entire country is based on that piece of paper,” Weber responded defensively.

“You may have been thinking about defending a piece of paper when you took your oath but I was thinking about protecting and defending American citizens from the type of shit that just happened. I apologize for my language, Mr. President, but this is ridiculous.” [my italics]

There are so many things to find wrong with this: the fact that Rapp misrepresents entirely the oath of office and mocks the rule of law; the fact that he deems the legal document that is supposed to be a check on his actions irrelevant; or the fact that Dick Cheney and President Bush have been reputed to have made similar statements about the Constitution and about the rule of law.

A contempt for the rule of law

The overwhelming feeling you get from the book is one of complete disregard for law and morality. Throughout the novel – which I have read – no American character ever objects to torture or law-breaking or murder on moral grounds. The only character who in some way thinks about morality is the Iranian intelligence chief who eventually works with the Americans because he knows that what his country is doing is wrong. But as the novel’s hero cuts off a prisoner’s testicles, mutilates dead bodies, and kills a Democratic Party strategist, there is explicitly no remorse. Flynn actually makes a point of saying that Rapp has no remorse or twinges of conscience over these actions. (It is also suggested the hero, acting with the CIA, killed the Vice President in a previous book: the rationale for the murder of the Democratic strategist and Vice President is that they orchestrated a terrorist attack in order to win an election. As Flynn says in the book and interview: too often politicians put their own party’s interest ahead of national security.)

The odd thing about this rejection of laws and constitutions and any traditional sense of morality is that while Flynn portrays his character’s actions as rational, they are clearly driven by visceral feelings more than pragmatism. Again and again, the “liberal” characters suggest that the hero is too emotionally caught up to think straight and do his job rationally – and Rapp admits it. Yet, knowing this, the President of the United States gives Rapp “carte blanche“. Flynn makes it clear that Rapp would do all of these things while not emotionally involved, but, perhaps to keep the audience sympathetic, keeps mentioning how emotional Rapp is. Any time any limit on Rapp’s actions and power is suggested, he reacts viscerally, with one example shown above. The strongest feeling in the novel is a contempt for law and ethics and the rule of law and conscience are considered “niceties” that are only practical in times of peace. If you doubt the current administration shares these feelings, I suggest reading Charlie Savage’s new book Takeover. The fact is that these visceral feelings are informing Republican policy – both in Vince Flynn’s imaginary world and in our own.

This contempt for the rule of law and for conscience, and the policies and actions stemming from this feeling, represent nothing less than the preemptive surrender of American values in order to try to preserve American lives. What ever happened to “Live free or die” or “Give me liberty or give me death!”? Benjamin Franklin warned, “Those who would surrender precious liberty in exchange for a bit of temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Now we have a president, a number of presidential candidates, and a few literary characters who believe liberty is only worth the paper it is protected by, who believe the rule of law does not apply in times of war, and who believe that we are in a war that will be fought for “generations”. If these men and women are right, we have reached the end of the American experiment. If the president is not constrained by the rule of law; if the balance of power between the branches of government is not respected; if the Constitution is merely an “old parchment” (to use Dick Cheney’s dismissive phrase); if the government has the right to torture and imprison and spy on American citizens in violation of Congressionally sanctioned law; if the president assumes tyrannical powers, even if he exercises them judiciously and is allowed to do so, what is left of our nation “conceived in liberty”?

I believe an Obama presidency would take the first steps to restore American values to our government. But no matter who you support, you must realize this election is of historic importance. Yet despite this, many Americans, especially, those of my generation, the post 9/11 generation are disengaged from power. We cannot afford this disengagement, ironic or otherwise, any longer.

A prescription for change

Vote and vote in large numbers and vote even if it doesn’t seem like it makes a difference. Sign up to vote today if you haven’t already. Vote for change. Vote to tackle the issues that matter. Campaign, volunteer, and throw your support behind the candidate you think is the best. Even more, and in addition, we must work in our local communities, on the web, and through our entrepreneurial efforts to start changing our society.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

We must engage with power. We must try to revive this corrupt system. We cannot wait until 2012 for real change. Our moment is now. We cannot let this election slip by. Sometimes, in the midst of trying times, all we have is the audacity of hope and our seemingly insignificant powers as individuals. We cannot decide what obstacles we will face. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

Categories
Domestic issues Law Politics The War on Terrorism

The meaning of is is

Dahlia Lithwick, by far, my favorite Slate columnist, wrote this piece today about Michael Mukasey’s supposed “independence” as proved by his understanding of what torture is. It all depends on what the meaning of the word is is.