Sunday, February 04, 2007

Why we are here

Take a look at this clip (courtesy of JC) of Senator Leahy giving Alberto Gonzales a lesson in basic decency. The subject is “extraordinary rendition,” Newspeak for the transfer of terrorism suspects to countries where they will be tortured. Leahy makes points that those of us who have been protesting for years are already familiar with, including the important fact that the government has sent people to Syria for torture, a country that we supposedly consider a sponsor of terrorism itself.

Contemplate, if you have the stomach for it, the simpering countenance of the little creep who somehow became the highest law enforcement officer in the land. He wears a smirk of condescension, no doubt feeling an innate superiority to anyone with a conscience. Leahy can talk about freedoms, values, or the Founding Fathers all day, but Gonzales won’t hear, or comprehend. He’s a Bush toady, and that’s the sum total of his world view.

When I think about these times, and these pathetic little men who hold power, I often feel a sense of vertigo, a wonder at how we could have descended so far. When I heard the first stirrings of a right-wing argument for torture (it was in a George Will column in 2001) I was sickened, because I knew it meant that the administration was going to take that route. But I never dreamed that it would become such a central aspect of their program.

Even if one were to believe that torture is an effective tool against terrorism—a belief contradicted by all the facts—it certainly could never be conceived as one of the most important methods, compared to intelligence gathering, informants, surveillance, etc. The need, the absolute imperative to have the “freedom” to torture, which has been repeatedly expressed by Cheney and company, seems completely out of proportion to its importance, as long as one assumes that the rightists really care about fighting terrorism. If, instead, one comes to believe, as I do, that the rightists have a stake in perpetuating the fear of terrorism (and therefore a stake in its persistence), then a couple of possibilities present themselves.

The first is that they believe that the threat of torture will strike fear into the hearts of all their opponents. The enemies, whoever they are, will be intimidated by the apparent willingness of the U.S. to “disappear” people into secret prisons from which there is no escape, and to torture and abuse them for as long as it chooses. The purpose is to strike a super tough, super aggressive attitude that will deter attacks. This is fully in line with Bush foreign policy in general, which has relied almost solely on creating an image of so-called toughness against “terror,” “Islamo-fascism,” etc. The occupation of Iraq has thoroughly discredited this naïve approach, except for the Bush cadre, which continues to adhere to it, believing that to acknowledge any other approach would mean defeat. (Defeat for the rightists is equated in their own minds with defeat for the country, although in reality our country’s true interests lie in the opposite direction from the Bush regime’s.)

We must not fail to also acknowledge the intimidation of American political opponents as a motive. This brings me to the second possible reason for this peculiar fixation on torture. This radical group that I usually label with reference to Richard Cheney, but is in fact a much wider phenomenon, encompassing the so-called neoconservatives as well as neo-fascist, theocratic and nativist forces dominating the Republican Party, is essentially hostile to the American tradition of freedom embodied in the Bill of Rights. To these elements, human and civil rights are an obstacle to the exercise of authoritarian control and economic power (the latter is what they mean when they refer to “freedom.”) The rightists are also hostile to the separation of powers, preferring a centralized executive with unlimited authority. (Paradoxically, they will seek to undermine an executive who is not of their group, e.g. Bill Clinton, if the outsider has connections to elements that does not adhere to rightist ideology. Thus, any Democratic president will be attacked and weakened by the rightists unless he is a rightist himself.) The project, then, is to take any remaining force out of the Bill of Rights, concentrate power in a king-like executive and one-party apparatus (such as in China), while extending economic dominance abroad. The legitimization of torture is a key step along the way, because it ups the stakes against dissenters by discouraging protest, and it undermines the moral foundations of human and civil rights. Torture takes center stage because people need to get used to the degradation of human dignity if they are to eventually accept dictatorship, or at least tacitly accede to it.

I have always maintained that the Bush administration is illegitimate, i.e. not a bona fide legal executive. It has gained power, and maintained it, through fraud, and it has operated primarily through the commission of various crimes, from the crimes against humanity in Iraq and elsewhere to its consistent violation of the Constitution, the Geneva Convention, and other legal and common human standards of decency, along with deliberate negligence (New Orleans) and political crimes exemplified by Karl Rove and the Libby case.

Nevertheless, it is important to take a long view as well. The creation of a national security state after World War II, and the emergence of an imperial mindset as its driving force, has led us—with tragic inevitability—to where we are today. This idea of government was similar in some respects to the Soviet state that it ostensibly opposed, in that policing and spying (“intelligence”) were invested with virtually unchecked authority, and cloaked in secrecy. Again and again, we have seen the advocates for the military-industrial complex and the police agencies (FBI, CIA, NSA, etc.) stress the need for secrecy, and this always involved eliminating any oversight by the citizenry. “Security” became the byword for the maintenance of power by a bloated military and police establishment, and this large group has of course an interest in perpetuating itself and its power. This self-interest did not go away with the fall of the Soviets. It holds on to power with all its might.

One of the central tenets of this imperial mindset is that America must act without moral scruples in order to defend itself. Since the enemy has no scruples, neither should we. Torture has always been a part of this. “Rendition” is not a Bush innovation. The CIA and other intelligence agencies have been committing crimes against humanity for decades. What we see today is the result of a progression of “national security” ideology. The authoritarian model, with its emphasis on secrecy, cannot coexist comfortably with the old-fashioned American idea of personal liberty. It was bound to produce the result we have today—an entrenched anti-democratic rightist faction controlling the executive, and making concerted efforts to turn us into a de facto dictatorship. Previous White House occupants since FDR—the establishment as we have come to know it in the post-war era—have been less overt in their anti-democratic aims. This administration has brought those aims out of the closet, so to speak, in an attempt to turn an unofficial “shadow” government into an officially recognized government system. Verbal compromises are still made out of political expediency—Bush denies that we torture while simply giving the torture a different name—but this latest group is remarkable for how indifferent it generally is to public opinion or even to the views of traditional conservative forces. Its behavior indicates that the stakes are far greater than the “business as usual” paradigm in Washington would have us believe. For the rightists to put torture in a central place on the table is essentially to say that they are staking everything on an outright seizure of power. We must therefore assume that the world situation, economically and politically, appears so dire to them that short-term political considerations ultimately must take a back seat to the requirements of an imperial ideology.

The Bush regime appears to be losing. But in the long run, the national security state will continue unless the apparatus is drastically reduced. The CIA needs to be dismantled. The Pentagon budget needs to be gutted down to a size that actually defends the country instead of imperial interests. Control of the state must be seized from the corporations. The fact that all these goals seem unattainable right now is a measure of how bad things are, and how far we need to go.

1 comment:

Stan said...

Outstanding essay Chris, and worryingly truthful.