Immediately after September 11, 2001, while the ruins of the World Trade Center still smoldered, some of the more thoughtful members of the punditocracy and the population asked the obvious question of why: “Why did this happen? What had the US done that was so bad?”
For some—George W. Bush, for instance—the answer was clear. It wasn’t what the US had done, it was who we were.
“Americans are asking, why do they hate us?” he said in a joint address to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001. “They hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”
He used “freedom” 13 times in that one speech. It would, as it turns out, become a recurring theme for the president. In his second inaugural address, Bush used “freedom” 27 times, more than twice as many times as his joint address. That’s a lot of freedom. And that’s not even counting the “freedom fries” on the menu at the Congressional cafeteria.
But under this president and the bills he’s signed into law, Americans are losing their freedoms at an alarming rate—and with them, the United States’ power to inspire people to work for real freedom from tyranny.
One shouldn’t discount the power the idea of America has for oppressed people of the world. When Syria still had its boot on Lebanon’s throat, Americans in the country were often reminded of this power by cab drivers, shopkeepers and other strangers who spoke movingly of America’s support for freedom around the world and expressed hope that it would support freedom in Lebanon, too. And then, for a brief moment during the Cedar Revolution, Bush seemed to support the country.
Back home, however, it was a different story. On October 17, Bush signed into law the Military Commission Act of 2006, which supporters say provides a framework for trying terrorism suspects while “clarifying” the Geneva Conventions. Under the law, Bush’s new powers are the very definition of tyranny. Setting aside it’s thumbs-up to interrogation techniques such as water-boarding, sleep depravation and stress positions—techniques which “normal people consider torture,” as the New York Times put it—the act allows the president of the United States or the secretary of defense to declare a US citizen, even if they had never left the States, an “unlawful enemy combatant,” throw them into a military prison and never bring charges against them. Foreign nationals or legal residents cannot appeal their imprisonment or demand a trial, a right known as habeas corpus, while Americans’ rights to a habeas hearing are strictly limited. And this can happen anywhere in the world. If the president says you’re a bad guy, it’s pretty much game over for you. Oh, and you’ll probably be tortured.
Even today, there are possibly hundreds of Lebanese detainees languishing in Stygian darkness in Damascus. Men (and some women) who were taken in the night by the Syrian forces after its October 13, 1990, invasion have been tortured, have never had a trial nor been informed of the charges against them. Just like “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla somewhere in a US military brig!
The difference between Syria and the United States is that Washington is—and I stress this—legally doing this. So what freedoms exactly is the United States fighting for? What brave fight against “Islamo-Fascism” is the US waging when its own laws sound like they were written by Josef Stalin?
That Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and their ilk were and are butchers, mass murders and thugs is beyond dispute. That they’re enemies of true freedom and hurtful toward the peaceful people of the world is also indisputable. But America’s judicial system isn’t about who its enemies are; it’s about who America is.
Thomas Paine wrote in 1795, “An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. … He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
When America looks at her enemies, she now sees herself.