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When Democracy Fails Us
Published on Friday, September 29, 2006 by
When Democracy Fails Us
by Jerry Lanson

On Thursday night, the U.S. Congress tore up large swaths of the Constitution.

Egged on by President Bush and a variety of pre-November election insecurities, the United States Senate joined the House in making a mockery of the principles on which this nation was founded.

While America slept, the Congress passed a law that allows the government to round up any green-card carrying immigrants and hold them in jail indefinitely on mere suspicion that they might have something to do with supporting terrorism.

While America slept, lulled by news reports that focused almost exclusively on a Republican side squabble over the bill, the Congress denied all non-citizens rounded up in future anti-terror dragnets the right to appeal their status to the courts.

While America slept, reassured by the silence of a Democratic Party too fearful to filibuster, too weak to oppose forcefully, the Congress invited our president to be the judge of what forms of interrogation are authorized under the Geneva Conventions.

The fox, in other words, is now the hen house’s only guard. And that hen house, roof crumbling, may prove to be American democracy itself.

For starters, George Bush will decide -- in secret if he chooses -- what methods of interrogation he considers to be abusive, a New York Times editorial reported. This, of course, is the same man who already has authorized secret prisons overseas and whose underlings already have subjected suspected terrorists to forms of abuse ranging from simulated drowning to being stripped naked and left standing for days in “stress positions.” And that was before anyone passed a law giving him permission.

This law gives permission at wholesale prices. The Times reported it also:

  • Allows coerced evidence, if deemed “reliable” by a judge.
  • Limits the definition of torture so severely that it “would effectively eliminate the idea of rape as torture.”
  • Could subject legal U.S. residents and foreigners living in their own countries to arrest and “indefinite detention.”

In short, both the law’s sweep and its speed of passage are mindbending.


Even a moderate Republican, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, said before the final vote that denying prisoners habeas corpus, the right to seek redress in court, “would .. take our civilization back 900 years.” That little speech didn’t keep him from supporting his president along with all but one Republican after his amendment to restore habeas corpus was defeated.

Even those who have fought proudly in Iraq and Afghanistan and fully support all aspects of what President Bush calls America’s War on Terror say that tinkering with the Geneva Conventions could open the floodgates of torture everywhere, endangering any American soldier unlucky enough to be captured by an enemy.

Even those who make their livings as interrogators are sharply divided over whether information elicited through the techniques of torture ever serves a useful purpose. Under the worst forms of abuse, they acknowledge, human beings confess to anything.

OK, you’re thinking. “That's too bad. But it couldn’t possibly affect me, right?”

Let’s see now. Friday’s Washington Post reports: “The (law) empowers the executive branch to detain indefinitely anyone (emphasis added) it determines to have ‘purposefully and materially’ supported anti-U.S. hostilities.”

Hmmm. Could anyone mean – well -- anyone? After all, it is the executive branch under this law that is entitled to pull people off the street. And with no trial required and no need to file charges, who is to say whether that executive branch would have good cause or any cause for doing so? How would we, the public, find out? There are no checks, no balances, no legal processes to be followed. We seem to have a bit of a Catch 22 here.

This much is clear. Our country stands poised to fall backwards some 65 years, when we rounded up more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans and interred them in camps simply on the basis of their heritage. More than five decades later, a chastened U.S. government paid largely symbolic reparations to those Americans in an apology for one of this country’s most shameful acts. Yet now we are setting the stage to do it again -- another round-up, more camps, perhaps this time with special interrogation chambers. A remote possibility? Not if there’s another terrorist attack on our soil.

In his book, “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning,” former war correspondent Chris Hedges warns of how unending warfare corrupts societies and distorts the priorities of those who live within them.

“We often become as deaf and dumb,” he writes, “as those we condemn.”

The Congress’ actions Thursday show how deaf and dumb, how complacent and disengaged, this country has become since Sept. 11, 2001, how far its citizens and representatives have been manipulated by a culture of fear cultivated to an art form by this president and his party.

Today George Bush is right when he tells us, “Be afraid.” We need to listen.

We need to be afraid of our own representatives of both parties and their willingness to dismantle democracy as they jockey for political edge and stretch for a few more votes in a moral vacuum. We need to be afraid of the economic fallout that might occur if tens of thousands of American immigrants, in this country legally, start to leave out of the fear that they can now be arrested with no evidence and held by a jailer who, accountable to no one, can throw away the key. We need to be afraid that some day soon, any American who speaks out could hear that late-night knock on the door emblematic of every totalitarian state where people are forced to lower their voices to a whisper.

Far-fetched, you say? After Thursday's vote in the U.S. Senate, I’m not so sure.

Jerry Lanson is a professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston His blog, Making Sense of the News, can be foundat He can be reached at


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