Commenting on Friday‘s column, where I credited ‘liberals’ with ending slavery, Mike Wallin writes: ‘If I recall, it was a REPUBLICAN who ended slavery.’ Which of course it was. But ending slavery was the liberal position in Lincoln’s day. If we had Lincoln back today, he would be horrified by the leadership of his party, just as today’s liberals – and at least seven prominent conservatives – are.

Now, here are two recent essays you may have seen that fit well together:

1. In Case I Disappear
By William Rivers Pitt
truthout.org
| Perspective
Friday 29 September 2006

I have been told a thousand times at least, in the years I have spent reporting on the astonishing and repugnant abuses, lies and failures of the Bush administration, to watch my back. “Be careful,” people always tell me. “These people are capable of anything. Stay off small planes, make sure you aren’t being followed.” A running joke between my mother and me is that she has a “safe room” set up for me in her cabin in the woods, in the event I have to flee because of something I wrote or said.

I always laughed and shook my head whenever I heard this stuff. Extreme paranoia wrapped in the tinfoil of conspiracy, I thought. This is still America, and these Bush fools will soon pass into history, I thought. I am a citizen, and the First Amendment hasn’t yet been red-lined, I thought.

Matters are different now.

It seems, perhaps, that the people who warned me were not so paranoid. It seems, perhaps, that I was not paranoid enough. Legislation passed by the Republican House and Senate, legislation now marching up to the Republican White House for signature, has shattered a number of bedrock legal protections for suspects, prisoners, and pretty much anyone else George W. Bush deems to be an enemy.

So much of this legislation is wretched on the surface. Habeas corpus has been suspended for detainees suspected of terrorism or of aiding terrorism, so the Magna Carta-era rule that a person can face his accusers is now gone. Once a suspect has been thrown into prison, he does not have the right to a trial by his peers. Suspects cannot even stand in representation of themselves, another ancient protection, but must accept a military lawyer as their defender.

Illegally-obtained evidence can be used against suspects, whether that illegal evidence was gathered abroad or right here at home. To my way of thinking, this pretty much eradicates our security in persons, houses, papers, and effects, as stated in the Fourth Amendment, against illegal searches and seizures.

Speaking of collecting evidence, the torture of suspects and detainees has been broadly protected by this new legislation. While it tries to delineate what is and is not acceptable treatment of detainees, in the end, it gives George W. Bush the final word on what constitutes torture. US officials who use cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment to extract information from detainees are now shielded from prosecution.

It was two Supreme Court decisions, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, that compelled the creation of this legislation. The Hamdi decision held that a prisoner has the right of habeas corpus, and can challenge his detention before an impartial judge. The Hamdan decision held that the military commissions set up to try detainees violated both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions.

In short, the Supreme Court wiped out virtually every legal argument the Bush administration put forth to defend its extraordinary and dangerous behavior. The passage of this legislation came after a scramble by Republicans to paper over the torture and murder of a number of detainees. As columnist Molly Ivins wrote on Wednesday, “Of the over 700 prisoners sent to Gitmo, only 10 have ever been formally charged with anything. Among other things, this bill is a CYA for torture of the innocent that has already taken place.”

It seems almost certain that, at some point, the Supreme Court will hear a case to challenge the legality of this legislation, but even this is questionable. If a detainee is not allowed access to a fair trial or to the evidence against him, how can he bring a legal challenge to a court? The legislation, in anticipation of court challenges like Hamdi and Hamdan, even includes severe restrictions on judicial review over the legislation itself.

The Republicans in Congress have managed, at the behest of Mr. Bush, to draft a bill that all but erases the judicial branch of the government. Time will tell whether this aspect, along with all the others, will withstand legal challenges. If such a challenge comes, it will take time, and meanwhile there is this bill. All of the above is deplorable on its face, indefensible in a nation that prides itself on Constitutional rights, protections and the rule of law.

Underneath all this, however, is where the paranoia sets in.

Underneath all this is the definition of “enemy combatant” that has been established by this legislation. An “enemy combatant” is now no longer just someone captured “during an armed conflict” against our forces. Thanks to this legislation, George W. Bush is now able to designate as an “enemy combatant” anyone who has “purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States.”

Consider that language a moment. “Purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States” is in the eye of the beholder, and this administration has proven itself to be astonishingly impatient with criticism of any kind. The broad powers given to Bush by this legislation allow him to capture, indefinitely detain, and refuse a hearing to any American citizen who speaks out against Iraq or any other part of the so-called “War on Terror.”

If you write a letter to the editor attacking Bush, you could be deemed as purposefully and materially supporting hostilities against the United States. If you organize or join a public demonstration against Iraq, or against the administration, the same designation could befall you. One dark-comedy aspect of the legislation is that senators or House members who publicly disagree with Bush, criticize him, or organize investigations into his dealings could be placed under the same designation. In effect, Congress just gave Bush the power to lock them up.

By writing this essay, I could be deemed an “enemy combatant.” It’s that simple, and very soon, it will be the law. I always laughed when people told me to be careful. I’m not laughing anymore.

In case I disappear, remember this. America is an idea, a dream, and that is all. We have borders and armies and citizens and commerce and industry, but all this merely makes us like every other nation on this Earth. What separates us is the idea, the simple idea, that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are our organizing principles. We can think as we please, speak as we please, write as we please, worship as we please, go where we please. We are protected from the kinds of tyranny that inspired our creation as a nation in the first place.

That was the idea. That was the dream. It may all be over now, but once upon a time, it existed. No good idea ever truly dies. The dream was here, and so was I, and so were you.

2. Pirates of the Mediterranean
By Robert Harris
The New York Times
September 30, 2006

In the autumn of 68 B.C. the world’s only military superpower was dealt a profound psychological blow by a daring terrorist attack on its very heart. Rome’s port at Ostia was set on fire, the consular war fleet destroyed, and two prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff, kidnapped.

The incident, dramatic though it was, has not attracted much attention from modern historians. But history is mutable. An event that was merely a footnote five years ago has now, in our post-9/11 world, assumed a fresh and ominous significance. For in the panicky aftermath of the attack, the Roman people made decisions that set them on the path to the destruction of their Constitution, their democracy and their liberty. One cannot help wondering if history is repeating itself.

Consider the parallels. The perpetrators of this spectacular assault were not in the pay of any foreign power: no nation would have dared to attack Rome so provocatively. They were, rather, the disaffected of the earth: “The ruined men of all nations,” in the words of the great 19th-century German historian Theodor Mommsen, “a piratical state with a peculiar esprit de corps.”

Like Al Qaeda, these pirates were loosely organized, but able to spread a disproportionate amount of fear among citizens who had believed themselves immune from attack. To quote Mommsen again: “The Latin husbandman, the traveler on the Appian highway, the genteel bathing visitor at the terrestrial paradise of Baiae were no longer secure of their property or their life for a single moment.”

What was to be done? Over the preceding centuries, the Constitution of ancient Rome had developed an intricate series of checks and balances intended to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual. The consulship, elected annually, was jointly held by two men. Military commands were of limited duration and subject to regular renewal. Ordinary citizens were accustomed to a remarkable degree of liberty: the cry of “Civis Romanus sum” – “I am a Roman citizen” – was a guarantee of safety throughout the world.

But such was the panic that ensued after Ostia that the people were willing to compromise these rights. The greatest soldier in Rome, the 38-year-old Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known to posterity as Pompey the Great) arranged for a lieutenant of his, the tribune Aulus Gabinius, to rise in the Roman Forum and propose an astonishing new law.

“Pompey was to be given not only the supreme naval command but what amounted in fact to an absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone,” the Greek historian Plutarch wrote. “There were not many places in the Roman world that were not included within these limits.”

Pompey eventually received almost the entire contents of the Roman Treasury – 144 million sesterces – to pay for his “war on terror,” which included building a fleet of 500 ships and raising an army of 120,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Such an accumulation of power was unprecedented, and there was literally a riot in the Senate when the bill was debated.

Nevertheless, at a tumultuous mass meeting in the center of Rome, Pompey’s opponents were cowed into submission, the Lex Gabinia passed (illegally), and he was given his power. In the end, once he put to sea, it took less than three months to sweep the pirates from the entire Mediterranean. Even allowing for Pompey’s genius as a military strategist, the suspicion arises that if the pirates could be defeated so swiftly, they could hardly have been such a grievous threat in the first place.

But it was too late to raise such questions. By the oldest trick in the political book – the whipping up of a panic, in which any dissenting voice could be dismissed as “soft” or even “traitorous” – powers had been ceded by the people that would never be returned. Pompey stayed in the Middle East for six years, establishing puppet regimes throughout the region, and turning himself into the richest man in the empire.

Those of us who are not Americans can only look on in wonder at the similar ease with which the ancient rights and liberties of the individual are being surrendered in the United States in the wake of 9/11. The vote by the Senate on Thursday to suspend the right of habeas corpus for terrorism detainees, denying them their right to challenge their detention in court; the careful wording about torture, which forbids only the inducement of “serious” physical and mental suffering to obtain information; the admissibility of evidence obtained in the United States without a search warrant; the licensing of the president to declare a legal resident of the United States an enemy combatant – all this represents an historic shift in the balance of power between the citizen and the executive.

An intelligent, skeptical American would no doubt scoff at the thought that what has happened since 9/11 could presage the destruction of a centuries-old constitution; but then, I suppose, an intelligent, skeptical Roman in 68 B.C. might well have done the same.

In truth, however, the Lex Gabinia was the beginning of the end of the Roman republic. It set a precedent. Less than a decade later, Julius Caesar – the only man, according to Plutarch, who spoke out in favor of Pompey’s special command during the Senate debate – was awarded similar, extended military sovereignty in Gaul. Previously, the state, through the Senate, largely had direction of its armed forces; now the armed forces began to assume direction of the state.

It also brought a flood of money into an electoral system that had been designed for a simpler, non-imperial era. Caesar, like Pompey, with all the resources of Gaul at his disposal, became immensely wealthy, and used his treasure to fund his own political faction. Henceforth, the result of elections was determined largely by which candidate had the most money to bribe the electorate. In 49 B.C., the system collapsed completely, Caesar crossed the Rubicon – and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.

It may be that the Roman republic was doomed in any case. But the disproportionate reaction to the raid on Ostia unquestionably hastened the process, weakening the restraints on military adventurism and corrupting the political process. It was to be more than 1,800 years before anything remotely comparable to Rome’s democracy – imperfect though it was – rose again.

The Lex Gabinia was a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences: it fatally subverted the institution it was supposed to protect. Let us hope that vote in the United States Senate does not have the same result.

Robert Harris is the author, most recently, of Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome.

 

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