Over at Daylight Atheism, Ebonmuse expressed his dismay in the post, “This Is Not America” that an American congress could pass legislation supporting torture while revoking checks and balances against arbitrary executive power and denying people their day in court. In this presentation, he expressed shock over “the cowardly and submissive way in which the Democratic Party gave in to this.”
He wrote about the opinion that many Democrats “need to be thrown out of office just as badly as do the Republicans.”
I agree with the ends. However, the posting does not does not say much about means.
The Dilemma of the Opposition
Specifically, the post neglects the fact that the Republican leadership pushed these laws through Congress at this particular time for a reason – because the Republican leadership believed that the American people will support candidates who support this legislation and reject candidates who would stand up against it.
Importantly, the Democratic Party strategists seem to have agreed.
The Republican leadership was giving the American people what they want. They pressed this legislation precisely because the people, for the most part like torture, arbitrary arrest, indefinite imprisonment without trial, the repeal of habeas corpus, and an executive branch freed from any checks and balances against arbitrary power.
In America today, those who vote for these things are those whose seat in Congress are more secure than those who vote against it.
Because of this, demanding that opponents vote against this legislation has the same practical effect as demanding that opponents give up their seats to those who support this legislation – Republican opponents sacrificing their seats in the primaries, and Democratic opponents losing the general election.
Effectively, American values being what they are, opponents (Republican and Democrat) had a choice. They could stand up to this assault on liberty and justice and allow those who defend this legislation to continue to dominate Congress. Or, they could cave in on this issue and preserve the chance of gaining control of Congress.
What should a person do when faced with these choices? Which is the bigger threat to liberty and justice - all things considered? Are we better off with this law being passed (and a chance that the Courts will overturn it anyway) and an end to the leadership that has these particular values? Or should opponents have stopped this legislation - fought against it - and allowed its defenders to keep political control of the House and Senate.
The Ideal Solution
The ideal solution, of course, would have been for opponents to have blocked this legislation, been seen as heroes in defense of the Constitution and the moral principles written into it, and improved their chances of taking control of Congress.
Yet, the evidence suggests that the American people do not see those who stand up against the principles of tyranny and injustice as heroes. They see such people as villains – unworthy of a seat in Congress. Defending freedom and justice is a sign of weakness - a "softness" that needs to be exterminated from the American psyche.
Evidence suggests that the idea that the American people would greet those who defeated this legislation as protectors of liberty is as much of a fantasy as the idea that the American army would be greeted as liberators in Iraq.
So, what is an opponent of this legislation to do, if defending liberty and justice is something the bulk of the American electorate no longer tolerates?
Fortunately, I do not have to make those moral choices.
However, I am a citizen. These events tell me one thing: that both major political parties believe that the American people support the values written into this legislation more strongly than they oppose it. Both political parties have a great deal at stake that depends on knowing what the American people want. Therefore, they can be counted as “expert witnesses” in reporting on the values of the American people. They might still be wrong, but it is not rational to bet against the best evidence available.
This truth, if it is true, would be a very unpleasant truth. Yet, it is a truth we cannot run away from. In particular, we are being foolish if we decide to live our lives ignoring this truth, and planned strategies for a fantasy world that exists only in our mind – a fantasy world in which the bulk of the American people oppose torture, oppose unchecked executive power, or believe in and support the right to a fair and impartial hearing.
Once we accept this truth we can see that the first priority is to restore these principles and values among the American people. If we should succeed at accomplishing this, then we the Congress will follow suit. If we succeed in accomplishing this, we will create a future society in which parties vie for the ability to prove their devotion to these principles, rather than compete for the opportunity to destroy and discard them.
This means changing our focus from the Congress and from our own individual votes, and instead turning our attention to our friends, families, co-workers, and neighbors.
This means speaking up at the dinner table, speaking up in the casual discussions that go on before and after (and sometimes during) meetings with co-workers or other groups that we belong to. It means giving forceful arguments that state that people who support torture, unchecked executive authority, and deny the right to a fair trial are people worthy of condemnation and contempt.
This also means doing a lot of research and a lot of thinking, so as to be able to best defend these principles among those who are not inclined to look favorably on a defense of these principles of liberty and justice. It means being able to say, “You speak about honoring liberty and justice, but you dishonor them, and here is how…”
It is simply irrational to accuse legislators of ‘cowardice’ in not standing up for the principles of liberty, unless we are demonstrating at least as much courage in our lives – among those we know – watching the backs and defending – vocally, loudly - those who oppose this type of legislation.
By the way, I do not see this as a partisan issue. There was once a time when the Republican Party would have stood up against this type of legislation. There was once a time when the Republican Party was the party of limited government and fiscal responsibility, whose members would have been near to taking up arms before they would allow the type of legislation passed last week. I suspect that there are some Republicans who would still like to oppose this legislation – if not for the fact that their leadership will replace them with more compliant candidates.
This is a matter of defending liberty and justice in both parties. This is not a matter of being Democrat or Republican. It is a matter of having moral values that support or vilify torture, rendition, unchecked executive power, arbitrary arrest, indefinite imprisonment without trial, governments spying on their citizens, and the like.
There are 35 days left until the November elections.