How freedoms are stolen away

I have written before about how this government has steadily and stealthily taken away the rights that have been taken for granted. The latest atrocity, though seemingly minor when compared to the awful Military Commissions Act was done stealthily, by means of the infamous ‘signing’ statements, whereby the President issues a statement while signing a bill into law. Usually, these statements are meant to provide guidance to the executive branch on how to interpret the law. But Bush has used these statements to counter the intent of the law or even to assert new powers for himself.

I have already written about the loss of habeas corpus which Jeffrey Toobin also writes about in an article in the New Yorker.

We have already seen that the government is guilty of torturing those in its custody in the infamous case of Jose Padilla, where it is clear that the government’s goal is to destroy him as a human being. This new article explains why he was forced to wear blinders and sound-proof ear muffs on his way to see a dentist.

“From 1950 to 1962,” [Alfred] McCoy writes, “the CIA became involved in torture through a massive mind-control effort, with psychological warfare and secret research into human consciousness that reached a cost of a billion dollars annually – a veritable Manhattan Project of the mind.” This research amounted to “the first real revolution in the cruel science of pain in more than three centuries.” This “black budget” research has never stopped and elements of it were rushed into practice after 9/11.

No need for thumbscrews, racks, phone-crank generators to the genitals or Black & Decker drills. This was “no-touch torture,” using extreme isolation and sensory deprivation to create confusion while establishing in the subject’s mind the sense that any pain is self-inflicted, that he had chosen the course that led to the pain he was suffering. All it required was extended periods of time and the total elimination of all stimulation and human contact other than that of the jailer and the interrogator.

Padilla spent 21 months in a South Carolina brig especially re-designed after 9/11 to handle interrogation cases like his. A 10- cell wing was devoted solely to Padilla. The windows of his cell were blackened, and he wasn’t allowed a clock or calendar.

McCoy says the no-touch torture chamber “has the theatricality of a set with special lighting, sound effects, props, and backdrops, all designed with a perverse stagecraft to evoke an aura of fear… The psychological component of torture becomes a kind of total theater, a constructed unreality of lies and inversion, in a plot that ends inexorably with the victim’s self-betrayal and destruction…”

“As a result of his experiences during his detention and interrogation,” the New York Times quoted psychiatrist Dr. Angela Hegarty as saying, Padilla “has impairments in reasoning… complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation.”

For more grim details of the inhumane treatment Padilla has received, see here. For other examples of torture by the US, see here

And now, after previously asserting his right to conduct warrantless wiretapping of phones, Bush has declared that he now also has the right to open people’s mail without a judge’s warrant. “That claim is contrary to existing law and contradicted the bill he had just signed, say experts who have reviewed it.”

This further erosion of the rights of citizens will probably be ignored by a nation that is either apathetic to the loss of rights that earlier generations fought so hard to enshrine into law or so fearful of terrorism that they are willing to trade away all their rights for a spurious sense of security.

I found on the web this extended quote from Milton Mayer’s book They Thought They Were Free, The Germans, 1938-45 that shows how a similar creeping erosion of freedom happened at another time and place.

What no one seemed to notice. . . was the ever widening gap. . .between the government and the people. . . And it became always wider. . . the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting, it provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway . . . (it) gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about . . .and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated . . . by the machinations of the ‘national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. . .

Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’. . . must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. . . .Each act. . . is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.

You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone. . . you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ . . .But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves, when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. . . .You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things your father. . . could never have imagined.

It is a chilling reminder of how easily people be persuaded to accept things, provided they can be made fearful and the changes made gradually.

POST SCRIPT: Somalia update

The US Air Force has joined the Navy in carrying out operations in Somalia, against purported al Qaeda targets. The Ethiopian troops, already inside the country for a month are facing guerilla attacks, which are being urged on by Ayman al Zawahiri, who is using the Iraq and Afghanistan examples as rallying cries.

Concern is being expressed at the consequences of Ethiopia being seen as a US puppet. It does not help that Ethiopia is a Christian-led country in a heavily Muslim area. It is not hard to see how a US-Ethiopian alliance can be stigmatized as a new Crusade.


  1. Jeffrey Quick says

    I really don’t understand the fuss about Bush’s signing statements. People discuss them as if they have the force of law. They don’t. All it takes is for Congress to say, “Hey buddy, that’s not what we meant.”

  2. says

    But that kind of statement by the Congress can also be ignored and has no force. If a law is being ignored, what good will it do to make a statement?

    One option then left to the Congress are to take the matter to court, which is long and tedious. Also the courts are not likely to issue a blanket rule against signing statements since they have value in limited situations. So each signing statement will have to be litigated on its merits and go through numerous appeals, paralyzing the government. The Dick Cheney energy task force case is a good example of how things can be dragged out almost indefinitely.

    You cannot really run a government if everyone is trying to game the system. It works only if the players are making a good faith effort to follow the principles of operation laid out in the constitution and not trying to devise work-arounds of provisions they do not like.

    The Supreme Court may rule that this question of legislative authority is something that should be resolved by political means, rather that legally. There is a political option that is open to Congress and that is for Congress to impeach the president for exceeding his constitutional authority.

    See this article for more background, where it is argued that the present use of signing statements is akin to a line-item veto which has already been ruled unconstitutional.

  3. dave says

    In another post you quote Judge Learned Hand,

    ‘Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.’

    It seems fitting to quote him again, from that same passage,

    ‘A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.’

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