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We’ve said it before, and we’ll keep on saying it: A country whose leader has the power to imprison any citizen whatsoever, on his order alone, and hold them indefinitely, in military custody, without access to the courts, without a lawyer, without any charges, their fate determined solely by the leader’s arbitrary whim–that country is a tyranny, not a democracy, not a republic, not a union of free citizens.
Now it may be that it is still a tyranny in utero, a rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem–or in this case, Washington–to be born, and not yet the full-blown monster, fangs bared and back plated with bristling armored scales. But the tyranny has been conceived, it’s taken root in the womb, gained definite form and is clawing, tearing its way toward the light.
President George W. Bush openly claims that he now holds this power of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. His minions defend it with earnest arguments. They have already begun acting on its dictatorial tenets. If this claim is not rejected by the other two branches of government–an unlikely event, with both branches now held by Bush partisans–then the fundamental liberty of every American citizen will have been stripped away finally and completely. Henceforth, liberty is not the inalienable right of the citizen, but a privilege granted–or not–by an autocratic government.
What we are witnessing is the mutation of a democratic republic into a military autocracy: Bush bases his claim of arbitrary power on the president’s constitutional role as commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces. Although there is nothing in the constitution that warrants the extension of military command to cover arbitrary rule over the entire citizenry, and certainly nothing that countenances the abrogation of basic rights and liberties on the unchallengeable say-so of an all-powerful leader, the “commander-in-chief” argument nevertheless serves a useful purpose for the autocrat, creating the illusion of a limited and temporary suspension of liberties–a drastic but necessary “wartime” measure.
But Bush and his officials have already warned us that this “wartime emergency” might never end. A direct quote from the commander-in-chief: “There’s no telling how many wars it will take to secure freedom in the homeland.” The other branches concur in this militarization of American society. Citing a political landscape “changed by war,” the new head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican John Warner, says he wants to “break down the barriers”–the constitutional barriers–that restrict the military’s involvement in civilian life. The Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, whose Supreme Court stands as the last defense against the dictatorship of the executive branch, has already signaled his public approval of military rule, quoting the old Roman maxim: “In time of war, the laws are silent.”
So if the wars never cease raging, the laws will no longer speak. Or rather, they will speak only to ratify the will of the authoritarian regime. Just this week, a “special” appeals court–a secret panel operating outside the ordinary judicial system–upheld the right of the state to invade the privacy of any citizen through expanded wiretap and surveillance powers, Reuters reports. These invasions no longer need meet the already-lax standards previously required for domestic surveillance, but can now proceed virtually at the whim of the federal forces, even without any direct connection to suspected terrorist or espionage activity.
The “special” court is a three-judge board made up of appointees from the Reagan-Bush administration, chosen for this secret duty by that obedient Roman, William Rehnquist. It overturned a lower-court ruling that curbed surveillance powers after documenting 75 cases of their abuse by federal agents in both the Clinton and Bush II administrations. However, Attorney General John Ashcroft–whose agents will carry out most of the secret investigations–said this week that the government will not “overstep its legal bounds” with the new, broader powers. And indeed, with a “silent” high court and a supine legislature willing to lend an air of legitimacy to any action of the ruling junta–hijacking a presidential election, imprisoning citizens without charge, waging aggressive war–no doubt Ashcroft is right. There are no longer any “legal bounds” to overstep.
Bush’s dictatorial powers of arrest and imprisonment are only part of an unprecedented expansion of militarized state power into every aspect of American life, coupled with an unprecedented level of secrecy surrounding government activity. These changes are meant to be permanent–and they are meant to remain under the control of the Bush Regime and likeminded successors. It is absurd to believe that Bush, Cheney and the rest of the junta are constructing this vast machinery of dominance only to risk turning it over to any political adversary who genuinely opposed empire, plutocracy and rule by a privileged elite.
It is equally absurd to believe that these new, unconstrained powers will not be abused. The very fact of their assertion is itself an abuse, a perversion of the freedoms that Bush has sworn–falsely–to uphold. They are a far greater threat to the foundations of American liberty than even the most horrendous attack by murderous criminals. No foreign terrorist can strip the entire American system of its basic freedoms–the inviolability of the citizen, the right to due process, the constitutional separation of powers, the people’s right to know what their government is doing in their name.
Only an American tyrant can do that. And he is doing it, day by day.