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After the Fourth: Some Reflections on the State of the USA

Independence Day was a time for many of us to celebrate a triple victory in the Supreme Court: decisions upholding affordable health care, same sex marriage and fair housing.

Yet some US policies and practices continue to violate the traditional norms of justice, law and democracy that Americans applauded in July 4th speeches.

Guantanamo.  The US prison at Guantanamo Bay continues to shame Americans, while helping to boost Al Qaeda and ISIS recruitment.  Taking into account recent prisoner releases, there are still 116 men at Guantanamo, 51 of whom have been approved for release.  Beyond considerations of legality and cost, there are serious humanitarian cases that warrant immediate attention.  For example, one of the cleared-for-release prisoners, Tariq Ba Odah, imprisoned in Guantanamo since 2002, held in solitary confinement and tortured with repeated forced feeding, has been on an uninterrupted hunger strike since February 2007. Now weighing just over 74 pounds, half his normal body weight. His lawyer says he looks like “a Holocaust survivor.” Is this who we are?

Targeted killing. US drones routinely kill both suspected militants and innocent civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and other places.  Without regard to the UN Charter, international humanitarian law and human rights law, the Obama administration feels free to send its attack planes to any place on the globe and to assassinate suspected terrorists (including American citizens).  Is this who we are?

State terrorism.  The Obama administration supports Saudi Arabia’s bombardment of Yemen, with its massive destruction of urban areas and heavy loss of civilian life.  The ongoing sea blockade implicates the US in that escalating humanitarian crisis.   Our government was even more complicit with Israel in its devastating attacks on Gaza last summer.  US weapons and military support helped the IDF kill more than 2,000 Palestinians (including over 500 children).  The US Congress voted additional military aid to Israel during the bloody conflict and is now attempting to block countries and corporations from joining the BDS movement .  It also opposes Palestinian resort to legal remedies, including the International Criminal Court.

Racism.  Recent cases of police brutality across the country toward unarmed African Americans and the murders of nine black churchgoers in Charleston evidence the continuing blight of racism, especially toward African Americans.  As Michelle Alexander has shown in her brilliant and revealing book The New Jim Crow, the disproportionate incarceration of black youth is a modern version of early 20th century racism.  Is this who we are?

Political corruption.  Federal elections require huge expenditures for what have become drawn- out and personally vindictive campaigns.  Negative TV ads are expensive and destructive, but also effective.   With only a two-year term, newly elected members of the House of Representatives must begin campaigning for reelection from their first days in office.  For both House and Senate members and candidates, relentless fundraising is a high priority. Corporate and billionaire contributors expect to receive favors from their investments. The Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for anonymous contributions through political action committees. Political corruption is the result.  When money buys representatives in Congress, it dilutes our democracy and erodes citizen trust.

We can best pay homage to America’s July 4th heritage by working to fulfill the dictates of justice and morality that characterized post-WW2 America.

 

 

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L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.

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