Filing Cabinet of the Damned

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Where Would You Hide, the Laws All Being Flat?

Ah, to hell with it. One big fat political salvo. Then “Grump Week” ends, because being grumpy is boring.

I apologize for getting topical. Back to frivolities after this.


You know what really grinds my gears?

Silence. Silence of a peculiar sort.

Listen close.

The Bush Administration arrests people without charge as “enemy combatants” and holds them for years without benefit of legal counsel. It spies on American citizens without warrants, insist that it should be able to torture if it wants to, and has set up secret prisons in Eastern Europe, likely for that very purpose.

When called to account for any of these issues, the Administration has said:

“Hey, we’re fighting a war here. The President can do whatever he deems necessary to Protect the American People (tm, pat. pending). An undeclared war. Against an undefined enemy. Against a method, really. A war that can never be declared ‘won,’ because, guess what, terrorism never dies.”


“Trust us,” the White House says. “We’re only doing this because we’re facing a grave threat. We’ll get back to normal when the war is over.”

When will that be?

“When we say it’s over.”


Under this line of thought, under what constraints does the President operate?

Think hard.

The answer is “none.” According to this type of thinking, the President's status as Commander in Chief means that any actions taken to defend America are his right. He will Do What He Must to Protect the American People, and pansy laws and structures of the republic be damned!

That the President and his cronies have declared themselves above the rule of law is hardly surprising.

...that so many people are silent in the face of this gall, that is a surprise.

The laws and checks placed on the President are there not for the safety of murderers and thieves. They are not the product of weak men seeking to “coddle criminals” or fools who "don't understand how the world works." They are the fruits of centuries of hard lessons about law, justice, and government.

The play A Man for All Seasons portrayed the conflict between King Henry VIII and his chancellor, Sir Thomas More, a man of unbending principle. Early in the play, More’s future son-in-law railed against More’s unwillingness to imprison a man who was foul but had broken no laws. More insisted on the primacy of law, even in the face of evil.

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

To stand by and do nothing while the President declares himself above any law is to remove our protection against tyranny. Where would we stand when the winds blew then?

Let's be honest. Many people, deep down, crave an enlightened despot, a powerful and wise figure who would remove the burdens of leadership from us and take us into a better future. Democracy is hard, frustrating work riddled with mistakes and the awful weight of responsibility.

But what if the despot makes a mistake? What if the despot grows impatient and decides that “to make an omelette means breaking a few eggs?”

Then, my fellow Americans, we are all screwed.

I live in Arlington, Virginia, a stone’s throw from the District. Since I moved here, I’ve been around for some crazy shit. You may have heard about some of it.

A father-and-son sniper team terrorized my town. They shot one of their victims in the parking lot of a hardware store where I shop regularly.

Mail delivery to my house was a little slow for a while, since weaponized anthrax was making its way around the DC postal system.

And a giant fucking airplane seized by murderous zealots smashed into an office building near my house, killing one hundred and eighty-nine people, including one of my coworkers.

Do you know what burnt jet fuel and powdered cement smells like? I do.

Every day, I ride the DC Metro train system to work. It’s one hell of a bomb magnet. I work a block from the White House, the biggest target on the face of the Earth.

If anyone would benefit from the Bush Administration’s authoritarian tactics, it would be me. My personal safety benefits from them, plus, hey, since my job is intimately tied into the national security apparatus, it means job security too.

And right here and now, I say that Bush should be impeached for breaking the law.

I will not surrender the rule of law out of fear. I will not surrender my children’s futures because I am terrified of some fuckwit with a barrel of homemade explosive and a rental truck.

Fuck al-Qaeda. Fuck Osama bin Laden. Fuck the snipers. Fuck the anthrax-mailing asshole, whoever he is.

But they’re not everyone on my fuck-off list.

Fuck the fearmongering paranoid clowns who used the attacks on September 11th as a pretext to snatch more power for themselves and do what they always wanted to do. Fuck the pandering sycophantic tools who shirked their duties and let the paranoid clowns do what they want.

And most of all, fuck the knee-jerk badge-kisser “patriots” who will let a man in power do anything, as long as it’s forceful. These folks love the use of force. Nothing gives them a bigger charge than seeing an authority figure slap someone down.

These pseudo-patriots are the enemies of freedom, and they don’t even know it. Claiming they love their country, they’ll obliterate every ounce of freedom and say it’s for the public good. They’ll smile, wave a flag, and crush the ideals of the republic in the name of saving it.

They don’t understand that professing high ideals doesn’t mean anything if you’re not willing to follow through on them. That actions count, not beliefs. That an authority figure can stand before a crowd, smile, and with the best of intentions, do a horrible thing. They refuse to see.

“Sure, the President flouted the law, but he did it for a good reason. He’s a good man, and I believe in him.”

Silly me, judging a man by what he does, not his demeanor. He has declared himself above the law. He has broken the law. And he must face the consequences of it.

If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, if you think I’m some sort of treasonous toad who “wants the terrorists to win” or “doesn’t understand what kind of war this is,” ask yourself this: what action could Bush take that would make you think he’s finally overstepped his bounds in the “Global War on Terror” and should be brought to heel?

If you can’t answer that without resorting to cartoon fantasies of jackboots and assassinations, you need to crack open a civics or history textbook and maybe even read the occasional newspaper. Real corruption eases its way in, bit by bit. Eased by regular citizens who don’t pay attention or think that history doesn’t apply to them.

“This time it’s different, because we would never do that. We’re different…we’re Americans!

No. We’re people, the same as everybody else. What makes our system worth anything is that it was built around that very simple idea, an idea formed by centuries of hard-won wisdom and suffering: People are people, unfettered power will lead to corruption, and that the only way to ensure freedom is to split power among many competing hands.

Bush is consolidating power, claiming prerogatives that do not belong to him, in violation of the controls long established. Do his defenders believe these old understandings are now wrong? Has humanity changed so dramatically in the last two centuries, that the wisdom of the past no longer holds true?

Or is it that perhaps the difficulty of relating the past to the present that blinds us to the idea? The lessons of history are tough to apply; what seems clear in retrospect is often hard to see in the chaos of everyday life.

Here’s the simple truth: the great danger to our freedom is not terrorism. It’s not Islamist dipshits with truck bombs or airliners.

The great danger is our willingness to abandon everything for which our forefathers fought and died in return for a little quiet. The great danger is our hope that if we sit down, shut up, and don’t make waves, Big Daddy will protect us and stop the bad men.

The great danger is our own fear.

And what horrible mistakes our fear might lead us to make.

Abraham Lincoln, a President who faced a greater threat to the republic than any man before or since, put it best:

"America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."

And that, my brothers and sisters, is the simple truth.


  • Don't know what to say here, except A-FUCKING-MEN. you speak the gospel truth of righteousness, friend.

    to get explicitly political, too: when are the dems gonna grow a fucking pair and take this to the end game?! they can't even drum up support for a goddamned filibuster to keep alito down. they need a serious reality check. jesus, i thought the 04 election would have done that trick, but no dice.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:36 PM  

  • Well done.

    Seems to me someone else made a similar point, about only needing to fear fear itself. If memory serves, he was up against Hitler, and he kept perspective (for the most part).

    You're in good company.

    By Blogger Dean Dad, at 1:47 PM  

  • I salute you. Excellent analysis of the issues that nag us all, but you were able to say it all succinctly. Congratulations.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:22 PM  

  • You never got around to saying what law the President actually broke. It's not FISA or anything related to intel-gathering; while it may turn out later than a law was broken, it's far from clear at this point that this is the case. I think you should start by proving that some law was broken before you bang the impeachment drum.

    Also, it's amusing to hear liberals decry the consolidation of power by the government.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:30 PM  

  • It is FISA.

    The act reads: "The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 prescribes procedures for requesting judicial authorization for electronic surveillance and physical search of persons engaged in espionage or international terrorism against the United States on behalf of a foreign power."

    That fits the situation exactly. Electronic surveillance of persons engaged in espionage or international terrorism? How does that not apply?

    To quote Tom Daschle about the issue (emphasis added):

    In the face of mounting questions about news stories saying that President Bush approved a program to wiretap American citizens without getting warrants, the White House argues that Congress granted it authority for such surveillance in the 2001 legislation authorizing the use of force against al Qaeda. On Tuesday, Vice President Cheney said the president "was granted authority by the Congress to use all means necessary to take on the terrorists, and that's what we've done."

    As Senate majority leader at the time, I helped negotiate that law with the White House counsel's office over two harried days. I can state categorically that the subject of warrantless wiretaps of American citizens never came up. I did not and never would have supported giving authority to the president for such wiretaps. I am also confident that the 98 senators who voted in favor of authorization of force against al Qaeda did not believe that they were also voting for warrantless domestic surveillance.

    On the evening of Sept. 12, 2001, the White House proposed that Congress authorize the use of military force to "deter and pre-empt any future acts of terrorism or aggression against the United States." Believing the scope of this language was too broad and ill defined, Congress chose instead, on Sept. 14, to authorize "all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed or aided" the attacks of Sept. 11. With this language, Congress denied the president the more expansive authority he sought and insisted that his authority be used specifically against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

    Just before the Senate acted on this compromise resolution, the White House sought one last change. Literally minutes before the Senate cast its vote, the administration sought to add the words "in the United States and" after "appropriate force" in the agreed-upon text. This last-minute change would have given the president broad authority to exercise expansive powers not just overseas -- where we all understood he wanted authority to act -- but right here in the United States, potentially against American citizens. I could see no justification for Congress to accede to this extraordinary request for additional authority. I refused.

    A lot of conservatives aren't taking this quietly. This is criminal activity that sets a hideous precedent.

    By Blogger Harvey Jerkwater, at 3:18 PM  

  • "Also, it's amusing to hear liberals decry the consolidation of power by the government."
    And it's frustrating to hear my fellow conservatives calling for bigger government.

    By Blogger Jake, at 3:32 PM  

  • There's also that whole "secret prisons in Eastern Europe" thing. Call me nutty, but that seems...illegal?

    More than the violation of law, the real issue is the White House's response to all of these charges.

    "Yeah, we did it. So what? I'll keep doing it, too."

    Bypassing FISA wasn't accidental; they just did it and later claimed they had the authority to do so all along. Even though it had been denied them before.

    Ah, contempt for law. Just what I like in my chief executive.

    By Blogger Harvey Jerkwater, at 3:36 PM  

  • Oh, and sorry about all the swearing in the post, Dad.

    By Blogger Harvey Jerkwater, at 3:42 PM  

  • Yes, it's very much FISA that was broken, and there's really no controversy over that. Bush and Gonzales don't contest that they violated FISA. They just assert that Bush has the inherent right to violate FISA - along with the McCain amendment banning torture, and the National Security Act, and presumably any other law the president decides he doesn't like.

    By Blogger the Medium Lobster, at 3:53 PM  

  • The saddest thing about all of this mess is how partisan our country has become. The founding fathers HATED political parties, because people would further their political parties instead of their country, you know the thing we live in, not some abstract concepts of policy, but now, the Republicans or Neo Cons have shown such an extreme difference in policy than almost other group of presidents before, and since they're so effective at advertising and good businessmen with a large amount of contacts, the Democrats are reduced to having a minority in congress, a minority (although this has proven to be less important) in Supreme court, and most importantly, the country is Democrats vs. Republicans, not US citizens with disagreements solving them with compromise and respect.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:46 PM  

  • How about his oath to uphold the Constitution, which contains this 4th Amendment:

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    Kind of think he's violated that one.

    By Blogger Jason Langlois, at 7:05 PM  

  • All I can say is AMEN! That's the best explanation of my beliefs that I've ever seen.

    By Blogger EmmaNadine, at 10:01 PM  

  • I echo the "Amen"s.

    By Blogger Tree of Knowledge, at 12:00 AM  

  • To be honest, while I can agree with the basics of what you're saying, I don't really know enough to say for sure where I stand. Personally, while I'd love to see the Constitution supported in its original intent, I'd like to see that in ALL areas, not just one particular amendment.

    As for FISA, again, I'm admitting I don't know enough to say whether it was broken or not. Though it's nice to visit a blog where so many people are so absolutely confident that THEY do.

    But, I think Lincoln might have been a somewhat unfortunate choice to use in concluding your argument. While he certainly "faced a greater threat to the republic than any man before or since", he used some questionable (if not illegal) methods to maintain that republic. Suspension of habeus corpus is just the one that comes to mind-there are plenty of books about this), and a decent case can be made that even the act of preventing states from seceeding from the union itself was extra-Constitutional and therefore illegal executive over-reach.

    Apologies in advance if I've misread you. Just saying that I'm not sure it's all as black-and-white as you seem to think.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:12 AM  

  • There are shades of gray in damn near everything, yes. You could argue that the President should have the right to conduct warrantless wiretaps of American citizens.

    But here's the part that kills the argument dead: the FISA law forbids it, and the resolutions passed in the wake of 9/11 do not include overrides of the FISA law. Read Daschle's comment above. The administration asked for that power and was refused.

    So the morality of the issue could theoretically be debated. The legality is much clearer. Yes, the White House has thrown up rhetorical smokescreens to fog the issue, but they're as weak as "it depends on what your definition of 'is' is."

    He broke the law. When confronted with this, he shrugged and said it didn't apply and he'd continue to violate the law. How is that not criminal?

    If I'm arrested for stealing your wallet and defend myself with "certain theft laws don't apply to me," the laughter from the judge would be audible in Missouri.

    As far as the choice of Lincoln, I did chew it over for a while. You're right, he played fast and loose with executive power in the face of national crisis, and invoking him felt a little weird.

    Then again, what he said was true and what he said needs to be said again today.

    Jefferson extolled freedom while owning slaves. Should we therefore discount the rhetoric and ideals of the Declaration of Independence? I would say no.

    By Blogger Harvey Jerkwater, at 10:52 AM  

  • Thank you very much for your polite response. Political issues can get so touchy in blogland. :)

    I freely admit (and tried to make my first post as wishy-washy as possible to reflect this) to ambivalence on the issue. While I truly love the idea of an America which completely lives up to all its principles (I used to teach US history and the Constitution, so I'm quite familiar with how far from that we actually come), I can't quite force down the small voice that says we wouldn't last a year that way against the enemies we have. On the other hand, if principles can be discarded so easily, why bother having them?

    As I said, I'm somewhat conflicted. :)

    As to Lincoln though, I'm curious-at which point does a president violating the law to (as he sees it) protect his nation go from playing "fast and loose with executive power in the face of national crisis" to "should be impeached for breaking the law"?

    I'm right with you on Jefferson, though-slaveowner or not, the man had a brilliant grasp of the ideas and ideals of America. He was also familiar with the concept of executives going outside the Constitution to do what he thought was right (Louisiana Purchase, anyone?)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:24 AM  

  • I appreciate the civility of your criticism, too. The last thing the world needs is one more round of dipstick flame wars.

    "U R a dope."
    "You hAte America, KomMMie!"


    As far as the difference between Lincoln fighting the Civil War and Jefferson purchasing the Louisiana Territory versus Bush and the wiretaps, I'd say the difference is in the laws.

    What Bush did was expressly in violation of existing law. What Lincoln and Jefferson did wasn't. The legality of their actions was considered dubious, but difficult to describe as the breaking of a particular law. (The habeus corpus issue is different--that seems like a wild overstep to me, but I'm not a lawyer.)

    FISA was created to prevent just such behavior, and the post-9/11 bills didn't change that. The law is explicit.

    What's bizarre about the whole affair is that FISA almost never rejects petitions for wiretaps. They reject a mere handful, ever. You can even get a warrant retroactively. One phone call could have prevented the whole mess. But the White House felt it shouldn't have to, so it didn't.

    The statutes say it did have to.

    By the way, I don't think he'll actually be impeached. I suspect that this overstep, like the other actions I mention at the beginning of the blog entry, (Valerie Plame, "enemy combatant" means no due process, etc.) will blur into a vague ball of "scandal" that will become nothing more than a partisan football and eventually set aside in disgust with partisan hackery. Not unlike the way the Clinton fiasco played out.

    (A closing, cynical note: don't you think that terrorists already think their phones might be tapped?)

    By Blogger Harvey Jerkwater, at 1:30 PM  

  • Commie dude, why do you hate America?

    Nah, can't even type it with a straight face.

    Anyway, I take your point on the existing laws. It seems that what you're saying is that doing something that the Constitution DOESN'T say you CAN do is one thing, while doing something that it (or a law that follows it) says you CANNOT do is quite another. Which comes back to a basic "strict constructionist/loose constructionist" argument that has had people going around in circles for the past two hundred years (or since the Protestant Reformation, but let's not go there).

    It's also, I freely admit now, not really the point of your original posting. A posting on which, when reduced to this basic level, I find I completely agree-when the President (or anyone) does something that's against the law, he should be punished for it. Can't argue with you there.

    I suspect that the silence on the issue that you bring up in your original post might have something to do with a vague public discomfort with making what seems to be a complex issue such as this into such a dichotomous matter. Mitigating circumstances, the question of WHY he broke the law (in any crime, not just this one), etc. do come into play, and it seems to me that the silent ones are comfortable with the reasons they've heard given. Can this sort of action lead to truly nasty things in the future, even the not-very-distant future? Absolutely. Do most people think it will? Apparently not.

    And as for your cynical note-my goodness I hope they think they're being tapped. On the other hand, when they see the efficacy of some of our other counter-terror measures, maybe they think we might have missed that option. (And I write as someone who comes to DC for work from the north instead of the south and has looked out my office window at that "office building near your house" many a time.)

    Anyway, thanks for a thought-provoking post and a fun conversation!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:02 PM  

  • Hey, thanks for keeping me honest.

    My original post was a rant, and it wasn't intended to be sophisticated. Pulpit-pounding, not careful dissection. The Bush Administration has done so many galling things that the dam broke.

    Holding people for years without charges or legal counsel? Arguing that torture should be allowed if they want to? Scoffing at search-and-seizure laws? These are all things the administration has admitted to.

    Then there's the stuff that they won't cop to but seems obviously their doing, like jiggering the intelligence on Iraq to get a long-craved war started.

    The response to the wiretap charges proved to be that last final thing to make my head go blooey.

    By Blogger Harvey Jerkwater, at 2:13 PM  

  • Nice work, Jerkwater. I totally agree with you.

    I have this quote posted on my fridge:

    "Naturally, the common people don't want war, but they can always be brought to the bidding of leaders. Tell them they are being attacked and denounce pacifists for lack of patriotism and endangering the country. It works every time." - Hermann Goering, second in command of the Third Reich, at the Nuremberg Trials.

    Hmmmm.....sounds familiar.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:53 PM  

  • I don't have anything to add beyond this article that I found.

    By Blogger Ragnell, at 4:36 AM  

  • Great article, Mr. Harvey.

    I was wondering, as you are interested in politics and comics, what you think of the current fiasco over the Danish cartoons depicting Mohamed with a bomb in his turbin, etc. This has caused many Muslim protests and demands for an apology.

    I see two sides:
    1) the drawing of Mohamed is against their religion and we should respect that.
    2) any cartoon with a bomb in it is at least a little funny.

    BTW, the cartoons aren't easy to find as I'm assuming most websites don't want to draw a plague upon their houses.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:45 AM  

  • The Danish cartoons?

    For once I'm in agreement with Christopher Hitchens. He wrote here exactly what I think.

    By Blogger Harvey Jerkwater, at 5:19 PM  

  • what an extremely articulate and accurate depiction of the state of the union.

    thank you.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:27 PM  

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