From the Homeland
Instead of a Revolution
Not long ago, and not for the first time, I noted that Barack Obama asserts powers far greater than those of George III. “And we all know what we did to him,” I added.
The words disappeared into the ether.
The revolution will not be televised, because — of course — there will be no revolution.
But why not? And why “of course”? Why is it obvious that there isn’t a revolution?
We could blame what Malcolm Gladwell calls weak-tie activism. Rather than a small group of intense personal friends, we nowadays have Friends(tm) on Facebook(tm).
The difference? Friends inspire lunch-counter sit-ins. Friends(tm) inspire us to a few stray mouseclicks. Mouseclicks seem like activism, but they aren’t. Gladwell writes:
[Clay] Shirky considers this model of activism an upgrade. But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.
Yesterday Radley Balko described Obama’s assassination orders as “tyranny.” I agree. It is tyranny. So what do I do? Tweet it? Something about tweeting says inconsequence.
Not to pick on Radley — good lord, we’re all guilty here, every one of us, myself most certainly included — but do you know what was at the top of his Twitter feed this morning? “Real talk, Nashville: The Pancake Pantry is overrated.”
Not death squads. Pancakes.
Maybe that’s just Twitter for you. Radley is a hero of mine. I admire him profoundly. I trust that he is serious and that his dedication to civil liberties is second to none. But is this simply what it’s like to live in alarming times? Or is it a particular failing of our own time? Is it important to keep a certain levity? Or is it a distraction born of the weak-tie world?
Lately I’ve been listening compulsively to Laurie Anderson’s new album. I promise, this isn’t more pancakes. Or rather, Homeland is precisely about the weak-tie world and its tendency to fill every waking moment with pancakes. It’s about the shameless abundance of the trivial. It’s about the dash of poison we learn to ignore:
And so finally here we are, at the beginning of a whole new era.
The start of a brand new world.
And now what?
How do we start?
How do we begin again?
There are some things you can simply look up, such as:
The size of Greenland, the dates of the famous 19th century rubber wars, Persian adjectives, the composition of snow.
And other things you just have to guess at.
And then again today’s the day and those were the days and now these are the days and now the clock points histrionically to noon.
Some new kind of north.
And so which way do we go?
What are days for?
To wake us up, to put between the endless nights…
And you, you who can be silent in four languages: Your silence will be considered your consent.
Oh but those were the days before the audience, and what the audience wanted, and what the audience said it wanted.
And you know the reason I really love the stars is that we cannot hunt them.
We can’t burn them or melt them or make them overflow. We can’t flood them or blow them up or turn them out.
But we are reaching for them.
We are reaching for them.
Some say our empire is passing, as all empires do.
And others haven’t a clue what time it is or where it goes or even where the clock is.
And oh, the majesty of dreams.
An unstoppable train. Different colored wonderlands.
Freedom of speech and sex with strangers.
And you thought there were things that had disappeared forever.
Things from the Middle Ages.
Beheadings and hangings and people in cages.
And suddenly they were everywhere.
And suddenly they’re alright.
Welcome to, welcome to, welcome to the American night.
If this is all a shade too Robert Putnam for you — We lost our freedom because we lost our community! — well, I somewhat agree. There are political/structural reasons behind our new order, and community has very little to say about these.
The erosion of our liberties has the bipartisan support of the Washington power elite. When, from the fluorescent comfort of their offices, they order someone shot, it makes them feel tough. They no doubt feel like heroes. They fear not shooting people, because they know that the other side will. And then the non-shooters will seem weak.
There is a class of people who like to feel that they are making the hard decisions, and I suppose we should be grateful that it’s still a hard decision to subvert the Constitution. But it’s pretty cold comfort.
We might have hoped for the Democrats to check the worst Republican excesses in this area, but President Obama now stands even further to the authoritarian right, and very few dare to speak against him. Now the Democrats, not the Republicans, are the ones saying “Person X is a very bad man,” as if it were a defense against lawlessness.
Even the Tea Party is silent. Where are you guys, seriously? Why aren’t you resisting this shameless power grab by faceless, unelected, smarter-than-thou bureaucrats? You were outraged by death panels, but death squads get a pass? Forgive me if your politics leaves me cold. You say you oppose Obama? Everywhere but here?
Now the Tea Party is busy trying to throw Russ Feingold out of the Senate. Russ Feingold, the Senate’s only non-millionaire, a champion of civil liberties, the only Senator who voted against the USA-PATRIOT Act. If I had to remove the Democrats from the Senate one by one, it would give me great pleasure. But Feingold would probably be the very last one to go. No, he’s not perfect, but I’m not looking for perfection anymore. I’m looking for basic decency.
If you’re not worried about the actual jack-booted thugs staging actual midnight raids in America today, you can’t expect to be taken seriously seriously when you warn that some policy you oppose could lead to jack-booted thugs staging midnight raids at some point in the future. And the party that has pushed relentlessly for warrantless surveillance, imprisonment without trial, and the normalization of torture has no business lecturing us about how the other party’s policies will, eventually, lead us to a police state.
For the moment, few of us are implicated in the rise of the extrajudicial state. The flimsy justifications, the enormous powers, the atrocities are all abstract to us. I have the sense that the words “just this once” are quietly doing a lot of work in the minds of the president’s supporters.
They will remain supporters, perhaps, until it is too late, and until the theories are applied not just to one or two people, but to tens of thousands. What is done now and to one man, could be repeated, on the same legal theory, to everyone: To liberals, those subversives. To conservatives, those reactionaries. To moderates, for their moderation. (Don’t laugh. It’s happened before.) By then it will be too late, for all of us, and in a very practical sense.
The Logical Necessity of a Trial
Make no mistake about it — trials are happening. Trials of a kind, anyway. Consider.
I have read in this space and elsewhere that Anwar Al-Aulaqi doesn’t need a trial. The man is guilty as sin; the evidence is overwhelming; a trial would be a waste of scarce judicial resources. A bullet is cheap, and times are hard.
But ask yourself — who decided all this? It wasn’t you. You didn’t review the evidence. It is, by the government’s own assertion, secret evidence. But someone reviewed it. Someone, or some group, sitting in fluorescent comfort in an office somewhere, free from all public scrutiny. They reviewed it.
You who say you don’t need a trial — you trust these people. You trust them to perform the precise functions of a judge and a jury, only without the safeguards of either. And you could not so much as name them.
You trust their secret review of secret evidence, by procedures unknown and undeclared. You are certain of it. You are so certain of them that you would scrap centuries of Anglo-American tradition going back to King John and the Magna Carta.
That’s some impressive trust of some very new institutions. (I’m curious — do you still call yourself a “conservative”?)
But let’s grant these premises, just for the sake of argument.
Now let’s imagine a different man, one less obviously guilty than Anwar Al-Aulaqi. We’re playing make-believe, so imagine whatever things might raise some doubts in your own mind. Make him white, if it helps.
Now ask yourself: Does this man get a trial?
Maybe he does. Or maybe he doesn’t. But then — who decides? Again, it isn’t you. The faceless, nameless, smarter-than-thou bureaucrats already have that power. The experts. They will decide. Not only will they decide guilt or innocence, they will decide who decides, and when, and how. That’s the real trial. And you have already signed away your right to complain. (Back in the real world, did you ever complain about “activist judges”?)
Such impressive trust, really.
The rule of law, however, is simple on this matter, and utterly clear. All criminal suspects get trials. No exceptions. Not even for monsters. Not even for traitors, whose crime is specifically named in the Constitution. We gave Jeffrey Dahmer a trial, and we found a severed head in his refrigerator. We gave the Rosenbergs a trial, and they gave the atom bomb to Stalin.
Now, I can’t personally imagine a single act more evil than giving the atom bomb to Stalin. Outside space opera, I don’t think it’s possible. And yes, people screamed about how wrong it was to try the Rosenbergs.
But you know what? They got a trial. And it was right that they did.
That rightness doesn’t come from the goodness or badness of the Rosenbergs. It doesn’t come from the clear, obvious guilt of the Dahmers. The rule holding that all suspects get trials achieves something wonderful entirely by itself, regardless of its object. That’s why we have it.
The rule “trials for all suspects” eliminates the otherwise very tough choice of whether to hold a trial at all. It eliminates the temptation to arbitary power. Always. Everywhere.
That’s because the borderline cases are never that far away. Indeed, turning “Should we have a trial?” into a live question turns all cases into borderline cases. The power to deny a trial won’t always and only be used for the Dahmers and the Rosenbergs. Allow it, and it will be present at all trials.
Someone gets to decide. An expert. You invited him to do it. And now he will decide about you.
About That Homeland
The idea that an unreviewable executive decision can mark citizens for death contravenes every shred of our Constitution. Once we go there, it’s probably best to admit that we simply don’t have a Constitution anymore. It’s just a list of quaint old notions someone once took a shine to, a long time ago. It will bear no more relationship to our government than the tales of Mother Goose.
But my opinion may not matter. More than ever, opinions get lost. In a single day, the Internet misplaces more opinions than I’ll ever get around to having. Our world is full of tweets, not action.
I know I sound paranoid. As a partial defense, paranoia is nothing new in American politics. I do wish that more of those already inclined to paranoia could be paranoid about this. Give away the big stuff, and there isn’t much left. The possibility of a homeland disappears. The experts move in.
It baffles me that this isn’t the political story of our time. It further baffles me that a new, libertarian, anti-government movement rose up in our time — and was silent about this issue. Or that it was quietly on the other side.
But it doesn’t actually baffle me that Obama the candidate denounced the clear civil liberties violations of the previous administration… and then that Obama the president promptly grabbed more power. The temptation to power is nothing new. That’s why we have rules, like the right to a trial, in the first place. The first principle of our government is that power be called to account for itself. That’s still worth fighting for.