December 22, 2005
Trust Bush With Our Rights? No.
George Bush's problem is that Washington is not a courtroom. If
it were, he or his lawyer (Dick Cheney?) could rise and object to
the mention of his ``previous convictions.'' That way, every offense
against custom, law, international agreements and common sense could
be treated in isolation. Too bad for Bush, he has a rap sheet.
It is his
record of non-stop belligerence to anything that would limit his
powers that works against him as he tries to make a case for what
in shorthand is called domestic spying. Any other president would
have earned the solicitous attention and understanding of the
country, including his critics. After Sept. 11, 2001, we were
all willing to make some accommodations. If the president wanted
to tap some phones, let him tap. Better that than another terrorist
with Bush is that it is hard to separate the reasonable from the
unreasonable. It seems reasonable to me to listen in on phone
calls from overseas to people here -- Americans or not -- if there
is any link at all to suspected terrorists. If, say, a cell phone
is found with certain numbers on it, I would monitor them all.
That might not meet a strict legal standard, but it does seem
to make common sense. With all due regard to law, the highest
law of all is, ``Better safe than sorry.''
But a reasonable
stretching of the law in this respect becomes mighty suspect and
somewhat scary when everything else is brought to mind. After
all, the very same people who assure us that they are merely being
prudent -- trust us -- are the same guys who held out until the
last minute to retain torture as an option in questioning terrorist
suspects and others. They are the same people -- Cheney, in particular
-- who are so tone deaf to appearances, not to mention the opinions
of the military, that they would publicly fight a restriction
on torture. It's not that they don't have a point -- not a persuasive
one, mind you, but a point nonetheless -- but they see it as more
important than anything else, even America's post-Abu Ghraib image.
9/11, the Bush administration announced it had no use for the
Geneva Conventions. It would apply them as it saw fit -- and it
did not see fit when it came to terrorists. These terrorists,
after all, made war by no rules themselves. Why should we abide
by any in response? The answer, as many military officers said,
is that we still could hold our enemies to a standard of conduct
toward prisoners. If we did not adhere to it ourselves, there
was no chance they would. The Bush administration brushed aside
these objections. It established a globalized Gulag, a vast Siberia
which could be anywhere and where a suspect could be held forever
on charges that were never brought. Kafka was finally humbled.
Even he could not have imagined this.
So an administration
that makes something of a reasonable case when it comes to tapping
the international phone calls of American citizens has its standing
and veracity considerably weakened by what went before. The White
House cannot explain why it did not ask Congress for this authority
because, it is now clear, it does not want to ask Congress for
anything. It will not explain why it could not seek warrants from
a judge because, really, it does not want to seek warrants from
a judge. This is the Louis XIV school of government: in matters
of national security, Bush must say to himself, he is the state.
Such a president
cannot be trusted. In Bush's case, the extra inch that would be
given another president in wartime has to be measured out in increments
of tenths. He is so suffused with his own sense of righteousness
that he cannot imagine his laws being abused -- not by him, certainly,
and not by his chummy group of nicknamed nincompoops, either.
He listens to Cheney, who still smarts from post-Watergate reforms
that made the Gerald Ford presidency less imperial than Richard
Nixon's -- and on purpose. Cheney was Ford's chief of staff.
trials, it does not matter what went before. The fact that the
defendant had robbed does not necessarily mean that he has robbed
again. But life is about rap sheets -- reputations and permanent
records and personnel files. Read George Bush's and then ask yourself
if it was exigency or ideology that prompted him to tap the international
calls of American citizens without showing a court why. In his
case, the record speaks for itself.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group