In a truly extraordinary editorial, the New York Times measures what the country has lost and presents the challenge that it faces in the election year 2008:
There are too many moments these days when we cannot recognize our country. Sunday was one of them, as we read the account in The Times of how men in some of the most trusted posts in the nation plotted to cover up the torture of prisoners by Central Intelligence Agency interrogators by destroying videotapes of their sickening behavior. It was impossible to see the founding principles of the greatest democracy in the contempt these men and their bosses showed for the Constitution, the rule of law and human decency.
It was not the first time in recent years we’ve felt this horror, this sorrowful sense of estrangement, not nearly. This sort of lawless behavior has become standard practice since Sept. 11, 2001. The country and much of the world was rightly and profoundly frightened by the single-minded hatred and ingenuity displayed by this new enemy. But there is no excuse for how President Bush and his advisers panicked — how they forgot that it is their responsibility to protect American lives and American ideals, that there really is no safety for Americans or their country when those ideals are sacrificed.
Out of panic and ideology, President Bush squandered America’s position of moral and political leadership, swept aside international institutions and treaties, sullied America’s global image, and trampled on the constitutional pillars that have supported our democracy through the most terrifying and challenging times. These policies have fed the world’s anger and alienation and have not made any of us safer. In the years since 9/11, we have seen American soldiers abuse, sexually humiliate, torment and murder prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few have been punished, but their leaders have never been called to account. We have seen mercenaries gun down Iraqi civilians with no fear of prosecution. We have seen the president, sworn to defend the Constitution, turn his powers on his own citizens, authorizing the intelligence agencies to spy on Americans, wiretapping phones and intercepting international e-mail messages without a warrant.
We have read accounts of how the government’s top lawyers huddled in secret after the attacks in New York and Washington and plotted ways to circumvent the Geneva Conventions — and both American and international law — to hold anyone the president chose indefinitely without charges or judicial review. Those same lawyers then twisted other laws beyond recognition to allow Mr. Bush to turn intelligence agents into torturers, to force doctors to abdicate their professional oaths and responsibilities to prepare prisoners for abuse, and then to monitor the torment to make sure it didn’t go just a bit too far and actually kill them.
On October 5, 2001, I made a mistake. Less than a month earlier, I had been walking around Greenwich Village on my first day back from a European vacation, watching the Twin Towers burn. Thousands of people were walking north from the financial district like war refugees. I said to a colleague, "It's like a war zone," before I realized, "It is a war zone."
I went up to the roof of a friend's apartment building, together with a friend of hers whom I did not know. It was about noon. The Towers had collapsed, and we saw the huge clouds of smoke. At that time we didn't know about the heroic achievement of the New York Police and Fire Department in evacuating people from the buildings. I thought I was watching the death of 10,000, maybe 20,000 people. And I was pretty sure who was responsible. I had been writing about the "Arab Islamists in Afghanistan" since 1989. Now I knew why Ahmad Shah Massoud had been assassinated two days earlier, on September 9, 2001, in Afghanistan's first suicide bombing.
My old friend (she had been a fellow student of my wife at the University of Chicago 30 years before), knowing of my "expertise," asked me the question I dread, What happens now? My standard answer is that I am not an expert on the future; I have never even been there. But on September 11, 2001, I lost my pessoptimistic irony. I didn't know what would happen. But I knew what I feared: that the U.S. would lash out in anger, blaming Afghans for an act planned in their country by a group they did not control. "I hope we don't just carpet-bomb Qandahar," I said. I don't recall what my friend's friend said exactly, but it was something like, "Kill them all." And this was within shouting distance of where Bob Dylan and Joan Baez started their careers when I was in junior high school....
On Friday, October 5, I was in Washington. That morning I went to a part of the Hart Senate office buildings that was not quarantined because of the still unsolved anthrax attacks to meet Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) in his temporary office. One of my former students from Yale, where I taught in the 1980s, had set up the meeting. She was working for Wellstone and wanted to help him think through his position.
We knew the start of the military operations was not far off; they began the next Sunday. I have no notes from that meeting, but one exchange sticks in my mind. By then over three weeks had passed since September 11 without military action.
Though I had not supported George W. Bush, I was starting to feel relieved. The contrast with the Clinton administration's response to the bombing of US embassies in August 1998, which included immediate rocket strikes, had somehow encouraged me. The team of national security veterans around Bush would know how to use military power for strategic goals. Sure of their credentials, they could resist the public sentiments like those I had heard on the Greenwich Village roof.
As I was leaving Wellstone's office, we had a moment alone. "For once," I said, "I'm glad the Republicans won the election." Wellstone raised his eyebrows. I explained, "I'm not sure that a Democratic president could have resisted the pressure to lash out from a Republican Congress baying for blood." He appeared to consider my remarks and finally concluded, "I'm not there yet."
A little more than a year later, on October 25, 2002, Paul Wellstone, his wife, his daughter, and five others died in a plane crash in Minnesota. It was a great loss for many, but it took years before I realized how great a loss it was for me. I never had the chance to tell Paul Wellstone how wrong I was.
When I hear people talking about the need for "bi-partisanship," I think back to my own bi-partisan mistake. The bi-partisanship we need right now is a clear repudiation by conscientious Republicans of the crimes and catastrophes of the Bush administration. I have heard that at times from Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and former Senator John Danforth of Missouri. Danforth has a lot to answer for, notably his sponsorship of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, but unlike many of his colleagues, when he speaks I can recognize the country whose values I remember being taught in school:
The developments of the last three years have exposed the leaders of the current Administration. . . . .They are driven not by concern about our security (which they undermine with every breath) but by their own monomaniacal accumulation of power.
And their nobility of character can be encased in a few scenes. They do not stand up and take responsibility for their decisions. Instead they cower behind deception and falsehood. They offer up 19-year-old soldiers, whom they have sent into battle without guidance or support, as sacrifices to be consumed by the anger of the public and the world. They deride these young soldiers as “rotten apples,” and send off-the-record spokesmen out to imply that we’re recruiting too many criminals into the Army today. We watched this happen in the wake of Abu Ghraib, but no one could muster the fortitude to say what was obviously passing before our eyes. Their lies reverberated in stereo and on HDTV.
And now, in these very weeks, we see it again with the scandal surrounding the destruction of the torture tapes, done with the full complicity of the White House at the highest levels. Now they busily prepare again to scapegoat some young case officers at the CIA, and perhaps some middle management figures. For what? For crimes that they designed, worked out and ordered to be performed. These men have long forfeited any claim to moral leadership. They are staining our nation and its high offices. But we cannot despair over the task of purging these stains.
I too feel a vision of America slipping away. It’s the Founder’s vision of America, of a republic erected as a bulwark against tyranny with individual freedom as its aspiration, and the threat of accumulation of power in the hands of a few men acting in concert—or of a sole tyrant—as its nemesis. The protections that the Founders put in place to defend us against the one true nemesis—the internal one–are being disassembled one by one. First habeas corpus is abolished, and then the protection against warrantless intrusion sputters and fades. To cover their vandalism they maintain a drumbeat of fear, encouraging every cowardly and servile impulse. The media who should be our watchdogs have gone silent. In their place come corporate interests playing a siren’s song, luring us all to complacency, to sleep.
Danforth said he remains a Republican but finds little cause for optimism among the current GOP candidates. "My party is appealing to a real meanness," he said in an interview, "and an irresponsible sense of machismo in foreign policy. I hope it will be less extreme, but I'm an American before I'm a Republican." Danforth has also written critically about the impact of religious conservatives on the Republican Party.He's getting there -- toward a bi-partisan repudiation of this administration. But if Republicans can't deliver it, I'll settle for a partisan repudiation. It will take a tough, determined new administration to expose even a part of what this administration has committed, not an administration committed to comity above all. When the truth comes out, we may finally get that bi-partisan repudiation. But the truth must come out.
So I endorse Scott Horton's vow for the New Year:
So let’s put one resolution at the top of our list: Not another step! We will not abide one more step in the destruction of our civil liberties. We will defy the forces of tyranny that are vandalizing our Constitution and traditions. We will guard the Founders’ vision. In 2008, the time is here to give expression to values we want to retain, or see them vanish forever. It starts with remembering what we have lost. It continues with thought, word, action and vote.I seek the consent of my learned colleague to amend the proposed resolution by addition of the following clause to the second sentence, following "destruction of our civil liberties":
Nor will we tolerate further contempt for what the Founders called "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" by destroying international law in the name of security.I hope Paul Wellstone, wherever he may be, and all his heirs and assigns, will accept this amendment in his memory.
Remember, we have 366 days this time. So no excuses.
UPDATE: My learned colleague has adopted (and posted) the amendment with unanimous consent.