Saturday, December 16, 2006
Yesterday, December 15th, was Bill of Rights Day, a celebration of the 215th anniversary of the signing of the first ten articles in the Bill of Rights. The holiday was instituted by no less than FDR himself--a noble but forgotten gesture from a man who could arguably be called America's Greatest President. And he declared the holiday just one week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, just so that the nation could be clear about where national priorities lay during those uncertain times:
This day was signed into practice by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on December 15, 1941, one hundred and fifty years after the actual signing of the Bill of Rights by our forefathers. Ironically, he proclaimed the holiday just one week after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor initiating the United States' involvement in World War II where freedom issues were at the core of wartime dogma.
The mass internment of Japanese-Americans during this period, of course, rendered some of the "bill of rights" emphasis somewhat hollow. But it is nevertheless incredibly important to note the contrast in style and emphasis between two men, one of whom can easily be called one of the Greatest Presidents, the other of whom is easily the Worst President Ever. Just one week after a horrific attack on American soil, the Worst President Ever was pushing for the Patriot Act and the mass repeals of basic 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th amendment rights; just one week after a similar attack on American soil, the Great President chose to enshrine those very rights in a national day of respect and remembrance. Both eras were marked by furious debates over emphases on freedom vs. national security; the contrast in actions by the Executive could not be more clear.
It is telling that we, as a nation and a culture, have chosen to place so much emphasis on Pearl Harbor Day--a day of grief and pain that admittedly launched us into one of the most critical and consequential wars in history--but have chosen to forget an event that truly defines us as a nation and was highlighted for specific emphasis by the very man who led us through those perilous and monumental times.
Today, that failure to honor this most fundamental imprint on our national character is a reminder of just how hollow those very guarantees and freedoms have become under this Worst of Administrations. Or perhaps it is a symptom of a nation gone astray--a canary in the coal mine of national jingoism and misplaced patriotism, where martial power is seen as a greater source of strength than is national character.
Either way, the unmarked passing of what should be a consecrated date should give us pause, and allows us an opportunity for reflection on what could have been--nay, on what should have been--our national legacy under the direction of a far worthier Presidency after the traumatic events of September the 11th.
A Worthier Presidency would have heeded the warnings in the first place, and probably prevented this long, dark nightmare before it even began.
A Worthier Presidency would have assembled a truly international Alliance, in memory of that great counter-authoritarian Alliance of 60 years ago, to rout and expunge the disease of Taliban and Al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan with a just and mighty force.
A Worthier Presidency would have brought Justice upon Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts, rather than letting America's Most Wanted Murderer run free in the interests of conducting a war of Imperial fancy.
A Worthier Presidency would have honored the letter and and the spirit of the 1st Amendment; it would have tolerated with weary amusement the renewed calls from the Right Wing, rejoined from the days of Kosovo, to avoid mission creep in Afghanistan, to not get involved in nation-building, to bring the troops home immediately, and the howls from Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh over the deaths of one or two American soldiers for a "wag the dog" war--all in the interest of preservation of the 1st Amendment.
A Worthier Presidency would have maintained the guaranteed separation between Church and State, rejecting the Left Behind millennarian fervor which is the inevitable Igor to the Frankenstein of war in the Middle East.
A Worthier Presidency would have been content to call a war a war, to act like it was a war, and to treat it like a war. A Worthier Presidency would have called Prisoners taken during this war just that--"Prisoners of War"--and treated them as such according to the Geneva Conventions.
A Worthier Presidency would have conducted necessary surveillance on our enemies while honoring the 4th amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, and would never have considered conducting those searches without warrants based in probable cause.
A Worthier Presidency would never have considered holding suspects indefinitely for infamous crimes without their having been formally indicted by a grand jury. Indeed, a Worthier Presidency would have shut down Guantanamo entirely.
A Worthier Presidency would have understood that torture was never acceptable, and would have honored the 8th Amendment guarantees against cruel and unusual punishments.
A Worthier Presidency would never have suspended Habeas Corpus indefinitely, simply in order to provide itself legal justification for its previous crimes against country and Constitution.
A Worthier Presidency would never have violated the 9th Amendment to the Constitution through the use of Strict Constructionism, stating that the Executive could deny any rights it deemed threatening, simply because the Constitution didn't explicitly deny its right to do so.
Alas, we do not HAVE a worthy Presidency. We have instead a national disgrace, a painful embarrassment, a shame on our character and blot upon our dignity. We have a would-be Authoritarian Imperial Monarchy, without even the usual silver lining of strict order and heightened competence that usually comes associated with deficits of freedom.
Bill of Rights day, meanwhile, lies forgotten in the rubbish heap of history as we pass blithely from the militarism of Pearl Harbor Day to the consumerism of what is now the American way of celebrating Christmas, with scarcely a moment to breathe in between.
Today, those who honor what America truly stands are left to mourn our losses on what should be a day of national celebration.
As always, however, there is still hope. We have a new Democratic Congress, and with it the power to investigate and hold accountable in whatever way necessary and/or politically expedient those who have stained our national character by forcing these tragedies upon us. We have the power, if we hold our Democrats accountable as they hold the Republicans accountable, to regain the rights that we have lost.
And I hope that one day, perhaps next year, we can help make December 15th a day to remember joyfully once more--and perhaps even make of it a national holiday as FDR had himself envisioned. It would be a fine statement, and a fitting rejoinder to the depradations of the last twelve years.