Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Panic Attack: A Blank Check for Tyranny

Originally published in The Moscow Times on September 21, 2001. Now featured in the book, Empire Burlesque: High Crimes and Low Comedy in the Bush Imperium, 2001-2005.

"The president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons." - Joint Resolution, U.S. Congress, Sept. 15, 2001

An extraordinary document, unprecedented in U.S. history. Although modeled on the Tonkin Gulf resolution that opened the spigots for the Vietnam War, and on the narrowly passed measure that belatedly gave George Bush I constitutional cover for the vast army he had already marshaled in the Persian Gulf, the emergency powers awarded last week to George Bush II surpass anything yet seen in the American republic.

Never has a president been given such sweeping authority. It's true that some have taken it: most notably Abraham Lincoln, who used what he called his "inherent powers" to quash civil liberties, jail dissidents, even suspend the writ of habeas corpus, the cornerstone of 800 years of Anglo-American jurisprudence. But these draconian measures - imposed, after all, when the Union was under sustained assault by a million homegrown rebels, not 19 God-maddened criminals on a suicide run - were met with violent protests, Congressional investigations, bitter partisan invective and court challenges.

Yet there was nary a peep out of the modern guardians of the Republic in the Senate as they voted Caesar this dictatorial power. For note carefully that it is Bush alone who decides who is a terrorist; it is Bush alone who decides what constitutes the "aiding" of terrorism.

The Congressional lambkins of course believe that Bush will not abuse these powers. And no doubt he and his Praetorians will show the same tender concern for liberty, legality and constitutional authority they displayed last year when they sent hired thugs to break up the vote recount in Miami, then successfully urged the Supreme Court to strip Congress of its clearly defined constitutional responsibility to resolve disputed elections, thereby shutting down the vote and transforming callow Octavian into the manly Augustus who rules today.

Poor lambkins, so trusting. But what else can they do? What can any of us do? We must all now trust that this man who can't hold his liquor will be able to hold near-absolute power without getting drunk on it. We must trust that he will somehow ignore the counsels of the conservative faithful who have heretofore molded his thinking and guided all his actions.

For these wise guides have been busy defining just who is a terrorist - and a terrorist sympathizer. In newspapers, on radio and television, in weighty journals, they're naming and shaming the guilty. The list is long: Anyone who criticizes the president in this time of crisis. Anyone who has ever criticized him before. Anyone who gives information to the American people about what has happened to them and what is being done in their name - including a conservative senator like Orrin Hatch, who was publicly slapped down by the White House for speaking without permission. Anyone who suggests that there may be a complicated historical context to the tragedy, one in which America is not entirely without a tincture of culpability for helping create the scenario that belched forth this hell.

All of these constitute a "fifth column," an "internal enemy," a "corps of traitors," we are told by Bush's patrons and mentors. Every day, they pour this poison into Caesar's ear - but we must trust that he's not listening. We must trust that although he has always believed and embraced their Talibanic precepts before, he will now, miraculously, discard them.

We must trust that Caesar will only sip at the cup of power that's been given him, just enough to rouse his spirits without disordering his senses. For it's entirely up to him now; Congress has abandoned its ancient duty to represent the people. If he decides you're a terrorist - you are. If he decides you helped them - you did. Vengeance is his; he will repay.

Don't you feel safer already?

Fog Bound
Meanwhile, In the aftermath of terror, a fog of deceit is rising from the Potomac, as deadly as the asbestos haze hanging over Manhattan. Congress is being shut out of intelligence briefings; it is to act as a rubber stamp, nothing more. Dick Cheney has taken charge as "War Minister," as the press approvingly calls him. The new war will be run by the same people who ran the last one: the one against the "terrorist evildoer" who is still in power 10 years later; the evildoer with whom Dick Cheney did $23 million worth of business - after the war - as head of Halliburton.

The same people who hired a PR firm - Hill and Knowlton - to control public perception of the Gulf War; who imposed press censorship far beyond that seen even in World War II. To this day, most Americans don't know what was done in their name during the last war; don't know that Bush I was an enthusiastic backer of Saddam Hussein, supplying him with arms and materials for weapons of mass destruction almost to the day he crossed into Kuwait; don't know that American soldiers were ordered to massacre surrendering Iraqi conscripts; or that Bush I, with an army on the scene, allowed Saddam to slaughter thousands of Iraqi Shiites trying to overthrow him - with Bush I's encouragement - just after the war.

You can't even speak of such things; you sound like a madman, a crank raving on the street. There's no context where this history can resonate, no way for it to inform the debate on how America should respond without repeating past mistakes. It's all hidden in the fog, decades of murk; and the fog is rising again.

It's a cold, brutal fact, hard to face, hard to stomach, but impossible to deny: We are all living in a world of lies - lies that don't even know they are lies, because they are the children and the grandchildren of lies.