by dday

Chris Satullo, a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, made the suggestion in his column the other day that, instead of Fourth of July celebrations this year, we should sit in quiet contemplation of the plain fact that our country over the past seven years has engaged in torture, indefinite detention without charges, rendition, and other unspeakable acts. It was a clear and provocative call to stand up for liberty in the face of fear, for honest criticism of our leaders as an act of patriotism.

We have betrayed the July 4 creed. We trample the vows we make, hand to heart.

Don't imagine that only the torturer's hand bears the guilt. The guilt reaches deep inside our Capitol, and beyond that - to us.

Our silence is complicit. In our name, innocents were jailed, humans tortured, our Constitution mangled. And we said so little.

We can't claim not to have known. The best among us raised the alarm. Heroes in uniform, judges in robes, they opposed the perverse logic of an administration drenched in fear, drunk on power.

But did we heed them? Hardly. Barely . . .

Today, Satullo wrote a follow-up column, explaining the authoritarian response to his initial offering. His initial words about the death of outrage have revealed that, all too often in America, the only outrage is about the outrage.

...Rush (Limbaugh) gave my piece a dramatic reading on his Tuesday show. His intent was not to praise my Swiftian panache. He urged his listeners to let me know what a rotten person I am.

My computer screen soon filled with missives with angry exclamation points in the subject line.

I will say this: Rush's listeners have a zest for insult and invective. Correct spelling, not so much. Also, I'm unclear what my sexual orientation (hetero, by the way) has to do with this topic. Wishing death on someone you've never met is unkind, to a degree. And telling someone to move to another country stopped being a witty riposte somewhere around 1967.

(The homophobic references are a staple of conservative criticism. Happens to be a plain fact.)

Satullo's main response to this is one of deep confusion:

Just seven years ago, who would have ever thought that being against torture could prove so controversial? When did the running of Turkish prisons become an integral part of the American Way?

Will we ever move beyond this dead-end view: If you criticize America on some point, you are unpatriotic, and can't possibly love or honor your country?

It's rather incredible, isn't it? But of course, we've been governed by leaders who have equated criticism with a lack of patriotism for seven years, and have been very skillful at it, besides. Sure, Bush is scraping bottom and even loathed by his own party now (they love his money-raising from his fellow authoritarians but that's about it), but that's because of how he damaged their standing, not the country. On the fundamentals, the Big Daddy belief that we should not question our great and glorious leaders, there is still a great consensus. As long as there are authoritarians willing to frighten the population with lurid tales about murderers on the loose, they will use that fear to bludgeon the country into accepting whatever powers they desire, and silencing dissent besides.

WASHINGTON - The White House said Thursday that dangerous detainees at Guantanamo Bay could end up walking Main Street U.S.A. as a result of last month's Supreme Court ruling about detainees' legal rights. Federal appeals courts, however, have indicated they have no intention of letting that happen [...]

"I'm sure that none of us want Khalid Sheikh Mohammed walking around our neighborhoods," White House press secretary Dana Perino said about al-Qaida's former third in command.

Chris Satullo was making a fairly unremarkable statement about the need to consider our fundamental ideals as human beings, let alone as a nation that presumes to stand for concepts like freedom and justice and equality, and the knee-jerk reaction was unbridled anger and requests to shut his mouth. This will be repeated anytime anyone presumes to question whether the architects of these policies or torture and detention and rendition ought to sit in a jail cell for their crimes. The lack of a culture of accountability in Washington, of any connection between those founding ideals and the actions taken in their name, leads to the rot at the center of our collective souls. we are in 2008. And I don't think anyone can seriously dispute that the current President of the United States violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or any number of legal commitments to refrain from torture. Some people think these violations were good policy. Many of those who regard those violations as good policy, also maintain that higher constitutional principles grant the President the right to break the law. Which is precisely what you could say on behalf of Richard Nixon. And Bush, like Nixon, has become unpopular. But Bush won't be hounded out of office.

I'm not exactly sure what accounts for the difference. I wasn't alive in 1973-74. I have a vague sense that at that time America's elites operated with some sense of conscience and dignity, and it was taken for granted even among Republican leaders that one couldn't just break the law. These days, a misleading deposition taken in the course of a frivolous lawsuit aimed at avoiding the revelation of an affair is a grave national crisis, but it's taken for granted that only a lunatic would believe that Bush or any of his henchmen should be held accountable in any way for repeated violations of the law. I don't really know what changed, or why David Broder and other gatekeepers of elite consensus can't see that something's gone wrong here, but I'm not happy about it.

As Brad DeLong notes, it was ever thus among those guardians of the status quo like David Broder, who looked at the impeachment of Nixon as some sort of political game to map out, not a vital act to preserve some semblance of coherence to the rule of law. But from where I'm sitting, it certainly seems different, not among the elites but the public. Every four years, particularly when there's a transition in the White House from one party to the next, we hear some encomium to the strength and vitality of the American system, that it can allow the peaceful transition of power, that election-year fights end on the day of voting and the country comes together in harmony to salute its new democratically elected leader. This comfort, this blissful faith in our democracy, is exactly what has made us so fat and happy that we practically cannot recognize a Constitution in crisis. We are so benighted that when a lonely voice, as if freed from the shackles of Plato's cave to see reality as it truly is, yells "what has gone wrong with us," he gets shouted down by those authoritarians who confuse patriotism with an blind loyalty for literally whatever declaration their leaders make (this all turns around when there's a Democrat in the White House, of course, and such conventions like the Presidency are given precisely no respect).

This unthinking loyalty to party has presented a debate on torture where there ought to be none, a notion of liberty that must be subservient to security, and the sentiment of fear guiding belief far more than reason. There was always this strain in human behavior, but the difference in 21st-century America is that the authoritarian mindset has had seven years to bully the nation. We may score a political victory in November, but the authoritarians will not be vanquished, they will continue to use the weapon of fear, and the lack of accountability for the age of Bush will still leave a gaping hole in the nation, a wound not allowed to properly heal. The ghosts - and the young authoritarians who learned at their masters' feet - won't go away. They'll return in a future Administration and seek more power, make the Presidency more like a monarchy, and thumb their nose at more dissenters who will be more marginalized. This will be the final outrage.