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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Can the Democrats Get Off the Mat? - by Jerry Lanson

There is only one thing worse than a U.S. president who illegally attacks another country, wiretaps his own citizens without court order and tortures prisoners of war. That one thing is a Congress that gives bipartisan support to these activities, legitimizing them in the eyes of the American public.

Thus far, of course, only the first, the war against Iraq, has gotten the Congress’ full stamp of approval. The authorization vote for that war is one that haunts many Democrats, who have tried to duck out of their initial support of the war by noting, correctly, that the administration cooked the intelligence and then beat the war drums with the help of an all too eager and gullible press.

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If, however, the Democrats sit idly or quietly by while Congress puts its imprint on wiretapping and torture, they will have no one to blame but themselves. And to date, they are showing signs of doing just that.

Granted: As a new warrantless wiretapping bill wends its way through Congress, Democrats did as a bloc vote "no" in committee. But they did so without showing or sustaining the outrage needed to catapult the issue back into the national consciousness. They seem determined not to let Republicans paint them as soft on terror by being measured -- make that muted -- in their response to what’s being billed as anti-terror legislation.

Then along came that all-American “torture with impunity” bill. President Bush wants to monkey with the Geneva Conventions, which for decades have set standards internationally for the humane treatment of prisoners of war. He also says we can’t possibly allow those charged with heinous acts against the United States to know the evidence against them, even when brought to trial, because, he says, that would jeopardize national security. Forget the notion of innocent until proven guilty. In Bush’s new world order, proof needs no more than the prosecutor’s word.

Before a few gritty Senate Republicans offered spirited resistance to some relatively narrow aspects of the president’s bill, it had sailed through the House Armed Services Committee on a bipartisan vote of 52-8.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Democrats have sat by largely in silence while Senators McCain, Warner and Graham, Republicans all, said no to that portion of the president’s bill that would tinker with the Geneva Conventions.

What neither of these senators nor most of the news media have said much about are those broad areas of legal protection that both bills would circumvent. From my admittedly unscientific sampling of elite media offerings, only The Boston Globe and Newsday has covered this part of the issue closely. On Sept. 15, Globe reporters Farah Stockman and Rick Klein wrote:

“President Bush's plan for handling Guantanamo Bay detainees, and a rival bill in Congress, would both strip prisoners of the right to challenge their detention in federal court, throwing out hundreds of pending claims that are the only recourse for inmates being held indefinitely without charges. Groups of defense lawyers, nine retired judges, and three retired military lawyers sent letters to Congress this week opposing Bush's proposal and the Senate plan, saying both would sharply curtail the rights of most detainees.”

Though the news media have glossed over much of this issue in salivating over the Republican senators’ stand, these three Republicans do deserve credit for breaking ranks with the president on principle. That’s more than can be said of most Democrats. On a day that Sen. Charles Schumer told The Globe that this year Republicans won’t bully Democrats (“every time they go after us, we stand up and fight back."), Democratic senators maintained their studied silence on the signature bill on torture being debated in their chamber and in the media.

As Walter Mondale once said to presidential opponent Gary Hart, “Where’s the beef, senator?”

Or, as The New York Times put it in a Sept. 15 editorial: “Senators Warner, McCain and Graham have come up with a serious alternative, and they deserve enormous credit for standing up to Mr. Bush's fearmongering -- something many Democrats seem too frightened to do.”

I am not suggesting that voters are without a choice this fall or that they should return a Republican-controlled Congress. Heaven forbid.

I am suggesting, however, that the public’s choice at this point isn’t a very good one. And unless the Democrats shed their timidity and emerge from hiding, I don’t believe their party is likely to pick up either house of Congress come November. As long as the Democratic Party stands for little, it will gain little.

Silence is not a policy. Leadership is defined by taking a stand and voicing the reasons for it, not by hiding in the tall grass and hoping a disgusted public will hurl stones at the bully in the presidential pulpit.

Unless the Democrats start to exert some leadership, both the wiretapping and torture bills will sail through Congress with little public notice. This country will continue to tumble further toward totalitarianism and further solidify its status in the truly democratic world as a rogue roughneck.

In an elegant essay in this week’s Boston Globe, columnist James Carroll put it this way:

“Justice is measured in every society by how the worst malefactors are treated -- the worst not only in culpability, but in capacity for general harm. The best way to combat terrorism is to wrap accused terrorists in the cloth of the law they would rip asunder. More important, to legalize the abuse of a class of prisoners is to prepare for the abuse of all.”

Democratic members of Congress and the voting public have a choice. They can prepare for the abuse of all in silence – and rest assured, it will come. Or they can act to change the conditions that allow it. But that will require a voice – and the courage to use it.

Jerry Lanson is an associate professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He writes a blog, Making Sense of the News. He can be reached at
Can the Democrats Get Off the Mat?


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