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Monday, September 11, 2006

The `War on Terror' Will Turn a Generation of Angry Even a Bag-Lady Can Teach Bush About Human Rights - by Henry Porter

The President is destroying the constitution and few Americans seem to care or even notice
An elaborately turned-out bag-lady of the sort you occasionally see in Manhattan - a former fashion editor, perhaps, or designer who has lost her mind but not her style - stopped in front of all the people sunning themselves in Bryant Park and shouted at me: 'I obey the constitution.' I wish I had had the wit to shout back: 'Which is more than your President.'

What Bush is doing in the run-up to the midterm elections is a disgrace equal to any other scandal of his nasty, incipiently despotic, regime. Using the hallowed anniversary of 9/11, he has demanded Congress pass a law that enables the major terrorist suspects, until now held in CIA secret prisons all over the world, to be transferred and tried at Guantanamo.

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The proposed courts would allow evidence obtained by what is politely called in America 'coercive interrogation' as well as hearsay and would deny the suspects' rights to see evidence against them because it is deemed by the government to be classified. Because these courts plainly fly in the face of the rights enshrined by the American constitution and the Geneva Convention, the Supreme Court ruled against them last June.

This was hardly going to deter Bush and Dick Cheney. Last week, the President made a speech to an audience of sympathisers in the White House, many of whom had lost people in the attacks five years ago, to promote this legislation. If enacted, it will set Congress and the executive against the Supreme Court and the United States against international standards of decency and the rule of law.

Whatever Congress decides, nothing can change the court's original opinion that the United States would be in violation of article three of the Geneva Convention, which only allows for trials in regular courts that afford 'the guarantees which are recognised as indispensable by civilised people'.

The day after his speech, Bush went to Atlanta to address another audience, this time of 'conservative intellectuals' (truly an oxymoron in Bush's America), and told it that he required a law from Congress that would legalise the NSA's eavesdropping programme, which has also been held by the courts to be illegal and against the rights established in the constitution. The strategy of demanding these laws now is actually rather clever. Every member of Congress and some senators are about to go back to their constituencies to fight the November midterm elections and few are willing to stand up for the constitutional rights when security is still the top priority of the vast majority of American voters.

Bush is likely to get what he wants from Congress, at the same time as refocusing attention on the terrorist threat rather than the inferno in Iraq.

Not many Americans appear to understand what is going on. But a few do - the odd bag-lady, dissident, late-night talk shows such as Bill Maher's and the New York Times which, considering it is the leading voice of liberal, law-abiding America, has been a mite too genteel for my tastes these past five years. However its editorial on Thursday did say this: 'Mr Bush wants to re-write American law to create a glaring exception to the Geneva Convention, to give ex post facto approval to abusive interrogation methods and to bar legal challenges to the system.'

Precisely. The point that will surely feature in the forthcoming obituary of American rights and values is that the law that Bush proposes includes a measure which makes it retroactive to 11 September 2001. So, officials and CIA interrogators will be protected from prosecution under the War Crimes Act for anything they may have done from the inception of the 'war on terror', i.e. 9/11.

Why would this be necessary unless Americans had been torturing the 14 senior suspects who have been transferred to Guantanamo? It certainly gives the lie to Bush's statement on Thursday: 'The United States does not torture. It is against our laws and our values.'

Rupert Murdoch's dreadful Fox News and his papers promote these utterances, offering a subliminal wink in the direction of the White House because they understand that torture is part of the 'war on terror' and, more crucially, that bamboozling Congress before the recess will concentrate more power in the 'decider's' hands.

It is all part of a process of fashioning what Dick Cheney called 'strong, robust executive authority' with 'constitutional powers unimpaired'; that is to say, executive power which is untrammelled by the courts or the people's representatives in Congress. As in Britain, power is remorselessly flowing to the centre and threatens to disrupt, if not permanently cripple, the democratic system.

At the last count, Bush has discreetly claimed the authority to disobey 740 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the constitution.

This state of affairs has gradually developed since the days of the Depression, when Roosevelt used the economic crisis to gain more power for the executive branch. Before the Thirties, legislation had been precisely drafted so as to minimise interpretations by the executive branch. Now the executive branch can ignore anything it wants and only consults Congress when it needs a law to bypass the remaining obstacle to total and unfettered power - the Supreme Court.

You may think I exaggerate, but the facts speak for themselves. The majority of Americans cares not one jot for the constitution and lawyers and politicians are content to set aside any of the revered articles whenever it suits them. Nobody complains. There are no demonstrations on Massachusetts Avenue, no mass rallies in Central Park in defence of the constitution.

'It is paradoxical,' says American author Paul Craig Roberts, 'that American democracy is the likely casualty of the "war on terror" that is being justified in the name of expansion of democracy.' Quite.

© 2006 The Guardian Newspaper Unlimited
The `War on Terror' Will Turn a Generation of Angry Even a Bag-Lady Can Teach Bush About Human Rights


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