If it was a crime to misappropriate a word or phrase -- to treat it like you own it and toss it around arbitrarily whenever it suits your purposes -- then some prominent conservatives and liberals would be serving hard time. Of course there don't seem to be any real consequences when there's literal theft in the world of politics, so it's a pipe dream to imagine there would be any consequences for pillaging the vocabulary, but it's still a good thought.
Conservatives stole the word "patriot." They hot-wired the ignition and drove it away like they had the title in their back pocket. Join the Tea Party and become a Tea Party Patriot. Go to the TPP website and "join the fight for liberty." Buy Karl Rove's book and read how Dick Cheney is a patriot. If you think Sarah Palin is wonderful and President Obama is a socialist then you're a patriot, too. The clear message is that if you haven't embraced the far right agenda then by default you have to be an unpatriotic liberty hater.
As a military veteran who spent a quarter-century in uniform, I take offense when people like Beck, Palin, Limbaugh, Hannity, O'Reilly, Gingrich, Cheney (Dick and Liz), Rove, Malkin, Coulter, and Dick Morris -- a dozen chest thumping right wing war hawks who've amassed personal fortunes wrapping themselves in the patriot banner and stoking the anger of the base with their "you're either with us or against us" blather, but who felt they had more important things to do when each of them had the opportunity to serve in the nation's armed forces -- imply that veterans who answered the call of duty but don't ascribe to their hateful fear-based ideology are unpatriotic and something other than "real Americans." It's disappointing, too, that so many ordinary Americans are drawn to these PINOs (Patriots In Name Only) like mosquitoes to the alluring blue light in a bug zapper. There are patriots of all stripes who love this country. No one, and no one ideology, has the right to treat the word like it's theirs exclusively.
Liberals like to throw around the phrase "rule of law." Let the Iranians or the North Koreans do something we don't approve of and we excoriate them for their lack of respect for the rule of law. President Obama goes on a secret trip to Afghanistan and encourages Afghan President Hamid Karzai to institutionalize the rule of law. The administration's nominee to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, Dawn Johnsen, withdraws from further consideration for the post and the White House releases a statement praising her "commitment to the rule of law."
The rule of law means everyone -- let me repeat, everyone -- is accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated. The Torture Statute, publicly promulgated federal law codified in the United States Code, says torture is a criminal offense. Likewise, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is signatory, requires the investigation of allegations of torture and the criminal prosecution of offenders. There is no opt-out provision in either statute that lets the government choose to ignore the law when it's not politically expedient or might prove to be unpleasant.
So how can the Obama administration say with a straight face that the United States is the champion of the rule of law and others should step up and follow our example when the administration deliberately ignores criminal accountability for the torture of some of the detainees captured in the global war on terrorism? Susan Crawford, who until recently served as the head of the Defense Department's Office of Military Commissions, told Bob Woodward in an interview published in the Washington Post in January 2009 why she refused to send charges against Mohammed al Qahtani, the alleged 20th hijacker, to trial. She said, "We tortured al Qahtani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture."
Susan Crawford is no left-leaning human rights zealot; she was General Counsel of the Army during the Reagan administration, Dick Cheney's Inspector General at the Defense Department, and she was appointed to her military commission post by Defense Secretary Bob Gates during the Bush-Cheney years. So what was the rule of law loving Obama administration's reaction to this admission by a senior Defense Department official that our government engaged in torture? Key the sounds of crickets chirping.
In an age when the public seems to have the attention span of a gnat, buzz words and trite slogans get traction. It doesn't matter if there is any real substance behind the words so long as they stick. Maybe that's acceptable in commercial marketing, but it's not in democratic governance. We have a right to expect better from those who purport to pull the levers of power. When they're talking the talk they should mean what they say. The two sides have pretty much succeeded in trashing our country; the least they can do is stop trashing our vocabulary.
Morris Davis is a retired Air Force colonel and former chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.