The Declaration of Independence reads, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce [citizens] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.” The Founders of the United States invoked this principle to throw off the rule of King George 3. Now we have the occasion to use it to remove emperor George 43.
For five years, citizens have suffered “a long train of abuses and usurpations” by George W. Bush. This week brought the announcement that he authorized domestic spying on civilians without bothering to obtain court warrants. Bush admitted this, calling the eavesdropping “crucial to our national security.” He didn’t explain why he deemed it unnecessary to first get a warrant.
These revelations were the latest in a series of outrages. Over time it has become apparent that three tactics fueled the Bush regime’s descent into despotism: The first was designation of the response to the 9/11 attacks as a “war” upon terrorists. The war metaphor permitted the Administration to characterize the President as “commander-in-chief”.
As the second tactic, Bush’s legal counsel massaged Article 2 of the Constitution, which describes the executive powers of the President. They combined the “commander-in-chief” authority with power granted by a Congressional authorization of September 14, 2001. (This directed the President to “use all necessary and appropriate force” to respond to the attacks.) The White House fashioned an unprecedented definition of Presidential authority. Bush believed that he was above the law. That he could ignore the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners. Authorize warrant-less eavesdropping on civilians.
The third tactic was ethical. The Administration asserted that in the war on terror the stakes were so high that the ends must, of necessity, justify the means. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer articulated this line of reasoning.
Krauthammer focused on torture, but his logic is applicable to all Administration wrongdoing. The ethics hinge on a hypothetical situation: A terrorist is captured after planting a nuclear time bomb in New York City. The columnist argued, “Torture not only would be permissible [in this case] but would be required (to acquire life-saving information).” He declared, “elected leaders, responsible above all for the protection of their citizens, have the obligation to tolerate their own sleepless nights by doing what is necessary… to get information that could prevent mass murder.” Krauthammer reinforced the Administration argument - because we live in dangerous times, President Bush must use extreme measures to protect America.
The Bush case for expanded executive authority relies upon a logical fallacy - inadequate explanation. They don’t provide evidence that the extreme action – unauthorized wiretaps – produces better results. The Administration argues that we should trust them that their tactic produces evidence we need. Krauthammer demonstrated this faulty reasoning in the “ticking nuclear bomb” incident. He claimed that only torture would enable us to find the bomb. However, the same scenario was recently discussed on “PBS News Hour,” Jack Cloonan, an experienced FBI interrogator, indicated that torture would not be necessary. “I [can’t] think of any situation that's going to arise where I have to use such pressure.”
George Bush is a born-again Christian. Yet, it is apparent that the use of torture, and the doctrine that the ends justify the means, flies in the face of Christian Morality. Jesus of Nazareth taught the Golden Rule, “Treat people the way you want them to treat you.” As a consequence, mainstream Christians reject tactics such as torture and eavesdropping on civilians. However, since the thirties, some theologians have argued that the elemental rules of Christian morality do not apply to state leaders. In 1932, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” in which he argued. “The responsible leader of a political community is forced to use coercion to gain his ends.” This ethical doctrine became the basis for the Western “realist” political philosophy.
There are compelling arguments for rejecting these ethics – denying that the ends justify the means. One is legal: Lawyers outside the Bush Administration are appalled at the expansion of Executive powers by the misuse of the commander-in-chief designation.
Another argument is pragmatic: Torture is not a reliable method of obtaining information. As another example, energy spent on surveillance of Quaker Meetings takes agents away from more useful investigations.
Yet another is humanitarian: Torture punishes the innocent as well as the guilty. U.S. authorities acknowledge that the majority of tortured prisoners will eventually be released, charged with no crime.
Finally, there is a common-sense rationale: The argument that the President should have the final say on what tactics are used in the war on terror – on whether we use torture or spy on civilians - ignores the obvious: George Bush cannot be trusted to determine this. He does not have good judgment.
President Bush’s assertion of expanded Presidential authority is wrong legally and morally. There is no justification for torture of prisoners or spying on private citizens. Two hundred thirty years ago the Founders rejected similar activity, by another George. It was despotism then, it is despotism now. The conduct of the Bush Administration cannot be tolerated.