Land of the Free? Citizens to Subjects

America's reign as the world's bastion of political liberties is over. We no longer conduct ourselves as a people and a polity dedicated to the legally protected rights ensconced in our Constitution. The rest of the world has seen this occurring over the past decade with particular reference to how the United States government treats others. We ourselves have permitted the abuse of freedom at home as it has spread and intensified since 9/11. It grows rather than abates the further removed in time we are from that stunning event. Surely, then, the sources of this regression lie deeper than the trauma itself. Passive acquiescence in this degradation of the liberties that have been the foundation of our civic religion tells us as much.

Case in point is the call for a pragmatic consideration of the Congressionally-approved detainee provisions within the defense authorization bill, passed by the Senate last week, that would require mandatory military detention for some terrorism suspects. The one reason cited for a possible questioning of these draconian provisions is that they may reduce the authorities' flexibility in handling the suspected terrorist threats. Eight hundred years of habeas corpus protection against tyranny are recast as a technical cost-benefit calculation in the appraisal of criminal procedure. The dignity and legal integrity of citizens is casually subordinated to nebulous fears about lurking dangers unidentifiable and insubstantial. A judicial system whose openness, insularity from political manipulation and respect in all regards for the principle of fairness made it the envy of the world is fatally compromised.

Military justice for American civilians is not only tolerated but required. This is what large majorities in both houses of Congress have ordained with significant support from Democrats as well as lock step backing from Republicans. We are promised a veto by President Obama. We shall see whether that constitutional lawyer indeed recognizes in this legislation a point of no return in the attack on the constitution and the persons he took an oath to defend or whether he will manage to finesse the issue in keeping with his woeful record of actively trespassing on our individual rights above and beyond the inheritance from his predecessor. The omens are worrisome. A scrutiny of the White House statements suggests less a concern for civil liberties infringed than the bill's granting of the rights stipulated by the Geneva Convention to newly labeled "prisoners of war" who happen to be American citizens.

It should come as no surprise that we have reached this juncture or that it produces just a barely noticed ripple in the troubled waters of the nation's public life. That conforms to our obedient deference in the face of the mounting toll of freedoms lost since our political class has flung itself mind and soul into the atavistic battle against demons we call the "war on terror."

Today the President of the United States has arrogated to himself and his associates the prerogative to kill any citizen residing outside the country's territory if (s)he is judged by anonymous criteria to constitute a threat to America or other Americans. Today, the administration asserts that it can short circuit arbitrarily any legal proceeding, whether it is plaintiff or defendant, on the unchallengeable ground that the pursuit of justice will harm national security - as the Executive defines it. Today, the federal government claims the right to engage in unrestricted electronic surveillance of citizens based on a simple declaration that it sees reason to do so. Today, our communications and movements are deemed legitimate targets of federal and local agents monitoring or investigating without presumption of a crime being committed or planned. Today, the federal government can pressure private companies which are de facto public utilities to withhold basic services from persons or organizations it arbitrarily declares 'threats' to the national interest. WikiLeaks has been denied access to credit card networks and other electronic means of transmitting funds in exactly this way. Today, members of entire communities are being tracked 24/7/365 so as to devise a complete map of their social actions and interactions over time - to have on record just in case. No one in authority specifies what that "just in case' refers to - whether to the courts, the community or the individual. In the event that the military detention bill becomes law, American citizens will have few if any protections against abuses similar to those that have occurred at Guantanamo; indeed, that already has been the fate of some American citizens of the "wrong" ethnicity apprehended in the months after 9/11. In short, the citizens of this great Republic are being reduced to subjects of the state.

How this has happened requires a long and intricate disquisition. In this short space, here are a few points to ponder. One, American political life and public discourse has lost its honesty and, thereby, its integrity. Ultimately, a healthy democracy is sustained by ingrained norms of behavior. Their inevitable violation by some, some of the time, does not vitiate their general observance as the crucial software of a decent, law abiding polity. Their pervasive neglect, though, is toxic. Two, too many Americans have abdicated their responsibilities as citizens. They wear their ignorance as a badge of honor while lavishing time and attention on those - in politics and in our celebrity culture generally - who exploit that ignorance. Our mainstream media especially are villains in this process. The massive flight from responsibility means that our rulers and opinion leaders are left unaccountable - and they are well aware of it. Three, we have become a fearful people. We allow the free floating insecurities of post-modern life to be focused on bogeymen and phantoms. That psychology fosters the emotions and attitudes that lead Americans who love freedom in the abstract to trade their concrete freedoms for palliatives that in the end neither solve problems nor settle nerves. We are politically immature - and are suffering the consequences.

The issue is stark, the implications profound. To treat it like yet another contorted Washington parlor game or contrived theoretical puzzle would be a disservice. Too many on the scene these days know all the tricks but miss the point.