History has a voice. Through its participants, monuments and anniversaries, it can both inspire and haunt us. As President Bush pushes his national security agenda on Capitol Hill, a perfect storm of anniversaries hovers over it like Banquo's ghost asking the question of whether President Bush and his fellow travelers in Congress have squandered our victory in the Cold War by embracing the tactics of our vanquished enemy.
This summer marked the 20th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's historic challenge at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Four years later, the nation Reagan once called the "evil empire" had ceased to exist.
After a half-century competition between the forces of freedom and totalitarianism, freedom had won. The United States, having been resolute in the face of Nazi and Soviet ambitions of a global empire, now stood as the world's sole superpower partly because it had consistently stood as a beacon of liberty and human rights to the world -- what Ronald Reagan called "the shining city on a hill."
On Oct. 26, the ACLU and PEN commemorated another anniversary -- the 60th anniversary of the radio broadcast "Hollywood Fights Back," in which Humphrey Bogart and other film legends denounced the House Un-American Activities Committee's witch hunt against Hollywood and the Bill of Rights. In a reading of the broadcast that included one original cast member and blacklist victims, the cast reminded the audience of present day dangers as the date also was the sixth anniversary of the "Patriot Act," which gave President Bush unprecedented authority to conduct domestic surveillance. That is why Humphrey Bogart's question from the original broadcast whether "our democracy was so feeble" that we must forsake our individual liberties in order to preserve it -- rings true today. Far too often those who claim the mantle of patriotism to protect us from our enemies have little faith or tolerance for the Constitution and principles upon which we were founded and which have endured for two centuries.
The "Hollywood Fights Back" rebroadcast occurred within days of reports that former Attorney General Gonzales had secretly approved a legal opinion concluding that waterboarding and other interrogation methods copied from Soviet interrogation manuals were not "cruel, inhuman or degrading;" and his successor testifying that the president could simply ignore the Constitution, acts of Congress and treaty obligations to conduct warrantless domestic surveillance and hold citizens indefinitely without charge. Judge Mukasey also refused to define waterboarding as torture, despite the fact the U.S. military has treated it as a war crime since 1898.
The contrast between the Bush administration's dark vision and President Reagan's view of the nation as a shining city on a hill led the New York Times to ask whether we were still the country that challenged the Soviets to tear down the Berlin Wall or are we now a nation "that tortures human beings and then concocts legal sophistries to . . . avoid accountability"? This is not an esoteric legal debate, but rather a debate over what kind of nation we are. You do not need a law degree to answer the question as to whether our model of justice should be defined by the Constitution or by Soviet interrogation manuals.
Who we are as a nation is a vital component of our security, which is why the 9/11 Commission noted that "just as we did in the Cold War, we need to defend our ideals abroad vigorously [and show that] America does stand up for its values." It is a telling fact that today in Germany -- the epicenter of the Cold War -- both Russia and China are viewed more favorably than the United States.
The blame for this abandonment of American values does not rest with President Bush alone. Two other anniversaries speak especially to this point. A year ago last week, the Democrats were swept back into power with a mandate -- change. The party has made little progress in Iraq and has even ceded ground to the president by granting him increased surveillance authority and confirming Mukasey (since having a good administrator at the Justice Department is more important than defending the Constitution). "Hollywood Fights Back" reminds us what can happen when good people fail to act or succumb to a climate of fear -- a phenomenon all too common in the post 9/11 Democratic Party.
In addition, Thanksgiving Day will be the 44th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. It is striking how the Democrats have gone from the party of "Profiles in Courage" to the party that is scared of its own shadow, from the party that stood at the Berlin Wall and expressed American resolve by declaring "ich bin ein Berliner" to the party of "ich bin ein Girlie Man."
Kennedy and Reagan both sounded the call of freedom in the face of a landmark of oppression that was the dividing line between those who stood for freedom and those who merely stood for power. History is asking us what side of the wall do we stand on today.