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Joseph A. Palermo Headshot

H. L. Mencken Said It 89 Years Ago

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What a pathetic display from the current stewards of the party of Lincoln: Newt Gingrich claims Republicans balked at confronting Mark Foley's penchant to use his position to prey on young boys because they didn't want to be accused of "gay bashing"; Tony Snow refers to a sexual predator in the House of Representatives as amounting to a few "naughty emails"; and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who gutted the Ethics Committee that might have uncovered Foley's behavior, says he only learned of it on the evening news, (apparently everyone else on Capitol Hill knew about it before the Speaker did). With Representatives Bob Ney, Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham, and now Mark Foley, the Republicans have disgraced the nation from Ohio to Texas, from the West Coast to Florida. And this party claims to represent the "Values Voters?"

Unfortunately, as serious as Foley-gate is, it has diverted attention away from the Republicans' recent nullification of the writ of habeas corpus and the granting of even more presidential power in interpreting the Geneva Conventions. The twelve Senate Democrats and the thirty-four Democratic House members who voted in favor of this unconstitutional abomination should be all drummed out of the party. The lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights now stands as our only vehicle to stop this latest illegitimate power grab that the Legislative Branch has handed on a silver platter to the Executive Branch. When dictators seize power they usually dissolve the Parliament; in our case, the Parliament has dissolved itself.

In 1917, after the United States entered the "Great War," the Wilson Administration and the Congress passed a series of draconian new laws that greatly restricted Americans' civil liberties. The Baltimore journalist, H. L. Mencken, wrote: "Holes began to punched in the Bill of Rights, and new laws of strange and often fantastic shape began to slip through them. . . . The espionage act enlarged the holes to great fissures. Citizens began to be pursued into their houses, arrested without warrants, and jailed without any form of trial. The ancient writ of habeas corpus was suspended: the Bill of Rights was boldly thrown overboard." Mencken also noted the way it was done. It was the reflexive tactic of politicians, he wrote, "to invade the Constitution stealthily, and then wait to see what happens. If nothing happens they go on more boldly; if there is a protest they reply hotly that the Constitution is worn out and absurd, and that progress is impossible under the dead hand. This is the time to watch them especially."

Americans must put the brakes on this runaway machine that is using the "war on terror" to ram through even more restrictions on our civil liberties. History has shown that an aroused citizenry can wrest back rights taken away in "wartime." With hope, the 2006 midterm elections will enter the historical record as the turning point for winning back our national creed from those who have hijacked it for their own narrow and authoritarian political aims.