I just flew back from Australia, where I was speaking about the erosions of our civil liberties. Believe me, the rest of the world is agog at our inaction as what makes us Americans is being set aflame; and they are more scared of what an unsheathed US could do to the rest of the world than we are.
They also get more news out in the rest of the world about these depredations than we do here in our media bubble.
For instance: As the Australian reported earlier this week, New South Wales Justice of the Peace Mamdouh Habib is suing the Australian federal government -- which under the Howard administration had colluded with the US in committing various abuses against detainees and due process -- for having allowed him to be arrested wrongly in Pakistan in 2001, kidnapped and sent illegally to Egypt. There this Justice of the Peace was illegally imprisoned and tortured for six months. After that the United States held him for FOUR YEARS in Guantanamo. His complaint notes that he is a law-abiding citizen who was swept up under false pretexts. "It turns out that Habib has incontrovertible proof of his good standing," the Australian noted. "[H]e is a fully accredited Justice of the Peace in NSW. A search of the NSW Attorney General's Department website reveals that not only Habib, but his wife Maha Habib, is a JP." To become justice of the peace in New South Wales, the Australian added, "you have to be NOMINATED BY A MEMBER OF THE NSW PARLIAMENT and submit to a full character inquiry, including a criminal records check by NSW Police." (ALL CAPS mine)
Get that? A justice of the peace in a developed-world democracy. Had you heard of that?
This gave me chills because, once again, it is so scarily predictable: when I first started trying to alert people about the ramifications of the Military Commissions Act, and how it gives the US power to seize innocent people off the street simply by the President's naming them 'enemy combatants', I pointed out that nothing would prevent the US from rendering an EU minister off the streets of Belgium -- and flying him or her to a `black site' for torture -- if he or she opposed a US pipeline plan, or was prosecuting US war criminals such as Rumsfeld in the Hague. And that the clear lesson of Germany and other closing societies such as Argentina is that once those 'disappearances' begin, that is it; few are then brave enough to object -- and at that point objection is too weak to be effective anyway.
They rendered an Australian justice of the peace -- and that rendition did not even make the US news. So how can we be sure there is something so sacred about an American justice of the peace or even a judge? Say, an American judge who ruled against the Military Commissions?
This kind of leap to the next level of threat to us as citizens seems implausible to many people because they assume that there is an orderly and effective democratic response to this kind of eruption of lawlessness --- (oh gosh, actually it isn't lawlessness any more, now is it) -- or, I should say, to this kind of abrupt shift to a heightened level of state sadism; Well -- someone would bring charges!, one assumes. Or: someone would sue! Or: surely the ACLU would do something!
But seriously, I ask you to consider: What would indeed happen as a countermove if a US justice of the peace or a judge was rendered? The Bar Association would protest? Scary. Intimidating.
I raise this as an urgent matter in part because of a recent conference call I participated in with Hamid Khan, the head of the courageous movement of Pakistani lawyers and judges. In the call, which he made in spite of great danger to himself and probably to his family, there was a moment when he described the internecine warfare and factionalism of the opposition to Musharraf. In his voice was the tired, frustrated sound I have heard so often in this country when groups on the left JUST CAN'T GET IT TOGETHER. No matter how urgent the need is. Whereas in Pakistan's case they were having trouble getting the anti-Musharraf forces to act together -- and there was so much at stake.
What became clear from that call is that we are fools to assume that if the government makes a dramatically violent move, which all the laws I have highlighted now make entirely possible, that anyone will know clearly what to do or how to implement what should be done in response. In Pakistan, it was clear, in spite of this powerful grassroots movement, no one had a clear Plan B when Musharraf declared a state of emergency and began rounding up the lawyers and arresting the judges. No one had an unquestioned leadership structure in place for the countermovement; no one had a subcontinent-sized phone tree or a nice big -- oh, nation-sized -- conference room in which to meet.
We need to consider this right now when we think about our own country: In a sudden sharp move on the part of the US government, even a `small' one such as this imagined scenario of the rendition of a handful of US judges, there is nothing a democracy is prepared effectively to do; that is the nature of democracy. There is no War Room for democracy; no one has an organizational chart detailing who would do what; no one would have a master strategy.
When people think about the many laws that invite this kind of overreaching now in the US -- the National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD 51), for instance, that would give the President control over all branches of government -- executive, legislative, and judicial -- in the event of an emergency -- they just assume that, gosh darn it, WE WON'T TAKE IT. And it may well be that we wouldn't want to take it and we would be willing in great numbers to run to the ramparts. But here is what I have to report to you, that the conference call made clear, and my Pakistani friend would confirm this: in a crackdown, even in the best-case scenario, NO ONE KNOWS WHERE THE RAMPARTS ARE.
Many people have expressed faith in the Military. I am sure most of our military are patriots and cherish freedom; but who would direct a resistance to such an edict? What would be the chain of command? What about ordnance? Many people have expressed faith in the courts, but if they went after the judges -- just a handful of judges -- as they did in Pakistan, would the judiciary prevail? How? All closed societies have judiciaries; the judges just know which way to rule.
Many others assume the media will cover such a depredation and rouse people; well, ideally -- but just days ago we saw a curious blackout of a 60 Minutes report on Don Siegelman, the Democrat probably wrongly jailed in Alabama, by a TV affiliate with close ties to the White House.
Resistance? Sure, but how? The trouble with an aggressive move in any one of these directions on the part of the government is that THEY HAVE THOUGHT ABOUT WHAT IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN and we have not. They aren't surprised or shocked; we are. They have a plan; we don't.
So surely, better to roll back these terrifying laws. Just in case.
I have noted it is always true that societies that begin by torturing people at the margins end up torturing members of their own citizenry. Consider again: the Oscar-winning documentary for this year, Taxi to the Dark Side, which proves that any of us can become a monster torturer, following orders, and proves also that the edict to torture was systemic and came from the very top, won't be seen by most Americans. This is because the Discovery Channel bought it hoping to air it -- but then backed out. (Its affiliates have close ties to the military-industrial complex.) Will the Oscar win get it on the airwaves? Doubtful. Watch it somehow and drag all your friends to see it. Then consider that what happened to Dilawar, an innocent Afghani taxi driver, could happen to you or me.
When I went to see it in a theatre there were six people present. So America can't know in time what is being done to others to take steps to protect ourselves.
What is leadership? Leadership means getting out in front of where people are and waking them up. Right now, given these violent possible threats to us and our families, we are sleeping.
Which is why I am formally coming out of the closet with my support for Senator Barack Obama. Of all the candidates running now, he is the leader on understanding the threat to the Constitution and actually taking action, not just mouthing soundbites, on the need to deny torturers space in our nation and to restore the rule of law.
"Lawyers for Gitmo detainees endorse Obama," read a recent headline on the Boston Globe's political blog. In the article, reporter Charlie Savage notes that "More than 80 volunteer lawyers for Guantanamo Bay detainees today endorsed Illinois Senator Barack Obama's presidential bid. The attorneys said in a joint statement that they believed Obama was the best choice to roll back the Bush-Cheney administration's detention policies in the war on terrorism and thereby to 'restore the rule of law, demonstrate our commitment to human rights, and repair our reputation in the world community.'"
The lawyers who signed this letter -- prominent names on the list included Washington lawyer Thomas Wilner, retired federal appeals court judge John Gibbons, and retired Rear Admiral Donald Guter, who was the Navy's top JAG officer from 2000 to 2002 -- applauded Obama for having stood up in 2006 against aspects of the Military Commissions Act. Unfortunately, his fight was ultimately unsuccessful -- which is why we are all still in danger. But unlike other candidates he truly fought and he understood the nature of the danger: "When we were walking the halls of the Capitol trying to win over enough Senators to beat back the Administration's bill, Senator Obama made his key staffers and even his offices available to help us," the lawyers wrote. "Senator Obama worked with us to count the votes, and he personally lobbied colleagues who worried about the political ramifications of voting to preserve habeas corpus for the men held at Guantanamo. He has understood that our strength as a nation stems from our commitment to our core values, and that we are strong enough to protect both our security and those values. Senator Obama demonstrated real leadership then and since, continuing to raise Guantanamo and habeas corpus in his speeches and in the debates."
Senator Clinton also opposed the law. In 2006 she said: "If enacted, this law would give license to this Administration to pick people up off the streets of the United States and hold them indefinitely without charges and without legal recourse." She gets the danger; many of her colleagues do too. But this issue requires bold language and action. Senator Clinton has not foregrounded the issue of the subversion of the rule of law in her appearances or speeches; and I am very VERY sorry to say that she did not oppose torture until she opposed it.
I say this with regret: She and her husband really know how to run a country; they delivered eight years of peace and prosperity. I know her to be a skilled politician and motivated by sincere love of country. Mrs. Clinton would be a terrific executive -- in a stable democracy. But that is not enough right now. These are times that should try men's souls -- and women's also. In a closing society, a leader has to be willing to face down evil, engage it and call it by its name.
Remember: when activists started to push hard to raise awareness of the dangers of torture and indefinite detention, many on the Hill were scared to join the fight because it was then politically unpopular. But to me, if you are not really against torture -- always and under every political change in climate, and let us note that former torture victim and prisoner of war John McCain shamefully dropped his fight against the torture loopholes in the law as well -- then you are not really, in my view, fit to be an American President.
Gender has nothing to do with it. Race has nothing to do with it.
Integrity has something to do with it.
That is why Barack Obama has my vote. Of all the leading candidates, he is the only one on these issues who has consistently acted like a true American.
And if I hear -- as I am likely to -- from legions of US feminists outraged at me for choosing this man over that woman, I will gladly sit down and explain why I am certain that these issues are so urgent that they overshadow absolutely everything else.
Anyway, the man is a feminist; he has a woman-friendly policy vision. And while it would be a thrill to see the first woman elected President, in the last analysis, a real feminist need not define people or support on the basis of gender. Certainly not when our house -- with the precious Constitution held without representation within it -- is burning down.
Naomi Wolf is the author of The End of America (Chelsea Green) and the co-founder of the American Freedom Campaign.