Bob Herbert: The definition of tyranny

The Definition of Tyranny
Published: July 17, 2006

Congress is dithering and the American public doesn’t even seem particularly concerned as the administration of George W. Bush systematically trashes such fundamental American values as justice, due process, respect for human rights and submission to the rule of law.

In the kangaroo courts that the administration concocted to try detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a defendant could be prevented from seeing the evidence against him, would not have the right to attend his own trial and would not have the right to appeal the sentence to a civilian court.

That’s slapstick justice, a process worthy of the Marx Brothers.

“You have been accused of being a terrorist.”

“Where is the evidence?”

“We can’t show it to you.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“So is this court. We find you guilty. Take him away.”

The Supreme Court now says, in a vote that was closer than it should have been, that this sort of madness cannot be permitted. In its recent decision striking down the tribunals for terror suspects at Guantanamo, the court said of the defendant, Salim Ahmed Hamdan: “He will be, and indeed already has been, excluded from his own trial.”

The court said, in effect, that this is not the American way, that ours is not a Marx Brothers republic. Not yet, anyway. (It most likely will be if Mr. Bush gets to appoint one or two more justices to the court.)

The Bush-Cheney regime believes it can do whatever outlandish things it wants, including torturing people and keeping them incarcerated for life without even the semblance of due process. And it’s not giving up. The administration now wants Congress to authorize what the Supreme Court has plainly said was wrong. White House lawyers, in a torturous (pun intended) interpretation of the court’s ruling, seem to be arguing that the kangaroo courts, otherwise known as military commissions, will be quite all right if only Congress will say so.

They’re not all right. They’re an abomination (like the secret C.I.A. prisons and the practice of extraordinary rendition) that spits in the face of the idea that the United States is a great and civilized nation.

“Can you imagine if the Hamdan decision, among others, had gone the other way?” said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been waging an extraordinary fight to secure basic legal protections for prisoners at Guantanamo. “I mean we’d be looking at a dark nightmare.”

The court’s decision brought into sharp relief the importance of one of the most fundamental aspects of American government, the separation of powers. Checks and balances. The judicial branch put a halt – a check – on a gruesomely illegal practice by the executive.

Mr. Bush has tried to scrap the very idea of checks and balances. The Republican-controlled Congress has, for the most part, rolled over like trained seals for the president. And Mr. Bush is trying mightily to pack the courts with right-wingers who will do the same. Under those circumstances, his will becomes law.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the majority opinion in the Hamdan case, referred to a seminal quote from James Madison. The entire quote is as follows: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

As the center noted in a recent report, “The U.S. government has employed every possible tactic to evade judicial review of its detention and interrogation practices in the ‘war on terror,’ including allegations that U.S. personnel subject prisoners to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

There is every reason to be alarmed about the wretched road that Bush, Cheney et al. are speeding along. It is as if they were following a route deliberately designed to undermine a great nation.

A lot of Americans are like spoiled rich kids who take their wealth for granted. Too many of us have forgotten – or never learned – the real value of the great American ideals. Too many are standing silently by as Mr. Bush and his cronies engage in the kind of tyrannical and uncivilized behavior that has brought so much misery – and ultimately ruin – to previous societies.

The Discussion: 16 Comments

Let’s see, a captured member of a terrorist organization committed to the destruction of the US, and which has caused thousands of American civilian casualties, is permitted to appeal to the US courts. The US Supreme Court rules in favor of the terrorist and against the President of the US, and the President complies with the Court’s decision.

That’s some tyranny we’ve got there.

You want to see a real tyranny in action, forget flying planes into towers, go do Falun Gong exercised in Tiananmen Square, speak to a foreigner in Pyongyang, hold hands with your boyfriend in Saudi Arabia, be black in Darfur, form a political party in Cuba, try to vote in Burma.

Then, assuming you haven’t been shot, stoned, beaten to death or had your organs harvested, try to file an appeal with the local courts accusing the leader of violating your rights.

After that, in the unlikely event you are still among the living, we can talk about your “definition of tyranny”.

This post is worse than stupid, it’s repulsive.

July 16, 2006 @ 11:52 pm | Comment

That’s very nice, Corsair, except that many of those kept at Guantanamo are not members of any terrorist organization. Read the post about the Uighurs below. They and many other detainees were sold out by warlords for a few bucks.

Look, I actually do take your point. I don’t like reflexive America-bashing. There are things about my country that I’m very proud of. Chief among those are our Constitution and principles of the rule of law. Which is why seeing the Bush Admininistration repeatedly violate same is so deeply distressing.

July 17, 2006 @ 12:02 am | Comment

I love Corsair’s logic: it’s much much worse elsewhere, so don;t criticize America. We have to set the bar at the level of North Korea. Brilliant.

Lisa, thanks for your eloquent response, which is sure to leave Corset speechless. He’s representative of the “hysteria”phenomenon we’ve been discusing in recent threads – criticize America and you’re hysterical and repulsive. Just point to Nick berg, and every crime comitted by an American can be justified. Set the bar at the level of Al Qaeda, at the lowest possible level of scum. America is supposed to be way better than that. And we were, just a few short years ago.

July 17, 2006 @ 12:27 am | Comment

Ricahrd, Richard, Richard, really, you should be ashamed.

I don’t know why Lisa’s comment would leave me “speechless” I don’t substantively disagree with her and she seems to understand precisely the point I was making.

Unfortunately, Richard, my argument seems to have sailed right over your head.

Let me try to explain it again, using simpler terms:

Criticizing the US and/or GWB is fine. Indeed, you should hear me swear at the news.

Calling the US a tyranny and/or GWB a tyrant, however, is stupid, repulsive and counterproductive.

It is stupid because it is obviously ridiculous histrionics. Tyranies do not have, inter alia, checks and balances, independant judicial review, due process rights for enemy combatants or elections.

It is repulsive because there are very real tyrannies in the world doing absoultely horrific things.

It is counterproductive because, when you say such things, reasonable people write you off as a crackpot and a moral pygmy and stop listening.

It reminds me of the activists here in New Orleans who, in the wake of the hurricane Katrina fiasco, called the administration’s response “Genocide”, managing to both offend and make asses of themselves at the same time.

Having restated my orginal premise, let me now deal with your remarkably tawdry and dishonest reply:

I love Corsair’s logic: it’s much much worse elsewhere, so don;t criticize America. We have to set the bar at the level of North Korea. Brilliant.

Anyone who read my first comment can see that — your assertions to the contrary notwithstanding — I did not say it was improper to criticize the US. That would be a very foolish position to take. They can also see that I did not — as you allege — claim that the US should be held to the same standard as North Korea. That would be even more foolish.

What I said, to repeat it one more time, was that when one has true tyrannies like North Korea, et al, with all their attendant Godawfulness, to call the US a tyranny — in effect, to say it is on a par with such places — is patently absurd and disgusting.

US policy may be misguided and Bush may be a poltroon, but if that qualifies as tyranny then virtually every nation and leader in the world is tyranical and the word ceases to have any meaning. We shall have to come up with a new word for the North Koreas of the world which, once coined, you will doubtless proceed to similarly debase.

Your attempt to twist my argument into something it wasn’t, and then knock down the resulting strawman, is a really cheap rhetorical trick and, I suspect, obvious to anyone who takes the time to fairly read what I wrote and how you replied.

Apologies for the length of this comment.

July 17, 2006 @ 1:50 am | Comment

Corsair, it’s that we expect better of our government. At least that’s how I feel about it. When you have someone like Sandra Day O’Connor (who, thanks a helluva lot, helped hand the country over to Bush in the first place) say things like, well, we aren’t fascists yet, but it’s much easier to avoid going down that road in the first place than have to retrace our steps back from it – well, I think that’s cause for concern.

If Bob Herbert – not Richard – is overwrought, perhaps it’s that we’ve suffered through six years of having our patriotism impugned for the sin of disagreeing with our own Dear Leader, for having right-wing pundits being given a platform on mainstream media outlets calling us traitors and treasonous and advocating the execution of Bill Keller and the accusing Al Gore and John Kerry of “sedition” – well, what are we supposed to call that sort of thing, actually? What are we supposed to call a President who advocates the theory of the unitary executive and issues signing statements that nullify laws passed by Congress? How should we refer to the institutionalization of torture and the abandonment of due process?

Yep, call me a charter member of the Coalition of the Shrill.

Nowhere on this blog has Richard ever placed the US on the same level as North Korea or other assorted tyrannies. He has consistently called CCP apologists on their crap when they attempt to justify China’s sins on the grounds that the US has done wrong as well. But it’s incredibly painful to people like Richard (if I may speak for him for a moment) to see our proud traditions dragged through the mud, to watch the moral authority that the US once had on issues like human rights disappear into the black hole of secret CIA prisons, extraordinary renditions and Gitmo.

July 17, 2006 @ 2:05 am | Comment

and as a p.s.:

Let’s see, a captured member of a terrorist organization committed to the destruction of the US, and which has caused thousands of American civilian casualties, is permitted to appeal to the US courts. The US Supreme Court rules in favor of the terrorist and against the President of the US, and the President complies with the Court’s decision.

How to put? That’s how it’s supposed to work! Except it shouldn’t have taken four years, it never should have happened in the first place – and that the Bush Administration has no intention of actually complying with the Supreme Court decision. This is another “signing statement” situation – where Congress passes laws that Bush won’t veto – instead he issues a signing statement saying that, well, he sees things differently, and he’s just going to do what he wants to do.

It’s after 1 AM here or I would add some links to back up what I’ve just said. I’ll do it tomorrow if anyone is interested.

July 17, 2006 @ 2:15 am | Comment

Blah. blah, blah. Yack, yack yack. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Let’s cut to the chase.

Is the US a tyrany? Yes or no?

If your answer is “no”, then shut-up already. We agree.

If your answer is “yes”, then there’s no point in us debating this further. We will never agree.

If your answer is another great mass of verbage, then methinks you are evading the question.

July 17, 2006 @ 2:53 am | Comment

The US is not a tyranny today though it is heading in the direction of a tyranny, and if Cheney had his way it would be a one-party state with complete control at the top. This is not imminent and we won’t see a full-fledged tyranny anytime soon, though it won’t be for lack of trying. Luckily, we still have the courts and the voting booths, no matter how much Cheney and Bush would like to make them irrelevant.

Last thing: Don’t make fun of other commenters. Thanks.

July 17, 2006 @ 3:08 am | Comment

Er, no Corsair, no evasions on my part. Just an honest expression of how I feel, and nuance. But I know how you guys hate nuance.

It floors me that whenever I try to engage people like you, you inevitably respond with insults.

And I hadn’t thought to lump you into that category until you responded in that oh so predictable manner.

July 17, 2006 @ 10:22 am | Comment

And Corsair? People who write half-page comments probably shouldn’t complain about “masses of verbiage.”

July 17, 2006 @ 10:24 am | Comment

I gotta say that the original article’s qualifications of the Bush administration are nothing more than hyperbolic. We as a people have a long and colored history of claiming our leaders to be tyrants- the white-haired guy gracing our 20 dollar bill comes instantly to mind. The point of the article, and where I absolutely agree with Richard et. el. is that we should be held to a higher standard, and by that I mean MUCH higher standard, than much of the rest of the world. It is precisely the hyperbolic comments of said article that alert the body politic to an emerging threat to their freedoms, however embryonic that threat may be. It is unfortunate that the information age, among other things, has desensitized the public enough that such hyperbole is necessary to call attention to such an incursion upon our basic freedoms.

July 17, 2006 @ 11:18 am | Comment

Lisa almost had me, as she made some good points, but typically as a US apologist, she failed to follow through with her logic. Sure those places are bad, but the US policy of the last one hundred years, and British are largely responsible for the troubles in their former colonies, Britain pirated India for 1000% profit , addicted China to opium, and removed the royal family in Burma, the US fails to respond in Dafur while bombing the cradle , of civilization in Iraq. and created N Korea as a cold war deal from post depresssion era paranoia and the US supports the feudal regime of the Saudis. all these things may end with third wave social movements, but the other main point she failed to address is about the even more prevalent danger in the US, try 70% unemployment for teenage blacks, largest prison population in the world , out of control and growing, suspension of civil rights by Bush, glorification of the military, bellicose nationalism, Webster defines these with the f word. Try walking in Harlem or Oakland or the Fillmore or Hunters Point late at night, you will not be arrested, just robbed or shot or beaten. Try living like the thirty percent below the poverty level with not enough food. An eight trillion dollar debt fueling a coming depression, police beating rag heads or shooting blacks who do anything, harsassing the poor, the list is endless, the inhumanity of life in the US easily rivals the worst anywhere, Scandanavia is infinitely more socially progessive, thus the wars without end, and the tyrants let loose from hell , a biblical irony as they profess of course to represent heaven, try living in Baghdad with no water or power forever. Professor Todd Saed

July 17, 2006 @ 12:52 pm | Comment

Er, what? Todd, you seem to be confusing the argument I made with the argument you want to make. You brought up an entire encylopedia’s worth of issues here, most of which are only tangentially related to the topic at hand. How is it you know my opinions on all of this? Mind-reading?

Hey, ask me what I think about the House of Saud! You might be surprised.

“US apologist”. Man, I just can’t win today.

July 17, 2006 @ 3:09 pm | Comment

Hey man, if you think Lisa is US apologist now, you should see her with a few drinks under her belt! She dresses up in olive fatigues and starts wailing Toby Keith songs at the top of her lungs…..

July 17, 2006 @ 4:14 pm | Comment

Mr. Herbert, whom I mostly admire, has contributed to this very problem by not questioning the problems of 911. He has joined the masses of Americans making up the lynch mob that has convicted OBL for 911 even though there is credible evidence that he couldn�t have done it. He has never (that I can remember seeing) pointed out that 911 would not have happened had the security system that had been in place prior to the summer of 2001 been kept active. Even given that change, he has never, again as far as I can recall, never pointed out that the president could have stopped at least 3 planes (2nd tower, pentagon, Pa) before he stepped into the class room at Booker. It is only a �baby step� to move to the belief that we need to be protected by the removel of our cultural liberties. Mr. Herbert needs to question the �facts� of 911.

July 17, 2006 @ 6:50 pm | Comment

Apologies Lisa, I actually confused your reply with Corsair the barbarian, because the articles ran together and my late night fantasy of you in olive drab clouded my mind, it is the blatant falsities and illogic of his juvenile name calling, “repulsive” etc in violation of netiquette that needed addresssing. There is no due process at Gitmo, contrary to his delusions, and if all countries are tyrannical, then the word has no meaning is also logically incorrect as a five year old would understand, the truth is all countries are tyrannies , enforcing their power with guns , armies, and police, the only democratic election in the Arab world, Lebanon, now being run over with Bush cheering them on , while still presuming to defile the word democracy occupying Iraq.
Todd Saed

July 18, 2006 @ 3:26 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.