January 22, 2010
The end of politics-3: Obama and civil liberties
(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
Obama and his attorney General Anthony Holder are pursuing policies on civil liberties that, if you can imagine it, are even more extreme than those of Bush-Cheney. While stopping the practice of waterboarding, they seem willing, even eager, to continue to torture people psychologically in other ways and to use torture-induced information to keep people detained indefinitely. They are even appealing a Bush-appointed judge's ruling that the US Supreme Court rulings on the rights of prisoners in Guantanamo apply to the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan as well. As Noam Chomsky writes, "Obama's Justice Department maintains that the U. S. government must be authorized to kidnap people anywhere in the world and send them to secret prison systems without charges or rights." (Z Magazine, January 2010, p. 28). For this we voted for him?
Obama's record on civil liberties and torture and due process has been simply appalling. There is no other word for it. He is setting up an elaborate system of show trials for those captured in the so-called 'war on terror', essentially consisting of kangaroo courts guaranteed to produce guilty verdicts using evidence obtained under torture, even if those confessions are false and the people are innocent. If that should fail, he promises to not release even those who are found not guilty if he merely thinks they should continue to be detained. He also asserts his right to detain people indefinitely without trial. This despite the fact that estimates of the number of innocent people being held at Guantanamo run as high as 80%.
Obama has gone to extreme lengths to cover up the acts of torture done by the US, even continuing Bush's threats to the British government with retaliation if they publicly reveal the horrendous things that were done to their citizen Binyam Mohammed, who was tortured by the CIA at various sites before being finally released with no charges.
And now we have ghastly revelations of the deaths of prisoners that were originally publicly reported as 'suicides' but now look increasingly like deaths at the hands of their interrogators. The Obama administration has refused to fully investigate what appears to be an appalling crime. As Andrew Sullivan says, "In Iran, when prisoners are turned into corpses after interrogation, even the Khamenei junta feels it necessary to respond. In America, not so much."
Then there is the case of the Afghan tribal leader Haji Sahib Rohullah Wakil who was picked up on a 'tip' and held for six years in Guantanamo without being given a chance to defend himself before finally being released, again without charges. As Glenn Greenwald says, these people who are now free are among the people we were once told were the 'worst of the worst', alleged monsters whose supposed depravity had been used to justify the suspension of basic civil liberties and freedoms, the ideals on which this country is supposedly built.
Greenwald, after summarizing the abominable practices embraced by Obama-Holder, says: "So, to recap: we have indefinite detention, military commissions, Blackwater assassination squads, escalation in Afghanistan, extreme secrecy to shield executive lawbreaking from judicial review, renditions, and denials of habeas corpus. These are not policies Obama has failed yet to uproot; they are policies he has explicitly advocated and affirmatively embraced as his own."
As can be seen with his policy on closing Guantanamo, Obama has mastered the art of acting like he is acting on the basis of noble principles while pursuing anti-democratic policies that violate the very ideals he claims to uphold. What was deeply wrong about Guantanamo was not its location offshore but the fact that it was holding and torturing people indefinitely without recourse to habeas corpus or any form of due process. Obama seems to think that by transferring the prisoners to a facility on the mainland but still keeping, and even increasing, those inhumane polices, he has fulfilled his campaign promise. As Greenwald says, "In many ways, this move is classic Obama: pretty words, rhetorical appeals to lofty ideals, self-congratulatory preening, accompanied by many of the same policies that were long and vehemently condemned by him and most of his supporters."
Obama, like Bush before him, reveals unplumbed depths of hypocrisy when it comes to pandering to the public the idea that America still lives by its stated ideals. I find it increasingly annoying when Obama and Hillary Clinton sanctimoniously lecture other countries about the need for transparency and to respect human rights and the rule of law, while they themselves blatantly disregard them. As Jonathan Turley writes
President Barack Obama and his Administration set a new level of hypocrisy this weekend with calls on the Chinese government and military to end censorship and be more open with the public while barring disclosure of embarrassing photos of detainee abuse.
Obama appears much more fervent in his commitment to civil liberties and open government when it is someone else’s government. Recently, his Administration took an extraordinary step of demanding an investigation of a visiting defense official on allegations of torture — in Sri Lanka
What we now have in the US are violations of the basic principles of justice and civil liberties and due process that even the most banana of republics would be embarrassed to espouse.
It used to be the case that I would detest hearing or watching George W. Bush speak. The disjunct between his smug and lofty words about democracy and freedom and the reality of his crass polices was simply too much to take. During the campaign I enjoyed hearing Obama's speeches because he seemed to be making thoughtful statements about important issues and appealing to the best in people. But now I cannot bear to listen to him either. I find galling the unctuous hypocrisy of his words. If anything, the gap between his words and his deeds is even greater than that of Bush, because he promises more and delivers less.
Fans of Obama are likely to be angered by my words. But, as the invaluable Glenn Greenwald writes, many of them suffer from the same weakness of blinkered adulation that afflicts those who uncritically supported Bush and Cheney and now support Sarah Palin. They simply cannot bear the thought that their idol has feet of clay and see all criticisms of their hero as giving comfort to perceived enemies.
This is why I write that we seem to have reached the end of politics. Instead of supporting what is good and opposing what is bad whomever and wherever it comes from, what we now seem to have are competing fan clubs, focused on personality and style and labels. Greenwald and Matt Taibbi are two of the few mainstream commentators who unsparingly apply to Obama the same yardstick to measure performance they applied to Bush-Cheney and for that they have received a fair amount of abuse from the left. But the fans of Obama, by trying to shield him from criticisms, are only enabling him to pursue policies that are antithetical to the ones for which they voted him in.
POST SCRIPT: And yet more hypocrisy…
In the video clip below, Hillary Clinton shows that she is no slouch when it comes to hypocrisy when she condemns "certain countries that I think are kind of beyond the pale of the rule of law, hold people and subject them to long prison terms that are absolutely unfair and unwarranted." She is talking about North Korea and the fact that she could make such statement with a straight face is remarkable.
Fareed Zakaria, the interviewer, nods his agreement and dutifully avoids pointing out that she could just as easily be describing the US.
It is significant that the allegedly 'liberal' website Huffington Post from where I got the clip chose it not because it wanted to highlight this hypocrisy (it ignored it) but because Clinton laughed at the mention of John Bolton's name. Ha! Ha! That's funny!
Of course, all this is consistent with the rules of mainstream media discourse that starts from the assumption that human rights violations are what other countries practice. You never, ever, point out that the US might be doing equal or even worse things. They seem to think that hypocrisy is not hypocrisy if no one points it out.