Belaboring the Obvious

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Just following up...

... on the previous post, trying to fill in a blank or two.

Because we define ourselves as a "superpower" on the world stage, we tend to never question either the truth of that assertion, nor do we give much thought as to the definition of the term. It, rather, stands in place, static, a symbol of the monolithic gargantuan we believe we have become.

By contrast, for decades we've used the term "banana republic" to describe the puny, occasionally troublesome but inconsequential countries hovering just inside or just outside our sphere of influence.

We have a mental image of the banana republic--hot and humid, poor, a president in military garb with gold lanyards and lots of medals, a place where small-scale corruption and penny ante bribes are a way of life and where occasional state brutality occurs, but which is otherwise unremarkable.

For some time, I've seen the banana republic as having somewhat different characteristics--for me, it's a state which tends to the authoritarian and/or the dictatorial, has an economy which depends all too greatly on outside forces in league with compliant figures in the government, which is over-armed for its size, heavily in debt and which is obsessed with internal security, often with the aid of the military.

Certainly not how we would describe ourselves, and yet, we exhibit most, if not all, of those tendencies. Yes, we have a supposedly coequal tripartite government, but, over time (and especially in the last two or three decades), those three branches have become less and less independent of one another and have grown much more intertwined in this last decade's irrational overreaction to the specter of terrorism.

One might argue about our government being authoritarian, but, one can't argue that much more power has been invested in the Executive over the course of the last decade, and by a specific process which has steadily evolved in a now-predictable pattern. At first, Congress is railroaded by events (9/11) into granting supposedly temporary emergency powers far in excess of what existed previously (the USA PATRIOT Act). The Executive, under Bush and Cheney, usurped further powers not delineated in the emergency laws, including widespread and often indiscriminate spying on U.S. citizens, torture, state-sponsored kidnapping and the establishment of secret prisons around the world. Moreover, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the major thrust of the Executive in all those actions was to render the courts and the due process system of habeas corpus and warrants inoperable. Over time, as those extrajudicial excesses are revealed, Congress cooperates in rendering them moot, instead of investigating and referring the people and agencies involved for prosecution, sometimes even giving those involved retroactive immunity (as with the telecom corporations). Congress even attempted to restrict rights to habeas corpus in the Military Commissions Act of 2006. The greatest bulk of the enabling legislation is renewed when earlier sunset clauses require retirement, and even when evidence surfaces that extrajudicial tools such as National Security Letters (NSLs, the use of which was greatly expanded by the Patriot Act) had been horrendously abused for years, the current administration signals to Congress that it wants the scope of NSLs drastically increased.

Now, most Congresses have been reticent to completely undo the actions of their predecessors, and have preferred to tinker around the edges of previous legislation, but what has been happening over the last few years goes well beyond that. National security legislation in the last few years has not only constituted a general attack on civil rights of U.S. citizens which increasingly conservative courts have refrained from challenging, but has also transferred power to the Executive and has created new mechanisms--in conjunction with existing laws on secrecy--to actively prevent any intervention in Executive Branch activities by the courts.

To say this has emboldened the Executive is an understatement. After years of thinking that such actions were aberrations resulting from the peculiar disrespect shown for the Constitution by Messrs. Bush and Cheney and their hired thugs, in concert with increasingly authoritarian Republicans in Congress, it's clear today that the trend continues unabated. Bagram is the new consolidated "black site," Guantanamo remains open and most of its activities are still well outside the civil courts system. The current administration continues to entertain the belief that it has the right to arbitrarily impose "indefinite detention" even upon those whom military or civilian courts determine to be innocent of any crime, and has taken the further step of targeting U.S. citizens for state assassination.

How greatly different is that from banana republic justice? No matter how elegantly written the legal policy reviews may be, it's no different at all from what has gone on in some of the worst U.S. client states in Latin America, and the excuse is always the same--threats from within. Today in the United States, it's terrorism. In El Salvador, or Honduras, or Guatemala, it's organized campisenos, or trade unionists, or human rights activists. Inevitably, it's a result of the Executive acting with impunity without court intervention, and often with the assistance of the military, excused by national emergency.

The Washington Post has just completed a long investigation of the growth of the surveillance state in the last nine years, and the results ought to be scaring the pants off of the ordinary citizen. While Tim Shorrock delved into the matter of the privatization of intelligence in his 2007 book, Spies for Hire, this latest series of articles gives some statistical heft to Shorrock's conclusions, and, reading carefully, it's apparent that the lines between public and private, military and civilian, legal and illegal, are already hopelessly blurred, and that the Executive Branch prefers it that way.

Congress has been all too willing to throw great wads of tax money at the intelligence agencies in the name of fighting terrorism, and the result is predictable. Just as with the extraordinary excesses documented in the Operation Ill Wind prosecutions of more than twenty years ago (after Reagan demanded and Congress provided huge budget increases to the Department of Defense), so, too, the intelligence agencies of the Executive Branch and the Pentagon have received so much money that there is no way to account for it all, and that systemic growth is now, for practical purposes, cancerous and out of control.

Ultimately, much of this hugely increased capacity for spying and surveillance will be turned inward on the American people, if only because the federal government has done so much to cultivate local police forces and state National Guard offices through mechanisms such as fusion centers, and, let's face it, the police forces of the nation's major cities, when it comes to surveillance of citizens, have as little respect for the Constitution as the Executive Branch. Witness, for example, the activities of police intelligence units in Los Angeles, Denver, New York, and Baltimore.

As dire as the situation is now, it's almost inevitable that it will get a lot worse before it gets better--if it ever does. This pernicious tendency to not undo mistakes has a way of not only creating new mistakes, but also of creating a long series of self-fulfilling prophecies in order to justify the continuing funding and expansion of these highly undemocratic activities--which have the additional and undesirable effect of further concentrating power in the Executive.

So, how is that like a banana republic? Growing dictatorial powers in the Executive? The blurring of military and police functions inside the country? Over-armed to the point of absurdity? Unaccountability of the Executive? Much of the spending on such police powers done on the nation's credit card? Obsession with internal security? Wholesale indifference to civil and human rights? Virtual disregard for an independent court system?

Maybe the only thing that continues to encourage us to categorize such talk as hyperbole is our own proclivity to self-deception.


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