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Democracy Muffled
May 14, 2004
By Nancy Waterman

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Like a blazing torch lighting up a dark, untrod path, the shining jewel of Democracy illuminated the founding of the United States of America with ideas of equality and freedom that marked a giant step forward in the evolution of human consciousness. In the New World, no king would rule by Divine Right and supercede the laws of men, no aristocratic class would rule by accident of birth. Instead, we were given the promise inherent in these immortal words from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The ideas of freedom and equality that pervaded the country's founding were given further definition in the subsequently written Constitution and its many amendments, added over the course of years as the meaning of democratic principles evolved further. The Constitution itself represents the foundation upon which the rule of law is built.

Most significant is the First Amendment, which resolutely and without exception provides for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances. Interestingly, not only are these freedoms guaranteed to all individuals, but their very existence creates the free flow of ideas and the interchange of opinion that stimulate the development of healthy and fruitful policy, as well as the unmasking of abuses of power, when necessary.

At present, through a series of extraordinary trespasses on the vulnerable fabric of democracy, the Bush administration is deeply mired in a failing war in Iraq, now further complicated by a humiliating prison abuse scandal that threatens to shred American's reputation throughout the world. Under the current White House regime, the flourishing garden of American democracy has been struggling under drought conditions. Freedom of speech has been shriveled by the administration's intolerance of any criticism or even any opinions at variance with its own.

There are numerous stories of character assassination directed at those who spoke out and exposed administration mistakes or weaknesses and examples of threatened job loss for those who wished to. As a consequence of this, because truth was bludgeoned and then buried under an avalanche of pre-existing ideology and an inability to hear opposing views, Colin Powell, General Shinseki, and the allies at the UN were all marginalized and their concerns dismissed.

We ended up in a war that should never have been fought, a war based on lies and now mired in corruption. In a healthy democracy, the free interchange of ideas can be the cornerstone of a sound, flexible policy, whereas a tightly circumscribed debate, suffocated by a rigid worldview, often leads to a bitter failure.

Another basic tenet of American democracy is that the rule of law supercedes the will of individual men, no matter how elevated their position in government. Since George Bush's inauguration, however, his administration has demonstrated a thinly veiled contempt for any treaty or law that in any way thwarts the administration's will to do as it pleases. Nuclear treaties have been cancelled, an environmental treaty rejected (Kyoto), and the Geneva accords largely ignored. Environmental regulations have been trashed by executive order and Congressional funding specified for Afghanistan has been secretly transferred to prewar, unlegislated planning for Iraq.

It is easy to see the trickle down effect of such thuggery in the recent prison abuse scandal, where nothing so trivial as regulations, treaties, or laws hindered the stated goals of extracting information. When the rule of law is supplanted by the will of the powerful, the heartbeat of democracy goes on life support.

Another tragic casualty of the Bush administration is Truth. Though truth is not specified in our founding documents, it underlies all honorable human interactions, and its absence, ultimately, creates profound and unrelenting chaos. Although politicians are famous for their manipulation of facts and figures to suit their agendas, the Bush administration has taken dishonesty to such new heights of proficiency that virtually nothing its members say can be taken at face value.

There are soldiers in Iraq who still believe they are fighting the perpetrators of 9/11, a deception repeatedly promulgated by the White House. There are those who hear of the administration's Clear Skies initiative and think it suggests an actual environmental policy rather than an enrichment scheme for corporations. Virtually nothing is as it seems in Bushland.

Unfortunately, the consequences of such deceit are very grave. Even before the prison scandal, the nation's international credibility was at an all-time low due to its flagrantly dishonest presentation of its case for war against Saddam Hussein. Like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, the Bush White House is neither listened to nor trusted in many areas around the world.

Interestingly, the neoconservative doctrine, the foundation of the Bush administration's foreign policy, also carries within it a basic disconnect with the fundamentals of democracy, as well as with the basic goals of the War on Terror, despite its flowery rhetoric to the contrary. Essentially, the neoconservative drive for "benevolent" global empire, including a huge military and strategic American presence in the Middle East, is diametrically opposed to the War on Terror's quintessential need to dissipate Arab antipathy towards the United States and the West.

The Arab World recognizes the underlying coercion inherent in a policy that strives for the economic and military dominance of America and for the prevention of any competitors to emerge. And the Arab World resents the growing American military presence on its soil. In fact, the more the aggressive, imperial neoconservative agenda is pursued, the greater the mistrust of America in the Middle East and the greater the recruitment pool for terrorism. There is nothing appealing or inspiring about a global hegemon dictating how others should live "for their own good" with the firepower present to make it happen.

The overwhelming fear of a menacing terrorism may underlie the Bush administration's compulsion to viciously subjugate any real or imagined threat. Or it may simply be an inability to grasp the deeper meaning of democracy with its presumptions about inherent human dignity and the protection of human rights. But the current prison abuse scandal, which has brought with it an extraordinary compendium of human rights abuses, shows us that the rule of law must be the bedrock of our civilization no matter what the perceived danger. Without it, nothing differentiates us from those we so righteously oppose.

As a nation, we have already gone well beyond the fork in the road - to our great shame. If this abuse scandal can truly bring the hidden poisons of our current system to the cold, clear light of day, it will provide us an enormous opportunity. Continuing on our current journey will only lead to less and less respect for individuals, greater contraction of our liberties, and the ultimate death knell for our democracy. The untrod road left behind at the fork is the one we must struggle to find and to traverse with firm footing. This other road will return us to our founding principles and enable these truths to once again be "self-evident," evolving even further in a newly globalized world. For equality, basic rights, and the rule of law must not only be reaffirmed within America but also in America's dealings with the world and its citizens.

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