Democratic Underground

A Splash of Cold Water

December 3, 2005
By Pamela Troy

Familiar words have been cropping up in the blogosphere and even in the mainstream news in connection with the Bush administration. "Implode." "Free Fall." "Melt down." Joe the conservative barber, neighbor, farmer, or brother-in-law has again told a few delighted bloggers that he no longer likes our current President. Hot Damn! The rats are leaving the sinking ship! The wheels are coming off! The toy boat is circling the drain! Scooter Libby's been indicted!

It's not that I don't want to believe that the Bush administration is on its way out the door. It's just that the image I keep seeing is not of rats scurrying away from a ship, the wheels coming off of a train, a toy boat in a whirlpool, a melt down, a free fall, or any of those metaphors. For me, the image that comes to mind is that of a dim young woman who, after an hour of sitting on her sofa sipping wine and making chit-chat with the guy who's been drawing the blinds, bolting the door, emptying her purse, unplugging the telephone, and carefully arranging guns, knives, and rolls of duct tape on the coffee table where she can see them, has finally decided that something doesn't feel right and it's about time to ask him to leave.

Other and better writers have already pointed out the ways in which our safeguards against a rogue administration have been systematically dismantled for the past five years, or more. The undermining of our electoral system and the legislative branch and the independence of our media, all of these have already been written about at length. And the answer I've heard constantly from many in the complacent middle, each time this disintegration of our checks and balances is pointed out to them, is the confident assertion that none of this could ever result in Our President invading Syria or Iran, or firing Patrick Fitzgerald, or pardoning Scooter Libby and/or Rove and/or Cheney, or declaring martial law, or calling off an election, etc. etc.

Because, you see, The People would never allow it.

It's unclear exactly how The People turning against the current administration are expected to manifest their will in a country where most of the safeguards against repression have been significantly weakened. I suppose the idea is that we'll all grab banners and torches and take tothe streets, roaring our defiance in an exciting demonstration worthy of Spielberg's best crowd shots. The problem of course, is that for this kind of civil disobedience to be truly widespread and effective, we need legal tools like habeas corpus and the Posse Comitatus (checked on the status of those lately?) to ensure that the leaders of such movements don't suddenly vanish into enemy combatant limbo and perhaps turn up later in a photograph as a motionless body at the feet of a grinning young man in a military uniform who's giving the camera a thumbs up. Goodbye Spielberg. Hello Costa Gavras.

Think I'm exaggerating? Well, let's consider for a moment just one of the things that We The People seem more than willing to tolerate.

Torture. Brutality. The gross physical and sexual abuse of other human beings.

Oh, we'll howl loud and long about it when it's done by the swarthy bad-guy-of-the-month somewhere in the Middle East, but we don't seem to mind when we're the perps. In fact, many Americans actually like it, or at least have an emotional stake in it that results in loud expressions of ridicule and disgust whenever the subject of doing something about, say, the physical and sexual abuse or the medical neglect of prison inmates comes up. It's no accident that one of the most notorious abusers at Abu Ghraib was Charles Graner, who had worked in our very own all-American corrections system. "The Christian in me says it's wrong," he said, about the damning pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib, "but the corrections officer in me says, 'I love to make a grown man piss himself.'"

An argument often offered by moderates when they object to using the term "gulag" to describe our treatment of detainees, is that the overseas prisons where detainees are held simply don't compare in sheer scale to the Soviet system. But factor in our approach to incarceration as a nation, that is, our own truly massive domestic prison system, the staggering number of inmates (most of whom are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses) along with the public's dismissive attitude when those inmates are mistreated, and that assertion loses a good bit of its force.

It will take no drastic alteration in the American psyche to accept the imprisonment and mistreatment of other Americans by our government. We already accept it, and if the legal net gets broadened a bit to include not just drug users, but activists and other dissidents, the chances are we'll adjust our attitudes accordingly, and react precisely as we do when we hear about some gross act of institutional abuse against a petty thief or drug offender. That is, many of us will puff out our chests slightly, narrow our eyes like we've seen Clint Eastwood do, and intone, "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time." "They shouldn't have blocked traffic with that demonstration. That was just stupid.," "We're at war! If they're too dumb to understand that, that's just too bad."

Nor will it take any drastic alteration for Americans to accept the notion that American citizens can be incarcerated indefinitely, in secret and without trial. Has everyone taken to the streets in the wake of the Bush administration's treatment of Jose Padilla? Of course not! There have been a few angry voices raised, but no mass revulsion, and if the Supreme Court were to hand down a decision which confirmed Bush's contention that his administraČtion should have the power to label any American citizen an enemy combatant and have him or her "disappeared," the American people aren't going to drop what their doing and build barricades. They'll hear about it on the news, carefully couched in legal phraseology that masks its sheer nastiness, say, "that sounds right," or "well, really, that doesn't seem fair," and change the channel to a sitcom.

This is not because Americans are unusually stupid or brutal or complacent. It's because we're like everyone else, and like everyone else we are preoccupied with getting by. We have children to raise, jobs to hold on to, mortgages to pay off. If the ante for voicing disagreement is upped too high, a great many of us will just not voice that disagreement. We'll tell ourselves it's wiser to be quiet, that it's all politics and nothing to do with us. Tyrants have almost always found it a safe bet to count on that reaction.

So we're at a dangerous point today, the point at which the people who've been undermining our checks and balances, the free exchange of information, and the independence of the judiciary must decide whether or not they've achieved enough to move forward safely. In the past, would-be American despots have retreated at such times. To refer back to my own metaphor, when the girl sipping wine on the sofa finally asks the guy to leave, there's a good chance he'll do what he's done before, in the 50s, and again in the '70s. He'll decide it's not worth it, gather up his things and slink away.

Or, he might decide that this time, he can get away with it.

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