Thoughts on July 4th: Our Incredible Shrinking Constitution

Today is the anniversary of the day that the nation’s founders, gathered in Philadelphia a few miles from my house (which as it happens had already been standing for about 28 years old at the time), at great personal risk, signed the Declaration of Independence, with its ringing declaration that all men–Americans and everyone else, too–are born equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Five years ago at this time, I was just starting my road trip promoting my book, The Case for Impeachment (St. Martin’s Press, 2006), which documents the wholesale assault, by then President George W. Bush, and his chief consigliere, Vice President Dick Cheney, on those bold concepts and on the subsequent Constitution and Bill of Rights which those same founders set up as the guiding principles of this nation.

I never imagined as I wrote that book, and as I traveled the country making its case that these two wretched men were criminals and constitution-wreckers, that I would later be witness to a perhaps even more dangerous threat to what remains of our national heritage. But here we are, more than half-way through the first (and hopefully last) term of President Barack Obama, and we are witnessing not only a continuation of the crimes of those last two villains, not only a wholesale blocking of efforts to bring those two criminals and their accomplices to justice, but a continuation, by the man who succeeded them, of the destruction of our once relatively free society.

During the Bush/Cheney years, I was speaking once about the case for impeachment at a gathering in southern New Jersey. At the end of my presentation, an elderly woman with a walker stood up and asked what we could do to make impeachment happen. I told her people needed, en masse, to flood their Congressional representatives with phone calls and letters demanding that they file articles of impeachment and authorize the House Judiciary Committee to initiate impeachment hearings.

She then said, “I’m afraid to do that. Won’t my name end up on some list then and make me subject to harassment and investigation?”

At the time, I told her such talk was nonsense–especially if many like-minded citizens took the same kind of action. I told her that as bad as things were, we were not a totalitarian society, and that the best protection against such a thing was for us all to exercise our First Amendment rights.

While I still think it is important for us all to stand up for and to use those enumerated rights — the rights of freedom of speech, of freedom of assembly, and of course the right to petition the government over grievances — I could no longer honestly tell that woman that she had nothing to fear.
The 'Audacity of Hope', blocked in Athens, okayed as an IDF target by the US governmentThe 'Audacity of Hope', blocked in Athens, okayed as an IDF target by the US government

Under this president, Big Brother has grown prodigiously. Most recently, the Obama administration, with the backing of a vestigial and totally spineless Congress, has given the FBI and its 14,000 agents broad new authority to investigate law abiding citizens–monitoring our electronic communications, picking through our household trash, and surveilling our every activity–without even the need to obtain a warrant. This is being done even though we know that the already extraordinary investigative and surveillance powers given to the FBI in the so-called PATRIOT Act have been grossly abused, though not investigated.

The outrageous and far-reaching investigation and harassment and grand jury abuse of a group of anti-war activists by the FBI’s midwest regional offices, which is clearly endorsed by the White House, shows that just the act of peacefully opposing and protesting the nation’s warmongering is enough to get people in serious trouble, maybe even to land people in jail.

Then there is Bradley Manning, the young Army private who is languishing in a cell in Leavenworth, the military prison in Kansas, facing a potential capital trial, for following his conscience and exposing war crimes and other abuses as he is bound to do under the terms of the UN Charter and the Code of Military Justice. President Bush authorized the use of torture on captives in his so-called “War” on Terror — including American citizens like Jose Padilla. That was bad enough. But President Obama has authorized the torture of Manning, a man who at worst can be charged with leaking government and military secrets, but who by no stretch of the imagination can be classified as a terrorist or “enemy combatant.”

Furthermore, Specialist First Class Manning, under US law and under the Code of Military Justice, is innocent until proven guilty. And yet this president, supposedly a Constitutional scholar (he taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago before entering politics), has actually publicly called Manning “guilty,” effectively making a fair trial, particularly in a military court setting, impossible, given that the president is the commander in chief.

We Americans are all Private Manning at this point. If it is permissible to put someone like Manning in solitary confinement for months, without charge, barring contact with anyone but his lawyer and one personal friend, requiring him to be naked both in his cell and in public outside his cell, preventing him from sleeping for days and weeks at a time, along with other abuses — all clearly torture, and all acknowledged to be actions designed to get him to “confess” to his “crimes” and to claim, even if it is not true, that Australian Wikileaks founder Julian Assange “induced” him to betray military secrets, then it is possible for this kind of Stalinist-style torture and show-trial process to be visited on any of us.

I am particularly disgusted by this administration’s statements and actions with regard to the current Gaza aid flotilla. Some ten boats, including one, the provocatively-named “Audacity of Hope,” which is a US-flagged vessel, are trapped in a harbor in Athens because of overt and secret behind-the-scenes pressure by the US government and its partner in crime Israel, which are leaning on the bankrupt and severely weakened Greek government to prevent them from setting sailing for Gaza.

Israeli divers have reportedly damaged the propeller shafts two of the boats in the Freedom Flotilla, the “Audacity’s” captain is facing arrest on trumped-up charges, and the Greek coast guard is blocking the ships from departing for the open sea, again on trumped-up charges.

But more seriously, the Obama administration has publicly invited the Israeli military to use violence against the American ship! This is so incredible and shameful that it is mind-boggling. One of the first foreign actions of the fledgling United States was to join in a military campaign against Barbary pirates (of what is now war-ton Libya), who were threatening the freedom of US-flagged vessels to sail in the Mediterranean Sea. For the first time since its founding, American fighting men were sent into harm’s way and died fighting for that fundamental right, recognized by all countries of the world, at least at the time (the Marines still sing about this in their anthem).

How pathetic and grotesque that today, Israel, which already, last spring, attacked an unarmed Turkish- flagged vessel bound for Gaza, killing nine people including a 19-year-old American youth who was executed while he lay wounded on the deck by several shots to the head fired by Israeli Defense Force troops, is not only being told it can attack a whole shipload of peaceful and unarmed American protesters (carrying only a cargo of letters expressing a desire for the peaceful liberation of Gaza). It is literally being invited to do so, by an American president and his Secretary of State.

The mind reels and the soul weeps.

My colleague John Grant has written a powerful piece on this site condemning Israel for its long-standing fear of civil disobedience by Palestinians and their global supporters (and increasingly even their Israeli supporters). But I want to focus on the truly sickening American aspect of this.

The US corporate media, now reduced to little more than a propaganda organ of the state, have not really publicized this, but if you go to the website of the State Department, you can read an astonishing statement by Secretary of State Clinton.

Speaking on June 23 at a joint press conference on the occasion of a visit to the State Department by the Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, and seemingly wholly oblivious to the incredible irony of her juxtaposed statements, Clinton first declared America’s support for the Philippines in its disputes with China over certain islands in the South China Sea, saying:

“As I have said many times before, the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and unimpeded, lawful commerce in the South China or West Philippine Sea. We share these interests not only with ASEAN members but with other maritime nations in the broader international community.”

She went on to say, in the same context of Chinese threats to free navigation on the high seas, that the the US expects nations like China to obey the Law of the Sea. As she put it:

“When you — we — say international law, we’re referring to the UNCLOS, or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” (Israel, of course, grossly violated that international law when its armed forces violently boarded the Mavi Marmara over a year ago, killing and wounding innocent civilians, commandeering the ships in open international waters and towing them to Israel in what was a clear act of piracy on the high seas.)

But later in the same press conference, Clinton was asked about the current peace flotilla. This time, she said:

“Well, we do not believe that the flotilla is a necessary or useful effort to try to assist the people of Gaza. Just this week, the Israeli Government approved a significant commitment to housing in Gaza. There will be construction materials entering Gaza and we think that it’s not helpful for there to be flotillas that try to provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves.” [my emphasis]

First of all, she knows that the last attack was clearly in open water. Second, the waters off of Gaza are not Israeli. They are Gazan. Gaza, which is technically a UN protectorate, is not in any possible legal construct a part of the state of Israel, and its waters, under international law, cannot be construed to be Israeli. The Secretary of State knows this, yet she is telling Tel Aviv that the US is willing to let that fundamental principle go by the wayside.

She is also telegraphing Israel something else. By invoking the concept of “defending themselves,” albeit from a ship of unarmed peace activists carrying a cargo of mail, she is saying that Israel’s use of force is okay with the government of Barack Obama too.

Bad enough that this sorry excuse for a secretary of state, and for a president, are okaying in advance another violent and potentially fatal attack by a regime already known for its wanton violence against American citizens on an American-flagged ship in open waters, but the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that the White House is even suggesting that these brave American protesters could be “violating US law.”

How does that work? Well, remember that the Bush-Cheney gang made it a federal crime to “provide support” to “terrorist” organizations, even unknowing support, right? And as Haaretz puts it, the White House “noted that the territory [of Gaza] is run by the militant Hamas group, a US-designated foreign terrorist organization, and that Americans providing support to it are subject to fines and jail.”

Our elected politicians, and most notably the president, have all, since 9-11, taken to saying this stock line about how their “main job” is “to keep Americans safe.” And yet here is a case where Americans are being overtly threatened, and all it would take to keep them safe would be for the president or key Congressional leaders, who control the flow of dollars and military aid to Israel, to say, “Don’t you dare touch these people or the vessel they are on!” and they would be safe. Instead they are saying, “Go ahead, and do what you want with them. They are criminals.”

Okay, I know we’ve had monstrous presidents in the past who have incited or authorized the killings of Americans–most notably President Richard Nixon, who by some accounts may have encouraged the governor of Ohio to have his National Guard “spill some blood” at Kent State, and who certainly authorized the murders of Black Panther Party activists and others. But at least back then we still had judges in the federal courts and on the Supreme Court who took the Constitution, and their oaths, seriously, and members of Congress who would investigate such crimes. No longer. And while we have had presidents who have covered up the killing of Americans by foreign powers (as in the case of Johnson and the USS Liberty or Nixon and the Pinochet coup in Chile), I’m hard-pressed to think of another president who openly encouraged a foreign nation to kill Americans.

I could go on documenting the destruction of our freedoms by this administration, but I’m making myself too angry and in any case, I’ve already exceeded 2000 words here. (I’ve also written more than enough to earn my FBI surveillance for the weekend, I’m sure.)

Happy Fourth of July, my fellow citizens! (And you FBI spooks, watch for glass shards when you’re pawing through the reeking garbage and used cat litter this week. I broke a bottle.)