A Blight on our Legacy

On the last day of 2011, a Saturday when people were more inclined to think about who they would kiss at midnight than what part of our American heritage was thrown away, President Obama  signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act.

Via Jeralyn Merritt at TalkLeft :

President Obama today signed into the National Defense Authorization Act, which contains the controversial and objectionable provisions on indefinite detention and restrictions on transfers of detainees from Guantanamo. He issued a signing statement with it that doesn’t ameliorate the damage.

The ACLU says :

While President Obama issued a signing statement saying he had “serious reservations” about the provisions, the statement only applies to how his administration would use the authorities granted by the NDAA, and would not affect how the law is interpreted by subsequent administrations.

As if uttering the words “serious reservations” as he signs this bill will change everything in the history books.  While news of the signing could be found anywhere, I cite to Jeralyn for a reason.  If there was any break to be cut a Democratic President, it would be from an unabashed liberal.  Jeralyn cuts him no break.

The world is our battlefield, according to the U.S. Just shameful.

There are no doubt some, perhaps most, in this country for whom faith in government and desire for safety and order will not only allow them to shrug this off, but even support this initiative.  They’re terrorists.  The President says so, and that’s good enough for me.

Having bought into the amorphous war on terror, because the war on drugs worked out so well, the way is paved to enjoy the two tier system just created in derogation of the freedoms and protections that grace the lintels over our government buildings.  We recite the platitudes, while we slide down the slippery slope “with serious reservations.”

What processes led President Obama to flip-flop, to acquiesce, to sign this bill into law, isn’t clear.  Is it because of the upcoming election, where he fears being labeled soft on terror?  Is it because he fears a battle with Congress, and the show of weakness if they override his veto?  Or perhaps because he believes that whoever sits in the oval office is so trustworthy, so perfect, that he should hold the power to defy basic constitutional precepts?

In the long run, it doesn’t matter.  There will always be an “enemy” of America.  And if there isn’t, we’ll create one.  Without an enemy, we wouldn’t appreciate the protection our government gives us nearly as much, and they want to be deeply appreciated.  Of course they realize that this law will live in perpetuity. They aren’t stupid.  Not all of them, anyway.

The ACLU statement following President Obama’s signing called this a “blight on his legacy.”  While true, it fails to fully appreciate what has happened.  Years from now, no one will care much about Obama’s legacy.  Whether third graders are taught that he was the next Kennedy or Hoover won’t change a thing.  What he screwed with here is our legacy, the constitutional legacy of Americans.

It’s not entirely without precedent.  There was the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II.  There was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  There have been bold acts by our government that have, in retrospect, been recognized as not merely horribly wrong, but fundamentally contrary to our legacy.  At the time they happened, the important politicians of the day explained why the problems they faced were so different, so demanding of extreme measures, as to justify a fundamental departure from our legacy.

Each time, they were wrong, and their decision haunted them.

Will history repeat itself?  Will we wake up in a year, or ten, and remove our collective heads from the dark hole in which it now hides, and realize that we’ve allowed a transitory desire for safety to trump our legacy of freedom?  Perhaps.  It’s also possible, however, that we have become so inured to a world of diminishing freedom that as long as there is a bogeyman to blame, Americans will sleep peacefully at night regardless of the power the government takes for itself to protect us from the enemy.

There will always be an enemy.  The war will never end.  And our President has signed to himself and those who will follow him in office the power to override the Constitution when he chooses to do so.  That he has “serious reservations” brings little comfort.  He’s free to screw up his own legacy, if that’s what he wants to do, but this is a blight on our legacy.  Just shameful.

6 comments on “A Blight on our Legacy

  1. Sam Morison

    The truly discomforting thing about this bill is that it both expands and makes permanent the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, essentially establishing a legal framework for a perpetual state of war, without temporal or geographic limit. This is unprecedented in American history. When coupled with the expansive definition of “war crimes” in the Military Commission Act (MCA) and the absurd assertion that the “homeland” is “the battlefield,” there is little reason to believe that the creeping expansion of military jurisdiction will not eventually be extended to American citizens, even those captured on American soil. And remember, in order to ship US citizens off to Gitmo for trial by military commission, Congress need only strike a single word from the MCA’s personal jurisdiction provision, “alien.”

    As for shamelessness, please check out my article, History and Tradition in American Military Justice, at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1852504, which documents the depths to which the government will sink in an effort to win a conviction.

  2. SHG

    Thanks for the inside view, Sam.  And for anyone who’s wondering, I invited Sam to include the link in his comment, and urge you to read the article.

  3. AH

    My Grandfather, Gordon Hirabayahshi, went to jail rather than submit to internment as he believed the constitution was something everyone needed to fight for. He fought against the injustice of the internment of Japanese-Americans for the balance of his life until the government admitted its wrongdoing. It was my grandfather’s belief that without constant vigilance by the people, the constitution is only a scrap of paper.

    I hate to ascribe feelings to someone else, but I can’t help but believe he would be appalled by the NDAA. He passed away on January 2nd and had suffered from Alzheimer’s for some years so was unaware of the recent erosion of the constitution. Although perhaps some comfort can be drawn from the fact that he will never know how far things have fallen, that comfort does not overcome the great disappointment that comes from knowing that what he fought for so hard has already been lost.

  4. SHG

    Your grandfather was an American hero, refusing to acquiesce in the internment. This quote, from his New York Times obituary, is one that I will never forget:

    “I want vindication not only for myself,” Mr. Hirabayashi told The New York Times in 1985 as he was fighting to have his conviction vacated. “I also want the cloud removed from over the heads of 120,000 others. My citizenship didn’t protect me one bit. Our Constitution was reduced to a scrap of paper.”

    My condolences to you and your family. Gordon Hirabayahshi was and remains an inspiration.

  5. AH

    Thank you for your kind words and thank you for allowing me the indulgence to brag about my grandfather in what is only a tangentially related blog-post. In light of his passing I think I am recognizing now that perhaps I have not done quite enough in the past to brag about his legacy.

    If you’ll allow me a final indulgence, in the wake of his passing I reread the letter he wrote to the FBI in anticipation of his arrest wherein he remarks: “I consider it my duty to maintain the democratic principals for which this nation lives.” The entire letter is suffused with his dedication to the Constition. I continue to be amazed at the courage and conviction he displayed at 24 years old.

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