The irreplaceable Fritz Stern reminds us that as a democracy with two-hundred thirty years of experience, America is better situated than most to weather the storms of a wannabe tyrant. “But that,” he adds, “would presuppose that such a nation really understood its heritage and had a genuine historic sense.” We live now with a Government that shamelessly fabricates and alters history—both from the last two hundred years and from the last six years. It does so with a purpose—making its outrageous deeds seem perfectly reasonable and in tune with the past.
But the Founding Fathers had a very profound sense of history. As I have noted before in discussing the influence of Virgil’s writings on some of the founding precepts, most of the Founding Fathers were classics scholars. They knew their Virgil, Ovid and Horace, and traded quips, indecipherable to most of us today, based on their readings. And they especially knew the historians—Livy, Tacitus and Sallust. If there was one epoch in the history of Rome that held them captive, then it can quickly be identified—it was the long descent of the Roman Republic into empire and tyranny. How did a state blessed with the republican institutions they spilled blood to gain come to lose them? What was this process? How could it be guarded against? These were questions that preoccupied them. Questions, moreover, that stand in the shadows behind the debates over the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and much of the genesis of our modern institutions. It is of course no coincidence that much of the nomenclature of the new republic can be drawn from the pages of Livy’s Ab urbe condita: president, senate, congress… and even some now-lost offices such as censor and auditor.
Distilling that historical experience to its essence, however, we come to a consensus on the threat to the republic. It is internal, and it is the risk that one man aided by a clique will assume tyrannical authority and end the republic. As Livy reminds, the citizens of the nascent republic “valued their liberty so much precisely because their last king had been so great a tyrant.” And if there was one essential principle which stood as the republic’s bulwark against tyranny, then it was this: that “no man stood above the law.” Both of these phrases appear in the second book, in which Livy lays the foundation stones of the new republic, and repeatedly warns that deviation from these precepts will mean ruin.
It is common for people today to question how any leader can be a tyrant who achieves office through popular election, and, indeed, who remains popular. But such talk is foolish and betrays an ignorance of the origins of the term and the historical context of its use. Throughout history, tyrants came to power through means of control and manipulation of popular opinion. This was so familiar a feature to the thinkers of antiquity, that Aristotle charts it as a characteristic of the tyrant. And in the history of the dark, past century, how many little men in search of a balcony came to power on the back of a jubilant and cheering mob? And indeed, no less a man that Thomas Jefferson was quick to remind his fellow citizens of this principle. And it was Jefferson who raised the cry of “tyrant” against the president, when he proceeded in disregard of the constraints of Constitution and law, setting into play a plan of persecution targeting his political opponents and the poor, downtrodden and defenseless immigrants. Jefferson spoke sharply and loudly because the republic was under siege by a popularly elected (and popular) government. He was right to have done so, and he is vindicated by history for it.
The question was whether the president has put himself above the law and assumed powers far beyond those the Constitution measured to him.
And today, America faces precisely this question. We have a president who acts in shameless disregard of the Constitution’s restraints upon his office, and who feels himself above the law, and who constantly seeks to manipulate and mislead the public. How many times just in the last week have we witnessed this?
On Monday, the White House announced a National Intelligence Estimate, which has been available for half a year and whose release Vice President Cheney has vehemently fought. It tells us that Iran packed in its nuclear weapons program under the pressure of sanctions in 2003. Bush tells us that he learned about this “only the prior week.” But the lie is quickly exposed as McConnell acknowledges having briefed him at least in August, and other intelligence figures note that the basic information on which the intelligence assessment rested was in hand since June. Nevertheless, let’s recount some of the statements that a president who fully understood what the intelligence assessment on this issue was made to the American public in a predictable effort to build sentiment for a war which his Vice President was busily plotting:
March 31st: “Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon…”
June 5th: Iran’s “pursuit of nuclear weapons…”
June 19th: “consequences to the Iranian government if they continue to pursue a nuclear weapon…”
July 12th: “the same regime in Iran that is pursuing nuclear weapons…”
August 6th: “this is a government that has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon…”
October 17th: “I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War Three, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from have the knowledge to make a nuclear weapon.”
Is this the language of a president concerned for the defense of his country and determined to act against a threat, or is it the language of a man exploiting a more remote threat for purposes of petty fear-mongering? If the latter, this is the classic behavior of a tyrant, who as Aristotle reminds us, always dangles the threat of war from abroad in order to still dissent within his people through fear and to aggrandize his own powers as the warrior-leader.
I am not saying that the developments in Iran present no threat, nor that inaction is appropriate. But ask yourself: how would Winston Churchill, how would Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Harry S Truman have acted armed with the same facts and threat? I am calling Bush out on conscious fear-mongering to propel the nation to unwarranted and unwise tactical blunders—just the sort of thing which has marked his presidency from its inception. And I am saying that the essence of his conduct is tyrannical: it is pursued to tighten his grip on extra-Constitutional powers and authority.
On Thursday, we learned that the CIA had destroyed hundreds of hours of taped footage that showed CIA agents, and perhaps psychologists who work with them, engaging in the torture and abuse of two detainees. This is the “Program,” which President Bush first denied for years, and then claimed proud ownership in a White House press conference on September 16, 2006. A “well informed source” told CBS News the perfectly obvious: the tapes were destroyed because the officials in question fully realized that they would figure as evidence in the ultimate prosecution of the authors and agents of the torture program. CIA Director Hayden is brought out to assert that everything was perfectly legal. Then in the face of a public storm, Dana Perino goes before the cameras to mouth a line from “Hogan’s Heroes,” namely the “President knew n-o-t-h-i-n-g.” That of course is completely incredible. And now we see another gesture of the tyrannical leader who disrespects the law. When the deeds are noticed, sacrifice up some lackey to quiet the masses. That process is in full gear right now.
On Friday, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse went to the well of the Senate to deliver a speech. I very rarely quote from floor debate and speeches in the Senate. Frankly that’s because there is only very rarely anything worth quoting. But listening to and watching Senator Whitehouse, I saw the spirit of a modern-day Cicero rising to defend the life of the republic against the encroachments of a man who would be dictator. It is not just Whitehouse’s rhetoric which commands respect and attention, but also the evidence he musters.
Whitehouse used his position on the intelligence committee to gain access to the Justice Department’s new torture memoranda and to summarize their reasoning and content. And, exactly as we have long suspected, the essence of the reasoning latent in the legal infrastructure of torture is simple:
The word of the president is the law. The president defines the law. The president stands above the law and cannot be made accountable under it.
In order words, George W. Bush has asserted precisely those powers and prerogatives for which King Charles I lost his head. He has laid claim to a measure of power far beyond anything that the U.S. Constitution accords. He has even claimed more power than the British monarchs against whom the Founding Fathers fought the Revolution.
Senator Whitehouse is a former prosecutor, former U.S. Attorney, former Attorney General of Rhode Island, and former legal advisor to the state’s governor. He is a man with a long and honorable tradition of law enforcement. Here’s how he summarizes the situation:
In a nutshell, these three Bush Administration legal propositions boil down to this:
“I don’t have to follow my own rules, and I don’t have to tell you when I’m breaking them.”
“I get to determine what my own powers are.”
“The Department of Justice doesn’t tell me what the law is, I tell the Department of Justice what the law is.”
When the Congress of the United States is willing to roll over for an unprincipled President, this is where you end up. We should not even be having this discussion. But here we are. I implore my colleagues: reject these feverish legal theories. I understand political loyalty, trust me, I do. But let us also be loyal to this great institution we serve in the legislative branch of our government. Let us also be loyal to the Constitution we took an oath to defend, from enemies foreign and domestic. And let us be loyal to the American people who live each day under our Constitution’s principles and protections.
Important words. An important call. And who was listening?
And another lesson flows from this. Is it any wonder that torture lurks in the background behind all these suggestions of the paramount power and authority of the president? Torture is inevitably and inextricably bound to tyranny. It is an attribute of a tyrannical system, and it is anathema to democracy. We are living this proposition today, in these weeks.
These are the headlines of one simple week, the first week of December 2007. We watch as our republic fades and erodes. And the public continues in its consumer glee, not oblivious to the disasters unfolding about it—it recognizes that something horrible is happening—but feeling powerless to stop it.
What’s needed? First, the power of memory. To recall our own history, the sacrifices of those who went before us, and the dream of democracy and informed citizenry upon which the nation was founded. Second, the realization of danger that is present in a Government which disrespects the ideals and institutions upon which the nation was built. Third, action—demands upon those who have acquiesced in this conversion of power that they restore the constraints of the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson formulated the call perfectly:
Let him say what the government is, if it be not a tyranny, which the men of our choice have conferred on our President… In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.