Like millions of Americans, I took a break yesterday to give thanks. For most of the past eight years starting with Thanksgiving 2001, I’ve had trouble identifying things to be thankful for. It’s never been a case of material shortcoming, of course. Americans for the most part know a sort of material wealth and comfort that was unknown to the species in prior millennia and was unknown to the Pilgrim fathers who instituted the practice of Thanksgiving. My great concern was over the nation’s stewardship, which had been entrusted to incompetent and malicious hands of a sort the nation had rarely witnessed.
So now I am thankful that the Reign of Witches, as Thomas Jefferson called the only historical period that bears serious comparison, is coming to an end. In less than two months the nation will have new leadership. I am sure I will have differences with the new administration on many points, but I doubt I’ll ever have cause to question its commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law.
Thomas Jefferson called the heavy-handed, fear-mongering rule of the Federalists from 1798 through 1800 a “tyranny,” and when friends protested, he explained why this term was correct notwithstanding the fact that the Federalists had taken power through the ballot box. They were, he said, tyrannical in their dismissive attitudes towards the liberties of the people, in their use of crass fear to retain and strengthen their grip on power and in their contempt for the dignity of the ordinary human being, something that a genuine democrat recognizes even in the least and most frail members of our species. He was right to use the term “tyranny” with respect to what the Federalists did.
And I am thankful to Richard Sanders, a long-time member of the Federalist Society and a justice of the Washington Supreme Court. As Michael Mukasey stood at the lectern of the society’s annual meeting and delivered a speech saluting the role played by latter-day Federalists in crafting a legal doctrine for the war on terror—a doctrine that included the use of torture as a presidential prerogative, and granting the president the right at his unreviewable whim to hold people in permanent confinement without ever bringing charges against them—Sanders rose and filled the hall with his voice. “Tyrant! You are a tyrant!” he shouted. Mukasey paused, stunned by the outbreak, and minutes later he slumped to the floor—suffering from what was fortunately no more than a bout of fatigue. No, Sanders acknowledged, Mukasey himself is not a tyrant—he clearly has been the best of Bush’s three attorneys general (which is of course not much)—but the practices that Mukasey was extolling are tyrannical practices. Indeed, these practices—confinement without charge and denial of the writ of habeas corpus–were condemned as such before, by James Madison, whose silhouette appears, ironically, on the logo of the Federalist Society, and by Edmund Burke, to whose political philosophy many of these latter day Federalists purport to adhere, and whose Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol can be read today as a condemnation of Guantánamo and everything it stands for.
Sanders was right. He upheld values that others in the room had surrendered in the interest of political expedience. In 1800, the Federalist war stratagem caused a severe political setback to the party, ultimately leading to its political extinction. And in 2008, as in 2006, the same phenomenon has occurred in an America which has grown weary of hate and fear-mongering and anxious for hope and a revival of confidence in the American Idea.
Consider this nugget from the tyrannical soul of the Bush regime exposed by Roger Cohen in a Thanksgiving op-ed published yesterday:
A U.S. official met one of the dozens of Afghans now released from Guantánamo and was so appalled by this document that he forwarded me a copy. Dated Oct. 7, 2006, it reads as follows:
“An Administrative Review Board has reviewed the information about you that was talked about at the meeting on 02 December 2005 and the deciding official in the United States has made a decision about what will happen to you. You will be sent to the country of Afghanistan. Your departure will occur as soon as possible.”
That’s it, the one and only record on paper of protracted U.S. incarceration: three sentences for four years of a young Afghan’s life, written in language Orwell would have recognized. We have “the deciding official,” not an officer, general or judge. We have “the information about you,” not allegations, or accusations, let alone charges. We have “a decision about what will happen to you,” not a judgment, ruling or verdict. This is the lexicon of totalitarianism. It is acutely embarrassing to the United States.
This is the face the Bush regime has shown the world over the last eight years. It is an ugly face of tyranny, a face which mouths the words “freedom,” “liberty,” and “democracy” but whose actions reveal no belief in these values.
I am thankful for all those who rose to defend the nation’s values and traditions throughout the Reign of Witches, their number ever swelling as the conclusion approached. And I am thankful for a young lawyer from Illinois who prepares now to assume the mantle of leadership and promises to restore our nation’s good name in the world and to lead us out of the fetid, corrupt swamp in which we have been mired for eight years.