I I I I I I I  

Until Proven Innocent 

I used to think that the dystopian novel that best described the current incarnation of the Republican party was 1984 -- the doublespeak slogans, the fanatical devotion to the Party, the puritanical attitude towards sex -- Orwell predicted it all.  But I think I've found an even better match.  Sinclair Lewis' novel It Can't Happen Here portrays an America under the rule of a dictator who rises to power in the wake of an economic crisis.  The ironic doublespeak is reminiscent of 1984, but the setting brings it close to home.  This dictator, a plain-spoken, anti-intellectual "man of the people" promotes a jingoist and racist agenda, culminating in the suppression of the civil liberties that Americans take for granted.  His supporters include the religious right and big business, and liberals are his declared enemy.  Prior to being elected, he publishes a book that outlines his platform, in which he says, "The Executive has got to have a freer hand and be able to move quick in an emergency, and not be tied down by a lot of dumb shyster-lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates."  Ring any bells?

One of our neighbors has a bumper sticker that says, "If you aren't completely appalled, you haven't been paying attention."  Never has it been more apt than the past week, in which Congress passed an anti-terrorism bill (the Military Commissions Act of 2006) which attacks the most basic principles of our legal system: the right to a fair trial, the right to legal representation, the presumption of innocence, checks and balances, judicial review, Habeas Corpus, the bans on cruel and unusual punishment (to be fair, the bill explicitly prohibits flogging and branding), and coerced testimony.  We might as well throw out all the high school civics textbooks, because the system they describe no longer exists.

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Oh, but we don't have to worry, these measures are only intended for terrorists, not American citizens, right?  Unless you're an American citizen who happens to be a Muslim.  Or someone who disagrees with the Bush administration.  There are numerous passages in the bill that either explicitly refer to American citizens or which could be interpreted as applying to citizens as well as aliens.  This is an administration that's already informally calling dissent and protest treason (House Majority Leader John A. Boehner recently described Democrats as "dangerous" for opposing this bill).  How long will it be before those who speak out against our government's policies are charged with wrongfully aiding the enemy?  Remember that under this bill, if you're accused, you have no recourse.  All the trappings we've seen a thousand times on Hill Street Blues, Homicide, and CSI -- the phone call, the attorney, the jury of your peers -- disappear.  The government can hold you indefinitely in a secret prison and subject you to a variety of "interrogation techniques" including but not limited to water boarding, extreme sleep deprivation, and sexual assault, and no matter how false the accusations against you, you will be unable to fight them.  In effect, this bill assumes that anyone accused of terrorism or treason is guilty and that the only problem is convincing the accused to confess.

The Military Commissions Act passed with a tidy majority, including a significant number of Democrats, and Bush is expected to sign it into law within the next few days.  It's been discussed in newspapers and on the blogosphere, but it certainly hasn't inspired widespread outrage or concerted protests.  It seems that many Americans have bought the party line and genuinely believe that this bill merely abrogates "rights" that terrorists aren't entitled to anyway.  These Americans trust our government to correctly identify terrorists and to look out for our best interests.  More disturbingly, it seems that other Americans, while recognizing that this bill will inevitably result in unjust imprisonment or even torture for innocent men and women, believe that some collateral damage is necessary in the fight against terrorism.  These Americans argue that the safety of our nation is more important than the rights of a relatively small group of individuals.  I would remind these people of Benjamin Franklin's words: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

How much are you willing to sacrifice in the name of security?  Perhaps it's easier to curtail a stranger's rights to protect yourself.  But what will you do when your neighbor disappears?  What will you do when it's your daughter?  What will you do when it's you? 

It can't happen here?  It already has.
About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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