By DAN K. THOMASSON
Losing one’s perspective can produce some undesired results under the best circumstances but when one is president of the United States the outcome can be nearly as horrendous as the event or events that caused that loss.
That seems to be what happened to George Bush in the aftermath of the September 2001attack on America. In his zeal to seek retribution for this infamy and to prevent it from happening again, he has taken steps that appear dangerously outside the American context of a free and open society.
The legislation proposed by Bush and his partner, Vice President Cheney, to preserve the illegalities of their war on terrorism and to redefine the Geneva Convention as a necessary means that justifies the end of protecting the nation from further defiling is itself an assault on the very liberty it pretends to preserve.
There are no secret prisons in America. There is no policy of torture during interrogation even for those suspected of committing heinous crimes against this nation. There is no wiretapping without court order. There are no star chambers where the accused are denied lawyers and the right to review the evidence against them. And there is no justification under any circumstance for abandoning those principles. For us to take any other course would be to damage severely the rule of law that has made this nation unique in history. In the end we would accomplish nothing but to further the terrorists’ goals of altering our way of life and the concepts that make us strong.
Americans, as they have in past wars, have shown patience and willingness to sacrifice some of their freedoms in defense of the republic. They have even accepted constitutionally questionable measures like prying cameras in public places and often annoying and intrusive security at public buildings and gatherings. The historic openness of the U. S. Capitol and its environs, the seat of this government, has been lost to the realities of terrorism. The Hill has become a most difficult place to visit because of increasing barriers that wall off access by vehicles and security that restricts movement inside the Capitol itself.
Even before 9/11, President Clinton acceded to Secret Service proposals to close historic Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to all but foot traffic, abandoning the symbolism of an easily accessible executive mansion with a street address like any other American home. Even though that move radically altered the traffic pattern in downtown Washington, complaints from commuters and tourists were few. The times clearly required it.
The restrictions on air travel and the long lines they produce have been taken in stride with few grumbles. The intrusions were understood and immediately accepted as necessary and reasonable. The operative word, of course, is "reasonable." Delays, intrusions and inconveniences to maintain public safety qualify as just that. Only a fool would argue against these measures in such perilous times.
But altering the bedrock of our free society _ the constitutional rights of due process and the prohibitions against cruel and inhumane treatment of even our enemies _ is quite another matter.
Military lawyers, three of the most powerful Republicans in Congress _ all veterans, retired military chiefs of staff, Bush’s former secretary of State, Colin Powell, and any number of other leading Americans have denounced the proposal to "clarify" the torture ban in the Geneva Convention and to legalize the use of military tribunals that are little more than star chambers. They argue forcefully that it would change the way the world looks at America; in fact even the way we regard ourselves, as the supposed defenders of the moral high ground. Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war for five years, correctly warns that the end result of this unwarranted tinkering with international rules of warfare in the end can only harm our own forces.
Critics contend that the president has played the terrorist card to take the voters’ minds off of the increasingly dire situation in Iraq as the midterm election approaches. The president’s approval ratings have moved up slightly since he began his campaign to refocus on terrorism. But if that is his reason for this unsupportable effort to undercut traditional American values, it is among the more cynical moves in modern presidential history and even further evidence of a lost perspective.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)