News & Politics

Government Gangsterism at Work

When it suits their immediate aims, the Bushies wield the law like a club. As soon as the law proves inconvenient, however, they chuck it out the window like a gum wrapper.
Unbridled legal hypocrisy is a recurring theme of the ideologically impoverished Bush imperium. When it suits their immediate aims, the Bushies wield the law like a club. But when the law proves inconvenient they chuck it out the window like a gum wrapper.

We've seen this schizy lurching between law-and-order conservatism and anarchic retro-Tricky Dicky Nixonism ever since November 2000, when the same campaign that sued under Florida's election laws to stop that state's ballot recount resorted to hired thugs and back-room deals when it became obvious that they were going to lose.

Born illegitimately of intimidation, this administration is waging its New War on Terror with the same graceless style. Before September 11, it used international organizations and legal strictures to impose economic sanctions on Afghanistan. As the Trade Center towers burned and Bush's polls soared, the last vestige of respect for law disappeared. Bush dropped bombs without declaring war, without bothering to formally request that the Taliban extradite Osama bin Laden, and without presenting a smidgen of proof that either the Afghan government or bin Laden had anything to do with the attacks on New York and Washington. "You're either with us or against us," Bush said, but "us" meant "me."

During the last few months, at least 6,000 people have vanished off the streets of the United States. Kidnapped by government agents, they have no idea when -- or if -- they will be released from prison. The Bushies say these people overstayed their visas, that they have links to Al Qaeda, that they don't wash their hands after using the toilet, that America is safer because they're behind bars.

Is any of this true? Who knows? Since they haven't been granted access to lawyers or allowed to call their families, no can talk to them. Bush says they have no rights because they're not American citizens.

Keep that in mind the next time you travel abroad.

The Bush police state doesn't coddle our own citizens, either. John Walker Lindh, an American with the bad taste to join the Taliban and the bad luck to get caught, was held for weeks without even being told that his parents had hired him an attorney. You may or may not give a damn about Walker, but he's an American citizen accused of serious federal crimes. The fact that he's been denied legal counsel, that Attorney General John Ashcroft's outrageous statements have made it impossible for him to get a fair trial, and that Bush was seriously considering subjecting him to one of his kangaroo-court military tribunals, tells you everything Americans need to know about our leaders' respect for the law.

Don't deign to look down on Burma or North Korea; when it comes to human rights, you live in a rogue state. Exhibit A: The Taliban and accused Al Qaeda prisoners of war now being held in pens in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Despite European criticism of the conditions under which they are being held, Dick Cheney insists that "nobody should feel defensive or unhappy about the quality of treatment they've received." Maybe so. But if our government has nothing to be ashamed of, why can't reporters, lawyers or family members get inside to visit them?

Even more troubling is the administration's assertion that these men are "unlawful combatants" not entitled to the decent living conditions and other protections guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions. When Nazi Germany executed captured soldiers of the French Resistance, using the argument Bush now cites, the world was appalled. The Taliban prisoners' status is far more clear than the maquis -- the Afghans were fighting to defend their own nation's government from an invasion force. The Taliban, who controlled 95 percent of Afghanistan, were recognized as its government by three U.S.-aligned nations. If the Talibs aren't prisoners of war, who are?

Fortunately, the Geneva Conventions addresses the current situation. In the event of a dispute over the status of prisoners, the agreement stipulates that "such prisoners shall enjoy the protection of the present convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal." But, protests Cheney: "These are the worst of a very bad lot. They are very dangerous...These are bad people...They may well have information about future terrorist attacks against the United States. We need that information. We need to be able to interrogate them and extract from them whatever information they have."

In other words, our Vice President wants to torture our prisoners, which justifies our making an end-run around one of the most important international agreements ever made.

"The debate is not actually whether these people are prisoners of war," an anonymous State Department official told The New York Times January 28. "They are not. The debate is why they are not prisoners of war." Cheney summed up the Bush position the next day: "They are not P.O.W.s. They will not be determined to be P.O.W.s."

To hear these guys tell it, the Geneva Conventions exist solely to protect the safety and dignity of American servicemen when they fall into enemy hands. When we capture foreigners in combat, on the other hand, we simply claim that they're "unlawful combatants." Unfortunately for future American P.O.W.s -- er, detainees -- the rest of the world is listening closely.

After September 11, many Americans wondered aloud why other citizens of the world hate us so much. What kind of things could we, or our government, have done that would explain such fury?

Here's one example.

Ted Rall's new book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled "To Afghanistan and Back," will be published in April.
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