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Issue Date:  September 29, 2006

Patriotism's new profile

In the popular imagination, patriotism is most often defined in military terms. It is about military heroes and their exploits, about glorifying war and despising anything and anyone who might be perceived as a threat to the homeland.

So it is particularly significant -- in this time of war when the president of the United States targets opponents of his ideas as threats to the country’s security -- that three U.S. senators of the president’s own party would summon the courage to stand up to him over the matter of rules governing the trials of detainees.

Sens. John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona are to be applauded for their political bravery -- and profound patriotism -- in refusing to go along with President Bush’s proposals for bringing terrorist suspects to trial.

It is difficult to overestimate the value of such voices in times like these. And to those voices of courage add Colin L. Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Bush’s former secretary of state. Powell reportedly has had serious reservations for some time over the administration’s proclivity for ignoring international law and the Geneva Conventions’ provisions for treatment of detainees.

In order to appreciate the importance of the stand by Warner and his partners in the Senate, it is necessary to recall the degree to which this administration is willing to undermine international law and ignore the norms of U.S. law.

A grim dose of reality -- of what disregard for the law can mean -- splashed across front pages Sept. 19 with the account of Maher Arar, a Canadian computer engineer who was picked up by U.S. authorities in September 2002 as he changed planes in New York. Arar, at the time suspected of being a terrorist, was not allowed to contact a lawyer or his family before being whisked off on a CIA charter jet to Jordan, from which he was driven to Syria, his native country. He was held there until October of the following year and repeatedly tortured until Syrian authorities were satisfied that he was not a terrorist.

In a report, a Canadian government commission criticized its own law enforcement officials who apparently drew wild conclusions about the innocent Arar from thin evidence. But it reserved special criticism for U.S. officials who ignored Arar’s Canadian citizenship in violation of international treaties and sent him off on an “extraordinary rendition” flight to Syria, despite Arar’s prediction that he would face torture.

The United States refused to cooperate with the Canadian commission investigating the case.

Arar is but one example out of many, and it has to be seen in light of warrantless wiretapping; secret mining of bank accounts; holding of thousands of detainees, some in secret prisons in other parts of the world and others at Guantánamo, without charges or judicial proceedings. It must also be viewed against the backdrop of arguments made by the president, the vice president and the now U.S. attorney general for the use of torture.

“I wish I could turn to cheerier matters,” writes Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, “but I just can’t get past this torture issue -- the fact that George W. Bush, the president of the United States of America, persists in demanding that Congress give him the right to torture anyone he considers a ‘high-value’ terrorist suspect. The president of the United States. Interrogation by torture. This just can’t be happening.”

But it is. The only thing more astounding than a U.S. administration advocating torture is the docility and acquiescence of the U.S. populace. One has to wonder what it might take to get people concerned if not incensed.

Perhaps it is understandable that the administration, having been given a virtual pass by public opinion on the matter of torture, would feel emboldened to seek legislative approval of a process for adjudicating detainees that violates the foundations of U.S. jurisprudence. The administration advocates secret hearings before commissions established by the Bush administration after 9/11, use of coerced evidence, and refusal to show detainees evidence against them that the administration deems classified.

In attempting to strong-arm Congress to approve what would amount to a repudiation of U.S. justice, the administration ignored the collective wisdom and insight of the highest levels of the military, military lawyers, former government officials, former federal judges and the former FBI director in the Reagan administration, all of whom deeply object to the proposal.

The president, meanwhile, has the gall to reduce the question to one of his familiar either-or propositions: that legislators either go along with his “program” or place the country in jeopardy. The absurdity, of course, is that his “program” places the country in far greater jeopardy than any threat of terrorist attack.

It may be that the administration is willing to fight so hard to enshrine in law such gross violations of U.S. and international law because they are attempting to justify what this society should never even think of condoning. And it is trying to justify it in retrospect.

In short, the administration is trying to find a legal mantle for its illegal behavior, and if it doesn’t get one, the question is what happens to those who ordered, approved of and engaged in the illegal activities?

Sens. Warner, Graham and McCain need to keep a focus on the truth that they’ve already articulated -- that the future of this country is of far greater import than any administration’s need for expedience in prosecuting a war. The real summons to patriotism at the moment is to fight, without yielding, for the rule of law.

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2006

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