HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 19, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


A Peculiar Institution

The function of a special prosecutor, much in the news of late, is a curious operation. In theory special prosecutors are appointed to investigate such widespread and serious transgressions they can't be adequately handled by ordinary law enforcement procedures. Yet that has scarcely been the case in recent instances.

The most famous special prosecutor of the past quarter century was Kenneth Starr, who was appointed to look into the buying and selling of land in Arkansas.  Even if everything suspected about the Whitewater deals had been true -- which it wasn't -- the illegalities would not have risen to the level of a national concern.  They could certainly have been managed by normal processes.  In the event, Mr. Starr recommended that the president of the United States be removed from office because he had attempted to keep secret a sexual dalliance.

The public felt that this was prosecutorial overreach, sparked by political opposition, and disgust over the whole procedure led to a determination to keep special prosecutors on a shorter rein.

Now we have another one in the news. Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed to find out if anyone had illegally divulged the identity of a CIA employee. Early in the process he discovered who had named the person in question and evidently decided that naming her was not a crime because no charges were brought against the person who did it.  However, in questioning someone else about the process, Mr. Fitzgerald decided that he had been given falsehoods.  The man who proclaimed them was indicted and convicted.  Now a great cry has gone up that he should be pardoned because what he did wasn't seriously wrong and had nothing to do with the crime Mr. Fitzgerald was investigating. Each of us can form his, or her, opinion about that.

Still, whether or not Scooter Libby did anything very wrong and should be put in jail for it doesn't seem to be an issue that fits the purposes of having a special prosecutor. Meanwhile, there are serious charges that major officials of government, including the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, and the attorney general, have systematically violated the Constitution over the past five years.  If true, these are extremely serious matters which go to the heart of what kind of nation we are.  Yet, as far as I can tell, no one is proposing to appoint a special prosecutor to look into them. Why is that?

If the legal system is actually about maintaining fair and just laws, and is not simply a tool to be employed for political advantage, then the nature of  issues we choose to  investigate most vigorously is, at the least, bizarre and may be pathological.


Strangeness Coming

Wild as it may sound to say so, the current state of chaos in the world is likely to increase as this century proceeds. There are few signs we're moving towards stability. Rather, the world promises to get more and more weird.

Most people have not begun to imagine the way in which powerful forces --nationalistic, corporate, and religious -- may form coalitions and then disintegrate over the coming decades. It is very hard to predict who will be on whose side and whether or not your avowed enemy today may end up being your close ally ten years hence.

We've already had hints of this, of course. Who, fifty years ago, would have predicted that a significant portion of Protestant Christianity in America would become the most aggressive, bloodthirsty and war-favoring element of the population? Perhaps some saw the signs in the late 1950s but most of us weren't prepared for that transformation.

If you want to begin to think about what may happen, a good place to start is Andrew Sullivan's extensive essay in The New Republic a couple days ago about Dinesh D'Souza and his new book The Enemy at Home. Mr. D'Souza has grown up from being the bad boy right-winger at Dartmouth College and begun to take on what he thinks of more mature themes. One of his main messages is that the hostility felt towards America by radical Islamists is really the same anger that American conservatives direct at the liberal culture. The genuine enemy of both these movements is an individualism divorced from firm social rules and permanent definitions about right and wrong, which D'Souza defines as liberalism. He doesn't see an alliance among all the religious conservatives anytime soon, but he does suggest their common interests may lead to a shift that will make national identity less important than religious conviction. And he appears to believe that this would be a good thing.

He may be right to suggest the diminution of nationalistic influence. In the United States, we have been such a nation-worshipping people that we have a hard time imagining what would happen if economic interest or religious conviction superseded national loyalty as the prime motivator. But with the advent of the global corporation -- where is Haliburton's headquarters going to be now? -- and transnational religious movements such as Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, we could well be on the edge of nationalistic decline. And we don't have an inkling of what that could mean.

One thing we should have learned from the past is that as empires expand, their geographical focus shifts. And if power, money, and political influence move to the periphery, the center has a hard time holding together and retaining what was once considered its fundamental character. That's a nutshell description of what happened to the Roman Empire, and there are signs that similar things are happening to us. When the Pentagon is concentrated on "Global Presence and Basing Strategy" and full spectrum dominance over the planet, it's not likely it will care much what happens to some guy in a little Kansas town.  In fact, if the public knew what life is like in some of America's large foreign posts -- called by the Defense Department "Main Operating Bases" or MOBS -- with their golf courses, beauty parlors, slot machines, swimming pools, and dining rooms serving four meals a day, people might begin to suspect that the generals' hearts are no longer anchored to Main Street.

In short, what we used to think we could count on is no longer assured. So if you have some vision for your country, or even your home town, you had best start working towards it vigorously. The world is too bizarre for you to take anything any longer for granted.


Action and Reaction

"Blowback" is becoming an ever more prominent term in the discussion of U.S. foreign policy. It refers to the negative and hostile response of people outside this country who are convinced they're being harmed by American actions. There are some who believe the entire terror war is an instance of blowback. It's impossible to know, of course, whether Islamic radicals would have targeted Americans were it not for the policy of full spectrum dominance that has led to the establishment of American military installations throughout the Middle East. But we can be sure that the U.S. military presence in Arab countries angers many of the people there.

Political blowback, though, is not the only form we face. It may not even be the most significant. The unintended -- and usually unwelcome -- consequences of technological developments are often more powerful than the planned effects. Nowhere is this more true than in the arena of weapons procurement and deployment.

The general public in this country is unaware of the ongoing efforts to weaponize space being pushed by elements of the Air Force and an active space weapons lobby. Probably the average citizen doesn't know that there is an organization called the Air Force Space Command under the direction of -- this is his real name -- General Lance Lord. Billions of dollars have been spent on this effort and there's no sign the budgetary spigot is about to shut off.

The problem is that space near the surface of the earth is becoming a junk yard. The Air Force itself keeps track of 13, 400 objects orbiting the earth, and these are only the items large enough to be easily detected. There are innumerable other bits and pieces of earlier space launches that are large enough to destroy any piece of machinery they might smash into. When weapons are launched they add to this debris significantly and if they were ever actually used, the mass of the waste parts they would leave behind them would be immense. Our communications satellites are already threatened. If the space warriors had their way the upper reaches of the atmosphere would become so clotted communications might becomes impossible, and they would certainly become  vastly more expensive than they are now.

The desire to blast targets on earth from space is insane, but it also offers insanely lucrative contracts for people who are in that business. And one thing we've learned for sure over the past six years: insanity is no hindrance when profits are involved. There are thousands of powerful and influential people perfectly ready to destroy the environment if they think they can make money by doing it

The technological blowback creating a garbage dump world should invoke a popular blowback against those who are bringing it into being. But that response won't develop without knowledge, and knowledge of what's actually going on has not been, lately, the American public's cup of tea.


Making a Contribution

Last night on the Bill Maher show, with Jason Alexander, Martha Raddatz and Dan Rather looking on, the host took up the often voiced notion that we the people haven't been asked to sacrifice anything in order to conduct the war in Iraq. That's a lie, Maher said. We have been asked to sacrifice something, the Constitution of the United States, and for the most part we've complied.

It's a good point. If all the Constitutional lawyers in the land began right now to compile a list of the assaults the Bush administration has made on the Constitution, they couldn't complete it in most of our lifetimes. The most blatant example has been the White House claim that the president, acting as the commander in chief, is not required to obey the law. If you don't believe it, you should consult the statement put forward on August 1, 2002 by administration lawyers John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales, and David S. Addington -- the so-called torture memo -- in which they said, "In the light of the president's complete authority over the conduct of the war, without a clear statement otherwise, criminal statutes are not read as infringing on the president's ultimate authority in these areas."

There you have it. Since the president has complete authority, it can't be infringed upon by laws. That has been the basic stance of the Bush administration during its entire term of office. This is not only not what the Constitution says. Rather, it is the opposite of clear Constitutional directives.

On April 20, 1795, James Madison said of Constitutional provisions that "The separation of the power of declaring war from that of conducting it, is wisely contrived to exclude the danger of its being declared for the sake of its being conducted." And here we are now with a president who has declared a war which by definition can never be over, and in which his authority is complete.  That's a perfect description of a dictatorship. There's no more question about that. The only uncertainty left to be resolved is whether the people of the nation will rise up to restore the Constitution they have been asked to sacrifice,  or whether they will sink quietly into the comfort of having all their decisions made for them by the executive office.

I suppose one could argue that we still pick the occupant of the office. But when the executive controls everything, that's not really true either. We have plenty of evidence about how elections go in complete dictatorships. There have been stirrings recently to indicate that we are not actually ready for that form of government, but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking  that these will be enough to restore the Constitution. Its enemies have sunk their fangs so deeply into it that years of hard, careful, intelligent work will be needed to bring it fully back to health. Our readiness to take up that work is the dominant question about the nature of the sacrifices we are willing to make.


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