HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 11, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


The Lasting Delusion

Last night I watched the film, Letters from Iwo Jima. It strengthened my growing conviction about the essential nature of war. There are no words to describe the vileness of military conflict.

On this little island -- about eight square miles in area -- over the course of a two months early in 1945 thirty thousand men were killed. The battle didn't actually influence the overall political situation. There was not much in it that could possibly have helped either nation. It merely ground up thirty thousand lives. It was fought simply for the honor of war. And war has no honor.

Yet, we continue to glorify it and to sing the praises of those who serve as its fodder. The lesson of war is that the human race is incapable of learning anything about how to resolve its internal differences. People still speak of World War II as the good war. It only cost fifty-five millions lives. That's wondrous goodness.

The only sane people depicted in the film were a few low level Japanese soldiers who saw the action for what it was and just wanted to get out of the mess. The rest had been turned into such delusional lumps by national propaganda machines they found meaning in doing such things as pulling the pins out of grenades and clasping the lethal devices to their chests. This was done to glorify the fatherland.

The national propaganda machines are still churning and their automatons are still spouting bromides, feeling themselves heroes for doing it. And none of this shows any sign of coming to an end.


Mixed Mind

The situation of Scooter Libby leaves me perplexed. He has been convicted of a so-called crime which is committed by hundreds of political figures every day. He lied to avoid embarrassment to higher-ups. Should he go to jail for that? Not in my estimation.

On the other hand, he was an important operative in selling the Iraq war to the American people on false premises. Hundreds of thousands have been killed as a result. But, guess what? In our system, that's not a crime. Nobody even suggests judicial punishment for that brand of falseness.

So, should I be happy that Scooter Libby is being disgraced and humiliated for something that was, at most, minor skullduggery while what he deserves to be charged with is ignored?

The deal is this: when you lie to a grand jury about something minor, that's a crime; when you lie to the American people about a matter of utmost importance, that's politics.

After trying to weigh the whole business, I come down thinking that Libby should escape jail. Despite all the special prosecutor's moralistic platitudes, I can't see what good it would do to lock him up. The theory is that his incarceration would cause others to be less likely to lie. But in a system where prosecutors seldom ask serious questions about the behavior of the government, who cares?


Making It Up

Mitt Romney seems to have joined George Bush in the factoid business. In the recent Republican debate, he said that we wouldn't be in the current mess in Iraq if Sadam Hussein had allowed inspectors into the country to determine whether banned weapons were present.

President Bush has said the same thing several times in the past.

We are left wondering if Romney actually doesn't know that there were large numbers of weapons inspectors in Iraq right up till the time of the invasion, and that they consistently reported that the Iraqi government had allowed them to go anywhere they wished.

The even bigger wonder, however, is why Romney's GOP rivals didn't call him on his monumental gaffe. You would think this was their chance to blow him out of the race. The only explanation I can find is that they believe their base dislikes the truth and will punish anyone who brings it to their attention.

The media didn't make much note of the mistake either. And they don't even have the excuse of political expediency.


Return

Novelist Jane Smiley, 59 years old, says she wouldn't go back to 1962 for a hundred million dollars. The reference to that year comes from the setting of a new novel by Ian McEwan titled On Chesil Beach.

I guess that means that Ms. Smiley was an unhappy fourteen year old, unless, of course, she's talking about transporting her fifty-nine year old self back to that benighted time.

As for myself, I don't remember its being particularly bad. I probably would go back if I could be young again and have a hundred million dollars to go along with it. I'm not saying, definitively, that being young is better than being old, but there are some conditions of youth I would like to be able to experience again, at least for a little bit. And I've never experienced having a hundred million. I imagine it would be pleasant, but I can't say for sure.

In any case, the conversation underlines the impossibility of rating imponderables against one another. When you try to add up everything, you find yourself in a tangle. Every now and then, I play the fantasy game of asking what age I would choose if I were going to remain at that stage of life for eternity. Generally, I come down somewhere around forty-eight, a decade or so younger than Ms. Smiley. At forty-eight, you're old enough to know a little something and yet not so old you feel yourself to be on the edge of a crackup.

Ms. Smiley says she is going to read On Chesil Beach even though she detests the thought of living when it's set. I might read it too, but not so much because of the time as because of the beach. I've been on the Chesil Beach often myself. It's a great stretch of piled-up rocks which runs along the southern coast of England for about twenty miles westward from Portland. There's something magnificently strange about it and, consequently, it fills the mind with imaginings, which, after all, is the chief thing to be desired regardless of whether one is fourteen or fifty-nine.


The Basic Civil Right

Jonathan Turley, professor at the George Washington University Law School, says the Constitution was designed to be idiot proof. The Bush administration, however, has been working steadily to strip away the idiot-proofing, viewing it, I suppose, as an insidious bias against themselves.

On the June 7th edition of MSNBC's Countdown, Turley noted Bush's efforts to do away with the doctrine of habeas corpus as a key feature of American law. This is the simple requirement that if the government wants to do something terrible to you, it has to take you before a court and say why, and what in the law justifies its action. Otherwise, since the government has more guns than you do, it could simply scoop you up, throw you in a hole, and keep you there till you die. No one would have the right even to ask why you were there. This is the power George Bush wants and has attempted to exercise. And in some cases, so far, he has succeeded.

As Turley noted, habeas corpus is the ground for all other civil rights. Without it,  you have no means to protest a government action. You can't get to court to say what is unjust in the government's behavior. In truth the court wouldn't know that you existed.

Mr. Average Citizen will say, of course, that the president wouldn't do that to him. Habeas Corpus rights are taken away only from bad guys. The trouble is, the president gets to say who the bad guys are, and once he sticks a label on your head that identifies you as a bad guy, there's nothing you can do about it.

The president's stance on the issue is disgraceful, an insult to American liberties. That there has not been more protest about it is a sign of just how slack the American democracy has become.


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