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The Year We Hit Rock Bottom

December 12, 2007
by Rob Lafferty

The past twelve months have been historic on several levels, with much of it involving the loss of human rights that once were considered a fundamental part of American life. 2007 will be remembered as the year when the last crumbling pieces of a moral and ethical facade were stripped away and the true face of American government was exposed. Sadly, some of that exposure came from the government's open embrace of the use of torture on prisoners – and from a quiet acceptance by the American people that allows it to continue.

Giving torture a different name like "enhanced interrogation techniques" doesn't stop it from being cruel, inhuman treatment that violates the Law of Nations. Whether the accused is guilty or innocent doesn't really matter – after all, we don't torture suspected serial rapists or mass murderers – yet only six of the people known to have been tortured while in American custody have been found guilty of any crimes by a military tribunal. Dozens of innocent "detainees" whose interrogations were violently "enhanced" have been released without any charges filed against them, often after spending years in custody.

That's not as low as we've ever sunk in America. Our federal government allowed slavery under the law for more than eighty years; it was responsible for killing off entire tribes of native people and chose to drop a plutonium bomb on Japanese civilians in Nagasaki. The US military killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who resisted American occupation over a century ago. More recently in Southeast Asia, South America and Central America, our government sponsored terrorist groups and committed its own acts of atrocity by applying the same forms of torture still being used today.

The difference between our government's behavior in Latin America and its behavior in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay is the official sanction of torture. We no longer even pretend that we don't punish detainees cruelly; that's evident during Republican presidential debates when almost all candidates advocate the use of torture and allowing military interrogators the freedom to decide who gets tortured with "enhanced techniques" and for how long.

Elected politicians at every level are willing to debate the definition of torture and establish categories and levels of acceptable mistreatment. Very few candidates or officeholders are willing to state publicly that no prisoner should ever be subjected to physical or mental abuse.

For anyone who believes that our nation is based on Christian values, that level of hypocrisy must be stunning. It's such a blatant disregard for the teachings of any honest religion that it exposes our flawed sense of what America really stands for. If we ever truly were the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave in the eyes of the world, we certainly aren't any longer – and more Americans are beginning to see that as well.

And lest we forget, the current administration has proven that it prefers to engage in military operations overseas at the expense of public health and public education. The only significant vetoes issued by President Bush have come when Congress tried to cut the amount of taxpayer money requested for the occupation of Iraq, or when Congress tried to allocate more money for education and health care.

The Cheney/Bush bloc of neoconservatives doesn’t carry the full blame for the warping the priorities of a government system they've been trying to dismantle since the Nixon administration. As a result, since 1968, a twenty-year trend towards economic equality has been reversed and the standard of living for all but the most affluent of Americans has fallen dramatically.

This year also clarified that the absolute right of citizens to protest government policy no longer exists. The federal practice of creating a small "free speech zone" and forcing protesters to stay in that area has now filtered down to state and local levels, despite the fact that it violates our Constitutional right to peacefully assemble on any public land and give free voice to our grievances.

That loss is clearly on display in Hawai‘i where Governor Lingle will use federal employees – the Coast Guard – to enforce her declaration that a "security zone" exists in the harbors of Maui and Kaua‘i whenever the Superferry comes into port. When announcing her decision to prevent any protest from interfering with ferry operations, Lingle went far beyond the simple taking of the right to assemble; she also threatened to have state agencies investigate protesters as potential bad parents and possibly seize their children.

Hawaiians understand that using the power of the state to intimidate the public is certainly nothing new. More than a century ago, US government troops supported an overthrow of the sovereign Hawaiian government and subsequent taking of lands from the Hawaiian people.

That act, illegal under American and international laws, was committed to support business interests within the islands. In 2007 the government is still using military troops to control the movement of people on the land and restrict access to the ocean in order to support a commercial enterprise that will provide services to the US military. One hundred years later, some things haven't changed.

And just in case you're under the impression that the Hawaii Superferry has no military purpose, it's important to know that the owners have consistently denied that while speaking in the islands – but back in Washington they've been promoting their ability to quickly move troops and military vehicles from Oahu to the Big Island whenever necessary.

Here's one example. According to a 2005 article in the Pacific Business News, HSF board chair John Lehman, former Navy undersecretary and member of the neoconservative think tanks Heritage Foundation and Project for the New American Century, had this to say:

“With Lehman’s expertise, the Superferry plans to operate a Westpac Express, essentially to carry military equipment and ferry vehicles from Oahu to the Big Island on a daily basis.” Lehman is quoted saying, "This logistical plan will make it easier for soldiers to train when the Stryker Brigade comes to Hawaii. The brigade will be stationed on O‘ahu and conduct training exercises on the Big Island.”

In its application to the Public Utilities Commission, HSF also states that, “In Hawai‘i, it is anticipated that an entire battalion will be able to be transported from O‘ahu to the Big Island on four trips at lower cost.”

It also helps to know that without those military contracts the ferry has no chance of being profitable. They have a $142 million dollar investment to recover, and they need to accomplish that in the face of rising fuel costs with ships that burn five gallons of fuel to travel one nautical mile.

Those are just three of this past year's many low points, but none of them can match the absolute rock bottom that was reached in public indifference. Most citizens stood by and watched as people who took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution instead mocked it, threw it back into our faces and told us to go home and let them run things their way for our own good.

And that's exactly what most Americans have done. We are supposed to be better than that; we should have insisted that we are a free and sovereign people whose government works for us.

Instead we're now at a point where we must either abandon the ideal of an American Republic altogether or create a new version that works here in the 21st century.

It's hard to predict which direction we will choose. I'm hopeful, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, that Americans will decide to take an active ownership role in the country's business. It's happened elsewhere on the planet in some unlikely places, so a revival of citizen ownership could certainly happen here in the self-proclaimed Greatest Country On Earth.