Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Elegy (and Call to Arms) for the United States Constitution, 9/28/06

I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.
—Thomas Jefferson, 1785, on slavery.

Against all logic, common sense, basic understanding of the United States Government, and morality, the Detainee/Military Trial Bill has passed.

The wounds inflicted upon America on 9/11/01 were deep and real; none of us alive and cognizant at that time will ever forget them. But those grave events were inflicted by a foreign enemy, Al-Qaeda. In tragic, horrific contrast, the wounds inflicted upon America and the United States Constitution today, 9/28/06, are self-inflicted. It's as if a mugging victim, shaken by his experience, decided the best way to prevent future harm to himself was to slit his own wrists.

The best way to avoid being prosecuted for war crimes is - don't commit war crimes.

Sadly, it seems this option has not been considered by the Bush administration and the Republican party, as evidenced by their move to legalize torture, eliminate habeas corpus, and undermine the 4th Amendment through warrantless surveillance. We can catch any bad guys without these measures, and these measures harm the very cause they claim to further. Violence, crime and terrorism are solved through a greater commitment to justice, not through violence towards the Geneva Conventions, the United States Constitution and core American values. The Nuremberg trials confronted true evil by upholding rather than undermining the rule of law and principles of basic human decency. There's a reason why so many military personnel, intelligence officials, and JAGs oppose Bush's measures. America should not torture, nor attempt to strip anyone of essential civil rights.

The best way to fight evil is with good.

As Glenn Greenwald observes, “it is not hyperbole to say that this is one of the most tyrannical and dangerous bills to be enacted in our nation’s history.” As Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said, “Why would we allow the terrorists to win by doing to ourselves what they could never do, and abandon the principles for which so many Americans today and through our history have fought and sacrificed?” As the line from Henry V goes, “Shame and eternal shame, nothing but shame!”

Lincoln must be rolling over in his grave. What is wrong with the Republican party? I cannot pretend to the moral authority or compassion to say, “forgive them, for they know what they do.” I am not inclined to forgive them. And I suspect they do know what they do. Cassandra’s curse was to know the future, and shout it out, but never to be believed. The difference here is that Cassandra, here played by liberals and all those conservatives and moderates who revere justice and the rule of law, have been heard, but still dismissed by those in power. It is not that those in power do not hear (and they may even believe); they just do not care. As the passage by Pastor Martin Niemöller goes:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

The GOP either assumes no one will ever come for them — or fears it so much they are acting to prevent any legal repercussions for when it finally happens. I tend to think they simply cannot imagine the possibility that innocents will be arrested and harmed and soldiers endangered by their measures. Nor can they imagine not being in a position of power and privilege. Civil rights are a concern for the little people, not those sitting in the first-class seats.

To the GOP:

Are you so fearful of terrorists that you will betray the very same essential values that spurred the creation of America in the first place?

Are you so incompetent you cannot convict a real terrorist in a fair trial?

Are you so lazy you cannot get a warrant to pursue our enemies?

Are you so ignorant that you would needlessly throw out the United States Constitution?

Are you so selfish that the safety and well-being of American soldiers is less important to you than your own re-election and your party keeping power?

Are you so proud of your performance to date waging the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in investigating war profiteering, in general congressional oversight, in Katrina (and Iraq) reconstruction, in fiscal management and demonstrating unimpeachable ethical standards, that the Democrats cannot be trusted to continue your holy mission?

Are you so unpatriotic as to betray everything that has made America great?

America has been a great nation, despite its faults. Among its greatest shames are slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, the Japanese Internment Act, and the prolonged delay of civil rights for all Americans. But America has always been about pursuing the ideal, about evolving and progressing, about self-correcting. At its heart, at its best, it is a progressive nation. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke out against the injustice of his era, he spoke not of a new, radical revolution, but of America honoring its own ideals.

Our national honor has been horribly stained — in the name of our nation. It is time for all men and women of conscience to rescue America from the same false patriots who shriek so loudly that that the only way to protect America is to strip us all of our essential freedoms.

I’m reminded of two stirring, quintessentially American pieces. One is an elegy. The other serves as a call to arms.

The Elegy: Walt Whitman wrote “O Captain, my Captain” after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865:

O Captain! My Captain!

I. O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring.
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red!
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

II. O captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up! For you the flag is flung, for you the bugle trills:
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths, for you the shores a-crowding:
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning.
O Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

III. My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won!
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

The Call to Arms: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the following famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28th, 1963:

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

No comments: