Political Culture: When Did Americans Become Such Pussies?

I must admit, I had thought the days were over when Republicans could scare the bejeezus out of the citizenry (and force acquiescence from lily-livered Democrats) with bullshit tricks like “threat levels” and smoking gun/mushroom cloud demagoguery. But this week a USA Today/Gallup poll found that Americans now oppose closing the Guantanamo Bay prison by a 2-to-1 margin, and that even more Americans are afraid of Gitmo detainees being moved into prisons in their own states.

This spike in public pants-wetting comes in the wake of the recent 90-6 vote in the Senate forbidding President Obama from spending federal money to close Gitmo until he presents an acceptable plan for relocating the 240 detainees still held there. Democrats, cowed by GOP taunts and ever-fearful of the dreaded 30-second ad painting them as weak on national security, voted for the amendment in droves. And their feckless leader, Harry Reid, went so far as to pronounce that Democrats, like Republicans, would never agree to move the detainees into prisons onto American soil.

Even Obama has begun to backslide from the fortitude he displayed during the campaign, when he demanded that the detention regime (like other unconstitutional elements of Bush’s “war on terror”) be brought under the rule of law. Now Obama suggests that, despite the military’s inability to try and convict these detainees – either because the cases were flimsy to begin with, or because even military judges won’t convict a suspect based on evidence obtained via torture – our inhumane treatment has turned them into such monsters that we can’t afford to release them. After all, if we did they might become involved in the types of terrorist activity we can’t pin on them now! So we’re just going to continue holding them, without trial, until such time as … I don’t have a conclusion to that sentence, and apparently neither does the president. He’s also suggested that he’s willing to perpetuate the Bush Administration’s military commissions, continuing their perfect record: They’ve never secured a major conviction, nor have they once withstood a court challenge.

Simply put, Americans (and their elected representatives) have allowed their balls to retract so far into their pelvises that what was once convex is now concave. Eight years of the Bush Administration’s relentless fear-mongering has succeeded in turning us into a nation of pussies.

The last couple nights, NBC has offered viewers an “unprecedented,” Brian Williams-hosted look inside the Obama White House, from the West Wing to the East and even up into the residence. Perhaps Obama sees the telecast as part of the process of restoring Americans’ perception of “access” to their government, following the secrecy of the Bush years. But if the president really wants to perform a public service, perhaps he should take Brian on a tour of one of these “supermax” prisons – like the one in Hardin, Montana, where the mayor is so desperate to revive the town’s economy (and fill his newly built, nearly empty facility) that he’s offered to lock up a hundred or so Gitmo prisoners there.

What, exactly, is the argument against putting a terrorist in a supermax pokey? That he’ll intermingle with the general prison population, turning two-bit drug offenders (who aren’t housed at supermax facilities anyway) into Osama-beard-wearing, monkey bar-scaling, “Death to America”-chanting al Qaeda members? That he’ll somehow manage to break out of the impenetrable fortifications, Rambo style, armed with an AK-47 and with a nuke strapped to his torso?

Get some stones, people! There is no logical public-safety argument against relocating these detainees onto U.S. soil. That spectacular train wreck that freed Harrison Ford in The Fugitive? That was a movie! All the Raquel Welch posters in all the world aren’t going to hide a hole big enough for a terrorist to crawl through to escape a supermax prison! And as for influencing other prisoners … ever heard of solitary confinement?

No, the real reason Republicans have talked us into fearing a Gitmo shutdown is because they’re afraid that bringing suspected terrorists into our prisons will make it impossible to avoid exposing them to the American criminal justice system. After all, you know what that might mean! These “worst of the worsts” might get access to actual lawyers, and might get to actually hear (and have a chance to refute) the evidence against them! Horrors! Even worse, a real trial might publicly expose the entire lunatic enterprise of rounding up ne’er-do-wells off the “battlefields” of Afghanistan (frequently based on nothing more than the accusations of bounty seekers); exporting them to Egypt, or Eastern Europe, or God knows where for purposes of torture; and finally locking them up at an offshore naval base and throwing away the key.

It’s all an extension of a general right-wing hatred for the American system of jurisprudence, and for the civil liberties recognized by the Constitution. This irrational, inbred anti-Americanism can be traced back at least to Richard Nixon’s “law and order” buffoonery, and probably beyond that to conservatives’ negative reactions to Warren Court rulings favoring equal protection and the rights of the accused at the expense of the existing power structure. But it reached new heights under Bush and Cheney, as they advanced the notions that treating terrorists as criminals rather than “enemies” reflected “a pre-9/11 mentality,” and that opposing torture or indefinite detention meant that you “would rather read a terrorist his Miranda rights than keep the American people safe.”

The trouble with that last argument is that there’s plenty of evidence that national security and constitutional rights aren’t mutually exclusive – that, in fact, it is precisely when the United States lives up to its ideals, and lives by its own rules, that the American people are most safe. The greatest blemishes on America’s record in world affairs – the Japanese internment camps, the CIA’s Cold War-era assassination plots, the My Lai atrocities, Iran-Contra – are not military defeats, but rather incidents in which America forsook its commitment to human rights and its moral authority in favor of security concerns that were illusory at best, criminal at worst. Since 2001, such incidents have become executive-branch policy; the Bush Administration abandoned the Constitution in a panic, cost us our privileged position in world affairs – and made us more susceptible to attack by increasing the number and intensity of people around the world who would do us harm.

In recent weeks Cheney, Condi Rice and other Bushies have taken up the “panic” defense as loudly as they have the “torture works” argument, attributing their pursuit of “enhanced interrogation” options to their mortal fear of another terrorist attack (and of being blamed by the public for such an attack) in the months following 9/11. At least they’re finally being honest about the extent to which they shat their pants in 2001 and ’02; unfortunately for them, the “you would have done it, too, if you were in our shoes” defense usually doesn’t hold up in a war-crimes trial – even if their continued fear-mongering does seem to be working in turning the public against the Gitmo closure.

Assuming that no more torture is going on there, it’s true that closing Gitmo is mostly a symbolic gesture. But it’s a necessary one, just as it was last year when even Bush gave lip service to the idea. Gitmo is our gulag; its usefulness to our nation is, and forever will be, far outweighed by its value to terrorists who want to recruit more terrorists. The detainees currently there should be brought into American prisons, and into the same justice system that deals with every other sort of murderer and criminal conspirator. And if the evidence isn’t there to convict them, they should be released – not in the U.S., but in the countries they came from.

The right wing (and, thanks to its demagoguery, a majority of the public) may no longer think so, but the American system of justice is the envy of the world – and it’s certainly sturdy enough to sort through the dregs of Guantanamo Bay. If doing the right thing by our Constitution results in some number of terrorists being “returned to the battlefield” (wherever that is), as Gitmo defenders put it, then so be it. If Obama’s people can restore a measure of competence to our intelligence gathering, and if the military can continue its recent successes in decimating al Qaeda, I like our chances of keeping Americans safe a lot better in a post-Gitmo world.

Republicans have long accused Democrats as being soft on crime, soft on defense, and/or soft on terror. Yet their idea of being (I suppose) “hard” on these threats seems to require behavior that betrays the most important aspects of the American character. I’ve always thought that exactly the opposite of their accusation is true – and that, as Benjamin Franklin said, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Which begs the question: If you don’t think America is capable of defending both its people and its constitutionally enshrined liberties, why are you such a pussy?