Plus ça ne change pas …

There are times that I’m so thankful that I don’t live in the United States anymore that I could run whooping up the street, dancing in the snowdrifts and wearing nothing but a modestly draped Canadian flag.

Do you remember January 20, 2009? Do you remember the transported looks on the faces of many in the Inaugural Day crowd when Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States?

Almost three years later, many of those same people wear much less hopeful, much less satisfied expressions.

All of the promise, all of the longing for a meaningful change of direction for the United States, at home and abroad, for something better than the horrible years of George W. Bush – it’s gone.

What’s left is an unsatisfying determination to re-elect the most disappointing president in memory not because of anything he is or has done, but merely to prevent the election of someone even worse.

“Not Quite as Bad as the Other Guy!”

That’s not much of a campaign slogan, but it better work, because it’s just about all Obama has going for him these days.

The enduring cause of my whining rant is the continuing failure of Obama to be any kind of agent of change, but the immediate impetus is last week’s signing of the 2012 National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA),  a bill which contains an “indefinite detention” provision that’s as evil an attack on the “due process” sections of the U. S. Constitution as you could imagine coming from the government of a supposedly “free society.”

President Obama’s announcement that he will sign the bill, and its affirmation of the President’s powers to suspend due process for a vaguely-defined group of “terrorists” and their “supporters” was characterized by the New York Times as “a complete political cave-in, one that reinforces the impression of a fumbling presidency.” The Times editorial focuses on the indefinite detention provisions, but it goes on to say that “the bill has so many other objectionable aspects that we can’t go into them all.”

The last time that so broad an attack on civil liberties and individual freedoms was encoded in legislation was 1950, when early Cold War hysteria pushed Congress to adopt the Internal Security Act.

In fact, the timing is one of the less defensible parts of the legislation. In 1950, there was a new and frightening arms race starting between the United States and the then Soviet Union. Now, ten years and counting after 9/11, a Democratic president signs an anti-terror bill that gives him unprecedented powers?

That the bill’s contents are indeed extreme can be seen by an examination of the key sections of the “unlimited detention” provisions. A very thorough and easily understood deconstruction of the bill is available on the Salon website. The Salon article, by Glenn Greenwald, is the primary source for the details in this piece.

In the simplest terms, the indefinite detention provisions of the NDAA place into law for Obama — or Romney, or Gingrich, or Sarah Palin in your worst nightmare — the legal claim of Bush II that a state of war exists between “terror” and the United States, and that the President of the United States, as Commander in Chief, has not just the power but the responsibility to hold accused “enemy” combatants and their supporters in military prisons until the “war” ends.

This extraordinary executive power was part of the post-9/11 response that led to the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, sanctioned torture, and even the killer drone assassination of (an) American citizen(s) on foreign soil.

Most of the items on this list were the work of the Bush II administration, and during his election campaign Obama vowed to end the outrages. But it was President Obama who ordered the assassination of an overseas American citizen — talk about your lack of due process! — and who has not closed Guantanamo after three years, despite his pledge to do so in one.

Well, “but what of that? Your majesty and we that have free souls, it touches us not.”

Perhaps. Let’s look at just one of the key passages of the NDAA. (For a detailed analysis of what all of the provisions actually say, despite the claims of its supporters, read Greenwald’s Salon article.)

Section (1) was part of the initial legislative response to 9/11, but Section (2) is new. As Greenwald points out, words like “substantially supported” and “associated forces” are undefined. What do they mean? How might they be applied?

Let’s say that Person A has been detained under this provision. Since other provisions deny the accused a trial, or access to counsel, or even knowledge of the charges against her, she can simply be shut up in a cell until the hostilities are over. When are they over? When the same people who locked her up declare them to be over.

So much for “The Land of the Free.”

But again, surely only real terrorists need worry? Let’s try one more admittedly absurd scenario, rather spectacularly unlikely but, crucially, not illegal under the provisions of the NDAA.

Just a few days ago, speaking on FOX News, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney said of President Obama’s decision to accelerate the Afghanistan troop withdrawal schedule: “I think the President has gone from being a failed presidency, a guy over his head, to someone who is now sort of desperate to get reelection, that he’s doing things that are very much counter to the interests of the country and he knows it.”

Move forward to January 21, 2013. President Mitt Romney arrests and indefinitely detains his predecessor for having “substantially supported” the Taliban by bringing American soldiers home a few weeks earlier than the generals had advised. So long, it was good to know you. Maybe we’ll see you again some day.

Ridiculous? Of course, but the not at all ridiculous point is that the NDAA makes just such a ridiculous scenario not only possible but entirely legal.

That dry chuckle you  may be hearing is the spectral laughter of Tail Gunner Joe and J. Edgar.

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