Since birth, we Americans are told that we are exceptional, that we live in "the land of the free and the home of the brave." Yet the Bush and Obama administrations have disproved that refrain. They have revealed that largely we are cowards — such cowards that, because of a paralyzing fear over terrorism, we are allowing the executive branch in its seemingly unending quest to "protect" us to circumvent many of the rights that make America worth the protecting in the first place.
In other words, precisely because post-9/11 America is not "the home of the brave" but rather the "home of the perpetually frightened," Obama and Bush have exploited our fear to blind us to the shameful suspension of habeas corpus and the shoving of the First, Fourth, and Eighth Amendments, respectively, into a shredder. In doing so, they have been slowly but steadily turning "the land of the free" refrain into a lie as well.
The 2008 election of Barack Obama was rightly perceived as a referendum on the Bush administration, his victory interpreted as a sound rebuke to, as one blog put it:
"eight years of [escalating] warfare, a vast and growing police state, the destruction of civil liberties, disregard for the Constitution, unchecked executive power, lies and broken promises, hypocrisy and arrogance, a lack of transparency in government, out-of-control federal spending, fever-pitch fearmongering, rampant corruption, and some really stupid gaffes."
But in many ways, Obama has escalated Bush-era policies — and he has done so without provoking nearly as much outrage as Bush did.
Indeed, as Americans distract themselves with the bread and circuses of the modern era —the Casey Anthony trial, Kim Kardashian's pregnancy, the George Zimmerman trial, Anthony Weiner's sexting scandal, and so on — Obama like Bush has been quietly circumventing more and more of our cherished liberties. Let's review the damage to our Constitution, shall we?
1. The military-industrial complex is stronger than ever.
On January 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former five-star general who led Allied forces on D-Day, became so concerned about a rising threat to democratic government that he felt it necessary to warn Americans about it in a speech before leaving office. Citing the "military-industrial complex," the former military man warned of a symbiotic union between defense contractors and military hawks with the potential to propel America into war after war. It is not difficult to see why the potential consequences of power misplaced in the hands of defense companies, of entities whose only true concerns are their profit margins, terrified him. If congressmen were sufficiently influenced by corporate lobbyists who profited from war, then the U.S. might begin fighting wars not because of national interests, but instead because of corporate interests. Young Americans would be sent to die because some money-grubbing CEO on Wall Street wanted a higher profit margin.
One of the most outrageous aspects of the Bush administration was a ramping up of this military-industrial complex to levels previously unprecedented in American history. Bush's so-called "War on Terror" worried critics because of its open-ended nature; there were no specific goals, no timeline for withdrawal, and no defined enemy. Some people fruitlessly pointed out the inherent absurdity in declaring war on "terror," as "terror" like "guerilla warfare," "carpet bombing," "blitzkrieg," and "skirmishing," is a tactic, not an enemy. By declaring war on a tactic, Bush was able to point at an enemy with no name and no location, an enemy that basically exists everywhere and as such could justify a military presence anywhere. As you can imagine, defense contractors were absolutely delighted.
Because of its lack of a specific enemy, the War on Terror helped justify the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive warfare against countries like Iraq that had not yet attacked us. And because we are now told that we must remain in a state of constant military preparedness due to this perpetual and omnipresent threat of terrorism, industries that manufacture military weapons are making more money than ever before. By ceding to the pressure exerted by lobbyists who donate to presidential campaigns and buy Congress, men like Obama are sustaining and perpetuating a bloated military that is diverting much-needed funds from education, social security, health care, and elsewhere.
2. The police state is also stronger than ever.
The amorphous concept of "terror" also helped justify massive infringements on our civil liberties. Because terrorists are not found in one specific area and because they like the rest of us communicate through use of the internet and telephones, telecom companies and organizations like the NSA are now justified in the eyes of many to spy on large amounts of internet traffic and telephone calls. The Obama administration has been completely complicit in this trashing of the Fourth Amendment, which (when it works) protects against "unreasonable search and seizure."
In protecting the government's right to spy on its own citizens, even if they have done nothing more than communicate with someone outside the U.S., the Obama administration and Congress helped to retroactively shield from prosecution telecom giants like AT&T who had knowingly participated in illegal warrantless wiretapping. The Obama administration likewise refused to substantively prosecute any wrongdoing by the Bush administration; warrantless wiretaps like those launched under Bush may be illegal, but it is more important, the administration implied, to "look forward." (Of course, when the liberty of normal people rather than elites is at stake, police don't "look forward"; they look backward and collect all the evidence they can get!) One suspects that Obama didn't prosecute Bush officials for the crime of warrantless wiretapping because he wanted to continue these programs himself, two of which — PRISM and XKeyscore — were recently leaked by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
Instead of prosecuting elites for crimes such as illegal wiretapping, the Obama administration has chosen instead to charge more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all other presidents combined. In the face of the conviction of PFC Bradley Manning and the espionage charges against Snowden, Glenn Greenwald wrote, "The irony is obvious. The same people who are building a ubiquitous surveillance system to spy on everyone in the world, including their own citizens, are now accusing the person who exposed it of 'espionage.'"
This sure as hell doesn't sound like the change I voted for; it's definitely not "change we can believe in." Where's the outrage?
3. Habeas Corpus has been tossed into the trash bin.
As the Daily Beast put it:
"Upon taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama pledged to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay within the year. We all know how that turned out. Now, a decade into the sad experiment that is Guantánamo, we discover that the United States--supposedly a nation of laws--isn't simply holding prisoners year after year without charge, but is rejecting their habeas corpus petitions almost out of hand."
What the Daily Beast was referring to is the established practice of the courts to throw out habeas corpus petitions almost by default, without so much as a glance. Doesn't something seem wrong with that picture?
Think about it: Holding people without properly respecting habeas corpus virtually ensures that there are innocent people in Guantánamo today. Perhaps some of them have languished in the prison for years. That our government is holding people for decades on faulty evidence, on evidence that is so flimsy or nonexistent as to not even support a charge, is absolutely disgusting. It goes against everything we are supposed to represent, and gives precariously hot fuel to those who would work to discredit us. Guantánamo is the best recruiting tool terrorists possess — and we created it!
4. Obama is killing more people in drone strikes than Bush ever did.
Many of the casualties are innocents, too. As a source for the Guardian said, "For every 10 to 15 people killed, maybe they get one militant." So even though one American official likened drone strikes to "mowing the lawn," this is misguided. Every civilian killed serves as fodder to radicalize yet more young Muslims. Drone strikes may be killing some terrorists, but they are creating many more in their wake.
Alas, in the face of the above, Obama's slogans — "change we can believe in" and so on —sound like empty promises. His lofty rhetoric and certainly his Nobel Peace Prize are insults to educated people everywhere.
I am a Democrat, and proud of it, but to me, being a Democrat does not mean supporting leaders because they are supposed Democrats. It means supporting ideas, and when leaders stop living up to the ideas they purport to represent, when indeed they do the exact opposite of what their rhetoric (and the rhetoric of the party just a few years ago) promised, voters should take note. My party spoke out when Bush did the very same things Obama is doing now; we should speak out today as well.
I know of course that many will continue to support the trading of our liberty for security. But in doing so they should remember this: Liberty, like other goods, is much easier kept than recovered.
This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.