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The Very Definition of Tyranny


I am not sure how many luminaries of the American political establishment have called upon the Senate’s Minority Whip, Richard Durbin, to apologize, to face the full wrath and fury of the Senate, or even to resign his office, effective immediately, since the otherwise undistinguished Senator from the State of Illinois took to the floor of the Senate’s chamber last Tuesday, and chastised the regime in the White House for a good many of its wrongs—not the least of which has been its supra-constitutional assumption of “all the power” on questions of war and peace and the ludicrously labeled Global War on Terror: “legislator, executive, and judge,” in Durbin’s exact phrase, echoing the absolute powers the current Attorney General once told his client in the Oval Office the Imperial Presidency had every right to assume, the “war against terrorism” being a “new kind of war,” rendering “obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners,” and all of that.


Quoting James Madison’s Federalist No. 47, Durbin continued: (S6594, col. 1):

The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands may justly be pronounced the very definition of a tyranny.

(Actually, Madison’s 1788 original was better turned. “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands,” Publius wrote, “whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” The point being: The Imperial Presidency headquartered in Washington today is self-appointed.)

From the first, news coverage of Durbin’s June 14 remarks gravely misrepresented them. As did his colleagues in the Senate and the House. Including his Democratic colleagues, please note well. As did various spokespeople at the White House and Pentagon—Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan’s performance in this respect having been stellar. As did just about everyone else that I’ve been able to find: The Illinois Republican Party, the Christian Coalition, the Anti-Defamation League, Fox News, the Weekly Standard, Rush Limbaugh (“Al Jazeera loves you, Senator Durbin, probably more than the people that voted for you in Illinois could ever love you”), the editorial voice of the Chicago Tribune, and more commentators that I can mention. “Dick Durbin has slandered the American military,” the lunatic John Podhoretz inveighed at the New York Post (June 17). “He has slandered his country. He has defiled truth and he has spat on reason. He has given aid and comfort to all those who seek to use America’s tough stance in the War on Terror as a recruiting tool for anti-Americanism.” To the best of my knowledge, neither Michael Kinsley nor Fred Kaplan have gotten around to Durbingate. Yet. (Thank god.)

Rather than deal with all, or even a substantial part, of Durbin’s approximately 5,125-word-long series of remarks, at most, a single paragraph toward the tail-end of those remarks was seized upon (i.e., it occurs some 4,575 words into Durbin’s Senate statement), and used like a club against the Senator:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime–Pol Pot or others–that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners

And within this single paragraph, roughly a 12-14 word phrase:

by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime–Pol Pot or others–

Now. The Senator, we are lectured, compared or likened or equated U.S. practices at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray with the “behavior of the evil regimes of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia”—here quoting the formula settled on by the former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in his open letter to the Senate, calling on its members to stage a vote to censure Durbin. The upshot of this political strategy being: If the 55 Senate Republicans manage to squeeze a vote out of the 44 Senate Democrats and sole Independent (Jeffords of Vermont) in favor of, or opposed to, censuring Durbin, a record of how everyone voted will be made, and those Senators who vote against censure will forever after be compelled to explain why they cast votes against the honor and the dignity of the United States of America, its brave men and women serving their country in the Armed Forces, and civilized peoples everywhere. (Here paraphrasing the utterly cynical rhetoric to be found in Gingrich’s open letter.)

In his open letter to the Senate, Gingrich concludes:

A Senate censure of Senator Durbin is justified and would reaffirm a standard for healthy, rational debate. By voting for or against the censure, the rest of the members of the U.S. Senate can go on record and make clear how they judge Senator Durbin’s characterization of American soldiers. It will also send a clear message to terrorists who will use the words of a Senate leader against us that the Senate stands in support of America and our military and against those who seek to destroy the free people of the United States.

There is historic precedent for censuring Senators whose words bring dishonor and disrepute on the Senate and impair its dignity; Senator Durbin’s words fit that precedent.

In this case, expressing outrage is not enough. It is time for the Senate to act. Senator Durbin must be censured now.

That Gingrich’s ploy—the call for censure in all likelihood welcomed by the majority of his Republican colleagues in the Senate—and one clearly welcomed by the defenders of the Imperial Presidency—must be strenously opposed goes without saying. We do not need to be prisoners to grotesque illusions about the Founding Fathers to smell, in the call to censure the Senator from Illinois, yet another plot on behalf of the Imperial Presidency, and the silencing of dissent. Still. Is it not obvious that an American can be a tyrant—and, in turn, the United States of America a tyranny to the world? “Great power connected with ambition, luxury, and flattery, will as readily produce a Caesar, Caligula, Nero, and Domitian in America, as the same causes did in the Roman empire,” in the words of one rightly celebrated Anti-Federalist. What we are witnessing today puts the lot of them to shame.

Senator Richard Durbin, Speaking on Senate Floor, Congressional Record, June 14, 2005, pp. 6591-6595

S6591 (beginning with col. 3)
S6592
S6593
S6594 (see esp. col. 3)
S6595

“Reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act,” Oversight Hearing, Committee of the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives, June 10, 2005
Detainees,” Hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, June 15, 2005

Durbin Statement on Guantanamo,” Press Release, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, June 15, 2005
Durbin Statement on Previous Comments Regarding Guantanamo Bay,” Press Release, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, June 17, 2005
Durbin Apologizes on Senate Floor for Guantanamo Bay Analogies,” Press Release, U.S. Senator Richard Durbin, June 21, 2005

Letter V, Cato, The Anti-Federalist Papers, November 22, 1787
The Particular Structure of the New Government and the Distribution of Power Among Its Different Parts,” The Federalist Papers: No. 47, “Publius” (James Madison), February 1, 1788

Decision Re Application of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War to the Conflict with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Alberto R. Gonzales, January 25, 2002 (a.k.a. the Gonzales Memo)

Press Breifing By Scott McClellan,” White House Office of the Press Secretary, June 16, 2005
Radio Interview of the Vice President by Steve Gill, The Steve Gill Show,” White House Office of the Press Secretary, June 17, 2005
Chairman’s Update,” Illinois Republican Party, June 17, 2005

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich Calls on U.S. Senate To Censure Senator Richard Durbin,” Press Release, Office of Newt Gingrich, June 18, 2005

Censure, U.S. Senate Virtual Reference Desk

U.S. Senator Stands by Nazi Remark,” Al Jazeera, June 16, 2005
Battle of Guantanamo,” Tom Brune, Newsday, June 16, 2005
‘Nazi’ comment disgraceful,” Editorial, Boston Herald, June 17, 2005
Senator Clinton Calls for Creation of Gitmo Commission,” Douglas Turner, Buffalo News, June 17, 2005
We Are Our History — Don’t Forget It,” David Gelernter, Los Angeles Times, June 17, 2005
Apology Demanded For Remark on U.S.,” New York Times, June 17, 2005
Durbin Defends Guantanamo Comments,” Dan Balz, Washington Post, June 17, 2005
The Lowdown on Guantanamo: Obscene Claims, Real Concerns,” Editorial, Rocky Mountain News, June 18, 2005
Amnesty attacks move to expand Guantanamo prison,” Demetri Sevastopulo, Financial Times, June 18, 2005
Durbin stays on attack over prisoners,” Deidre Shesgreen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 19, 2005
Frist Insists on Apology For Durbin’s Remarks,” Washington Post, June 19, 2005
Durbin’s Gitmo remarks draw fire back in Illinois,” Donald Lambro, Washington Times, June 19, 2005
Clinton slams Guantanamo,” Lionel Barber and Paul Taylor, Financial Times, June 20, 2005
Sen. Durbin’s Regret for Remarks Not Enough for GOP,” Janet Hook, Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2005
“Gitmo Grandstanding: Democrats Fulminate over Guantanamo Prisoners, But They Are Treated Well,” Jack Kelly, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 20, 2005
Inside the Beltway,” John McCaslin, Washington Times, June 20, 2005
Atrocious analogy,” Mark Steyn, Washington Times, June 20, 2005
GOP Leaders Pound Durbin,” Mark Preston, Roll Call, June 21, 2005 [$$$$$]
In Failing to Denounce Durbin, Democrats Put Politics First,” David Winston, Roll Call, June 21, 2005 [$$$$$]
GOP Congressman Calls Democrats Anti-Christian,” Mike Allen, Washington Post, June 21, 2005
Piling On Dick Durbin,” Richard Cohen, Washington Post, June 21, 2005
Frist tells Durbin to apologize on Senate floor,” James G. Lakely and Stephen Dinan, Washington Times, June 21, 2005
Dustbin Durbin,” Frank J. Gaffney Jr., Washington Times, June 21, 2005

…interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur’an down a toilet…, ZNet, May 19, 2005
…must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime…, ZNet, June 19, 2005

Postscript (June 21): For two of the worst commentaries yet to have appeared on the so-called Downing Street Memos:

No Smoking Gun,” Michael Kinsley, Washington Post, June 12, 2005
Let’s Go to the Memo: What’s really in the Downing Street memos?” Fred Kaplan, Slate, June 15, 2005

Perhaps you will recall a similar hatchet job that Slate‘s Fred Kaplan performed last fall on the study comparing Iraqi mortality rates, pre- an post-invasion, released by The Lancet on October 29, 2004 (“Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey,” Les Roberts et al)?

In that exercise (“100,00 Dead—Or 8,000,” Oct. 29), Kaplan dismissed The Lancet study’s “estimate [that] there were 98,000 extra deaths (95% CI 8000-194 000) during the post-war period,” pretending that the study’s authors had claimed only that they were “95 percent confident that the war-caused deaths totaled some number between 8,000 and 194,000,” and that the “number cited in plain language—98,000” represented nothing more significant within the totality of the data than the “halfway point in this absurdly vast range,” making their estimate no better than a “dart board.”

In other words, Kaplan pretended that The Lancet study itself had asserted an equally high degree of probability for the estimate of 8,000 as it had for the estimate of 194,000 or for the estimate of 98,000, ultimately making the study’s findings worthless—a sheer misrepresentation of the study itself claimed.

As Kaplan himself went on to conclude about the likely number of Iraqi deaths caused by the American war and occupation:

let’s call it 15,000 or—allowing for deaths that the press didn’t report—20,000 or 25,000, maybe 30,000 Iraqi civilians killed in a pre-emptive war waged (according to the latest rationale) on their behalf. That’s a number more solidly rooted in reality than the Hopkins figure—and, given that fact, no less shocking.

In shrugging-off the importance of the “Downing Street Memos” today, Fred Kaplan and Michael Kinsley are employing the exact same kind of strategy as Kaplan employed in shrugging-off The Lancet study last fall.

Gee. If only we all could be as sophisticated as Fred Kaplan and Michael Kinsley.

Postscript (November 29): For more on this creeping—and sometimes galloping—American Tyranny, see:

Pentagon Expanding Its Domestic Surveillance Activity,” Walter Pincus, Washington Post, November 27, 2005

To lift one little passage from this important report, Big Government statists within the U.S. establishment want the government to be big enough and powerful enough to use “leading edge information technologies and data harvesting,” which involves “exploiting commercial data” harvested with the help of Corporate America, to spy on you and to spy on me in the hope of catching somebody in the commission of, or in preparation for, allegedly treasonous acts—where what is treasonous ought to be understood in the same open-ended sense as, say, the “War on Terror,” with its “unlawful enemy combatants,” and its permanent detentions without the constitutional protections of habeas corpus-type rights, on the grounds that the American President has declared that the United States is engaged in a new kind of war, that Soandso is an unlawful enemy combatant in this new war, and therefore that neither constitutional nor international protections apply. Period.

For two other analyses of the American Tyranny, see:

In Terror Cases, Administration Sets Own Rules,” Adam Liptak, New York Times, November 27, 2005
Bush Game on Padilla May Backfire,” Marjorie Cohn, Truthout, November 28, 2005

As Adam Liptak reported:

“The term ‘enemy combatant,’ ” according to a Defense Department order last year, includes anyone “part of or supporting Taliban or Al Qaeda forces or associated forces.”
In a hearing in December in a case brought by detainees imprisoned in the naval facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a judge questioned a Justice Department official about the limits of that definition. The official, Brian D. Boyle, said the hostilities in question were global and might continue for generations.
The judge, Joyce Hens Green of the Federal District Court in Washington, asked a series of hypothetical questions about who might be detained as an enemy combatant under the government’s definition.
What about “a little old lady in Switzerland who writes checks to what she thinks is a charitable organization that helps orphans in Afghanistan but really is a front to finance Al Qaeda activities?” she asked.
And what about a resident of Dublin “who teaches English to the son of a person the C.I.A. knows to be a member of Al Qaeda?”
And “what about a Wall Street Journal reporter, working in Afghanistan, who knows the exact location of Osama bin Laden but does not reveal it to the United States government in order to protect her source?”
Mr. Boyle said the military had the power to detain all three people as enemy combatants.

Always remember the scare tactics that accompany repressive campaigns: The combined notions that the hostilities are global, and that the hostilities will last for generations.

Therefore we need to grant the Tyrant the limitless powers he demands over us in order to protect us from harm.

The Tyrant in Chief,” ZNet, May 25, 2005
…must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime…, ZNet, June 19, 2005
The Very Definition of Tyranny,” ZNet, June 20, 2005
Super Predator,” ZNet, October 7, 2005

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