Editorial: Keeping the Home Lights Burning By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday December 20, 2005

On Monday morning I made a mistake that I don’t often make. I listened to the radio broadcast of a press conference held by and for the current president of the United States. It was a profoundly depressing experience. Not only is the man a dolt, he’s a vicious, systematic dolt. 

He’s been chatting up the public for the last few days now, with a series of talks which seem to be aimed at counteracting the precipitous drop in his ratings in the polls. His plan for Iraq can be summed up in a word: “victory.” What would victory in Iraq mean? A stable democratic government seems to be what he’s dreaming about. Well, that’s something they’ve never had in that part of the world, and there’s no reason to think they’re going to start now or in the near future. If he’s really serious in thinking that U.S. troops will have to stay in the Middle East until Iraq becomes a settled constitutional democracy, it’s going to be a long winter, or a series of long winters.  

And in the meantime, the executive branch of the federal government at home thinks that it has carte blanche to ignore the many laws which were enacted to protect the civil liberties of American citizens. Let’s just trace the tortured logical chain one more time. The attacks on key U.S. targets in 2001 by 20 or so militants in the U.S. who had links to Osama bin Laden, a Saudi hiding out somewhere in Afghanistan, meant that the Bush administration was authorized to (1) take over the government of Afghanistan; (2) immediately violate the 1978 law which forbids eavesdropping on U.S. telephone conversations in the name of security without search warrants authorized by a court; (3) invade Iraq, using as cover a number of fabricated intelligence reports claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons he didn’t have, and that he was a co-conspirator with Osama, for which there was no proof.  

And now, he’s claiming that the U.S. invasion of Iraq provides on-going justification for a whole series of assaults by the federal government on what we might call, in jest, the American Way of Life. Such assaults range from violating international law and treaties by torturing prisoners, to the aforementioned eavesdropping on phone calls, all the way down to harassing library patrons about the books they check out. (A correspondent forwarded a story from a small Massachusetts paper about a student who requested Mao’s Little Red Book through interlibrary loan for a paper he was writing and was visited at home by the Department of Homeland Security inquiring why he wanted it.)  

In the next two or three days, the Senate will be deciding whether or not to re-authorize the so-called Patriot Act (called by cynics the Scoundrel Act, remembering Dr. Johnson’s quip that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels). Sensible people are trying everything they can think of to communicate their dislike for the Scoundrel Act to the swing voters in the Senate, a few weak-as-water Democrats like Joe Lieberman, who lag behind their own party in standing up to Bush, and some courageous Republicans like John McCain. The Daily Planet receives many little letters on such topics from well-meaning writers, some of them local people we know. These sound bites seem to emanate from some central Internet source, since they all have the same sentence at the end in square brackets authorizing publication. We don’t print them—we’re not a sound bite kind of paper, though there are plenty of papers which do insist on letters under 200 words. It’s not clear what good campaigns like this do, when we’re dealing with a president who boasts that he seldom reads more than one paper, and then only the headlines.  

But then, it’s not clear what good anything will do any more. Demonstrations? Been there, done that, no one’s watching. Tax refusal? This administration is scarcely bothering to collect taxes, just running up a huge tab for our children and grandchildren to pay off. Electoral politics? Is anyone running against Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary? Lowell Wiecker, a one-time Republican, is offering to run as an anti-war independent, but do independents ever win? And how many swing seats are there in Congress any more? Court challenges? To an administration which increasingly boasts that it’s outside the law? Here we’ve had a few small successes (charges dropped against Padilla, Supremes to take up Texas re-districting) but as the Bush administration tightens its control over the legal system these will become less effective.  

For the first time in my life I’m beginning to have some sympathy for the “good Germans” who watched helplessly as Hitler took over. I’ve always imagined what heroic deeds I would have performed if I’d been in their place. But before the opportunity for heroism comes up, there are hundreds of individual acts by an incipient Fascist regime which conspire to destroy a democratic system of government, the classic “death by a thousand cuts.” Where does resistance start, and where will it end? Shall we find out where torture apologist Professor John Yoo lives and throw tomatoes at his house? If we fight them in the libraries, can we avoid having to fight them at the barricades?  

It’s close to the winter solstice, and such dark and depressive thoughts could perhaps be attributed to Seasonal Affective Disorder. The best strategy might well be to eat, drink and be as merry as possible under the circumstances for the next couple of weeks, with the expectation that as the days get longer we’ll think of something. We do have before us at this time of the year as inspiration for perseverance the edifying story of the Hanukkah light kept burning against all odds. So keep those cards and letters coming, folks, and keep the lights on, and maybe 2006 will be the turnaround year. I certainly hope so.