Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Scott Horton: The Struggle to See What Is Right in Front of Your Nose

There are times in the last six years when I've felt like I was trapped in one of those science fiction movies from the fifties. A focal character has discovered a group of ruthless aliens out to destroy the world, disguised as human beings and accepted in the fold of the community. He could go denounce them in a wild-eyed way to his friends and neighbors - but who would ever believe him? I got an early, very deep look into the heart of the Bush Administration. I was shocked at what I saw and at first didn't trust my own eyes and ears. That disinclination to believe what we directly observe is almost always a mistake, sometimes a serious mistake. And yet for years it's been a steep uphill struggle to get the American public to see and understand what is in front of them, and the danger it presents to our nation and the world. The Bush team are not strange monsters from outer space; in fact they are human. All too human. Their failings are the sort that commonly mark the weak-minded man who comes to wield great power without oversight and accountability. Today Alberto Gonzales reiterates his claim that "mistakes were made" - though supposedly not by him - and George Bush stands behind his long-time personal counselor, saying that he approved the sacking of the eight US attorneys, and there was nothing the matter with that decision. These excuses are flatly dishonest, and the suggestion that their actions were consistent with established practice of other governments is pernicious. What is at stake here? The issue is enormous. It is whether the criminal justice system will be turned into a partisan political tool. Bush's Administration is already widely called a "hackocracy" because of his tendency to fill slots with unqualified and incompetent partisan hacks. But the crisis at DOJ goes far beyond that. Even civil service positions - which have been protected from this sort of partisan corruption since the Hatch Act of 1939 - are being politicized. The Boston Globe, for instance, has closely documented the process of weeding out qualified career attorneys from the Civil Rights Division at DOJ and their replacement with political retainers - and the same process has continued throughout the Department. But at the heart of the DOJ scandal lies political intrusion into the exercise of prosecutorial discretion - one of the areas which a democratic society most needs to shield from partisan intrusion. There is now clear evidence that Gonzales and Bush directed political prosecutions and attempted to deflect prosecutions of Republicans for political purposes. A state that criminalizes political adversaries and that cloaks the criminal conduct of its retainers is by definition a tyranny. In 1946, George Orwell penned a series of essays that are, I believe, the most important to appear in the English language in the last century. He pointed to the emerging challenge of totalitarianism. He mapped the working of the totalitarian mind. How would it undermine the foundations of a liberal democratic culture like that of the United Kingdom or United States? It will assault our language. Our political institutions. Our political culture. It will try to build a party state and to accumulate unchecked executive power in the hands of a single person or a small leadership cadre. The tools used are potent but perhaps not easily recognized. As Orwell noted in the essay "In Front of Your Nose," men who aspire to totalitarian rule will attempt to persuade their subjects of preposterous untruths - things that, extracted from a political context - surely no one would ever believe. The current debacle over the cashiered US Attorneys threatens to develop into such an exercise, though I am encouraged that both the media and the public are awakening from their slumber and coming to understand what is before them. The evidence of what has happened and why is all about us. It is obvious. Yet Bush and Gonzales insist that we ignore what we have seen and read and accept instead their dishonest characterizations. America will survive as a democracy and its institutions will survive only if we remain conscious of the idea of our democracy. And only if we keep our eyes open and recognize what is right in front of our noses. But, as Orwell says, it requires a constant struggle.

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