Tuesday, September 18, 2007

If They Hate Us For Our Freedom, They Must Hate Us Less Now

[NOTE: I also posted this article on www.dailykos.com. If you like it, please go to it here and recommend it, comment on it, etc. Thanks.]

They hate us, because we're free. They hate the thought that Americans welcome all religions. They can't stand that thought. ... They hate our freedoms. They hate the fact that we hold each individual -- we dignify each individual. We believe in the dignity of every person. They can't stand that. ... You know, the price of freedom is high, but for me it's never too high because we fight for freedom.

- President George W. Bush talking about terrorists at a Connecticut Republican Committee Luncheon on April 9, 2002 (from the White House website)

I hate when presidents (of both parties), during the State of the Union address, point to the gallery and tell us the inspiring tale of someone who has beaten the odds or shown courage and fortitude. It always seemed so false to me. You can find a story to prove any point. I'm sure if you look hard enough, you can find someone selling crystal meth to teenagers to raise money for body armor for the troops. I like to keep an eye on the bigger issues, since individual stories are just that, individual.

So, of course, I am now going to break my rule and do what I just explained I hated to do. (At least I'm honest about it.) The New York Times ran an article yesterday about a British citizen, a musician, who was denied entry into the U.S. after having studied and worked here for 10 years. She earned a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and has been a music professor at Mills College in Oakland. When she flew into San Francisco in August 2006 from the U.K., she was met by federal agents, taken into custody for hours with no access to an attorney, had her H-1B visa ripped up in front of her and her British passport defaced, got misidentified as "Hispanic" (her parents were Indian Sikhs), suffered groping at the hands of an armed woman officer who told her any movement would be construed as an attack, and was given the option of immediately returning to London or being shipped off to a detention center.

The State Department had revoked her visa, but never informed her or explained why it was taken away from her. Despite requests from the British government and a U.S. Senator, the State Department still has not told her why her visa was revoked. An agent told her it was probably an error and she should just apply for a new visa, but her application has not been acted on yet, even though she submitted it months ago.

As a result, she has had to take an unpaid leave from her job, has been unable to attend academic conferences, and has had her entire life uprooted. Worst of all, she has no idea why, and nobody will give her any explanations.

This is the kind of story you expect a traveler to the Soviet Union in 1980 to relate, not a British musician trying to return to the U.S. in 2007. Again, I'm not a fan of holding up a single story and saying, "Look, this is how things are," but it seems like ... this is how things are.

This story is, I'm afraid, what the United States of America has become under the leadership of George W. Bush. How does it feel?

The article explains that the British musician had no known political activities and is engaged to an American (an opera singer and director). There is also no evidence that her art was in any way anti-American or controversial (she is an expert on the composer Edward Elgar, the guy who wrote "Pomp and Circumstance" -- about as mainstream as you can get). Why should this matter, you ask? It shouldn't. But, the article says, many have charged the Bush administration with regularly using the anti-terrorist apparatus to revoke visas from artists whose views they don't like. How American does that sound to you?

I wonder if President Bush still believes what he said in the the 2002 speech quoted above. He really played that whole "they hate us for our freedom" for all it was worth for years, but I feel like he's moved on to other pieces of meaningless rhetoric.

I'm sure he abandoned the "they hate us for our freedom" theme because his spinmasters found more effective ways to hoodwink the American public. I'm sure the decision was in no way substantive. But, thanks to the president's policies over the last few years, it seems to me that we have a whole lot less freedom than we did when The Decider took office.

Bush is not the first leader in history to use fear of an enemy as a way to seize executive power. Unfortunately, he won't be the last, either. But make no mistake: He has done so. Since 9/11 the White House, with the complicity of Congress and the American people, has used Islamic terrorists as the bogeyman to scare the country into accepting whatever attack on the Constitution the administration felt like advancing that week.

The Patriot Act, no matter how you feel about it, is, objectively speaking, a law that gives the executive branch increased power and authority at the expense of Congress, judges and the rights of the American people.

There are lots of contradictions here. For one, thanks to the idiotic decision to invade Iraq and topple the government without an understanding of the repercussions or a solid plan for the future, Bush has made America less safe than it was the day before the invasion. Put another way, the president has exacerbated a threat, and then used that very threat to increase his power.

Taking the point one step further, Bush spent several years telling us we had to fight these terrorists because they hate us for our freedom, but to fight them, he advocated taking away big chunks of our freedom. From warrantless wiretaps to maintaining an extra-constitutional prison in Guantanamo Bay to sending suspects to rogue nations to be tortured to arbitrarily keeping people out of the country, Bush has implemented government intrusions into the freedom he supposedly loves that have been unmatched since the disgusting internment policies adopted during World War II.

Right about now, some of you might be screaming, "Don't you understand? There are bad men trying to kill us! They committed the heinous acts of 9/11! Whatever is needed to get them is what we should be doing."

Here's the problems with that:

By overreacting, the administration is playing into the hands of the very terrorists that Bush talks so ardently about defeating (even though he decided it was more important to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq than to keep up the pressure on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan). The very purpose of a terrorist attack like 9/11 is to provoke the U.S. into taking rash action that would undermine its own interests. If bin Laden had the chance to script Bush's response to the attacks, I doubt it would differ much from what Bush actually did. The Iraq invasion was a gift to Al-Qaeda's recruiting efforts. Not to mention that before the Iraq invasion there was no Al-Qaeda presence in Iraq, but there is now. And there is decidedly less heat on the Al-Qaeda leadership along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border now that we are bogged down in Iraq. Bush is to thank for all of that. If bin Laden wasn't a crazy, religiously delusional, vicious murderer, you would think he should send Bush a thank you note.

Also, the attacks turned Bush into a leader who took away freedoms. Didn't Bush say this is what the terrorists wanted us to do? Would it not be more in line with his "they hate us for our freedom" theory to maintain our way of life in the face of the Al-Qaeda threat? Didn't they tell us to go about our business, spending money off our credit cards, or the terrorists would win? Bush isn't taking his own advice.

And by turning us into a nation that tortures and imprisons individuals without any judicial oversight, hasn't Bush again fallen into the trap of the terrorists? Thanks to our reaction to 9/11, the world now views us as just another nation that flouts the rule of law, rather than the beacon of democracy that we used to be viewed as (I know we didn't always behave that way, but it was the perception)? Again, if bin Laden could have painted a path for Bush, it would have looked a lot like what Bush actually did.

When you read stories like the one in the Times about the deported British musician, it is striking how much Bush has changed the fundamental nature of our country. He can say it's to keep us safer, but how does preventing a British woman from telling me about the history of "Pomp and Circumstance" protect me?

So much of the debate now is about what to do in Iraq, but, really, the bigger issue is what to do about our country. Will Bush's eight years in office be a blip, much like the demagoguery practiced by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s? Or, has Bush's transgressions been so deep that the very fabric and nature of the United States has been altered beyond repair?

I think how the country reacts to the Bush presidency, most notably in who it raises to power in 2008, will go a long way toward determining the long-term effects of the last eight years. It is often said that the number one issue in that election will be Iraq. Maybe it should be identity. Who are we? What kind of country do we want to be? What do we want to stand for? And what roll do we want to take in the world? It's hard to believe that many citizens want the country to be what Bush has turned it into. And I can't imagine anyone reading the Times story and feeling particularly proud.

It's clear that Bush has no interest in protecting the very freedoms he loved to talk about so much, like in the quote at the top of this article. With the election coming, it seems to me that the most important question you can ask of the candidates is, What kind of America do they want?

To borrow a phrase from the NFL and NBA drafts, America, you're on the clock. Whose America do you want to live in? Do you want more fear mongering (I'm talking to you Mayor Giuliani), or do you want an America you can be proud of. You have a big decision to make. Don't screw it up.