[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
On Sunday, as I sat watching former House speaker Newt Gingrich unabashedly endorse the politics of fear on Meet the Press, ("I think people should be afraid"), I couldn't help wonder why so many Republicans hate America so much.
Don't get me wrong. I know Republicans think they love America. They talk a lot about how much they love America. And they were quick to question the patriotism of anyone who opposed the Bush administration's policies after the 9/11 attacks. But do they?
Yes, I know, I'm being a wise guy to make a point. But when Gingrich talks, it seems like he opposes the basic principals of freedom and due process that for centuries have defined what it means to be an American.
Gingrich, after forecasting doom if Guantanamo is closed down (Terrorists will recruit in our prisons!), even defended torture and Guantanamo by saying, "[W]hat's your highest priority? Is it to defend America and protect American lives, or is it to find some way to defend terrorists and to get terrorists involved in the criminal justice system?", adding that "only" three targets were tortured. (As Keith Olbermann asked last night, is only committing three crimes, hundreds of times, a defense to those crimes?)
Gingrich defended the Bush policies in these words:
"And so they did everything for seven and a half years to--and they have a very simple principle: If you're in doubt, do what it takes to help America survive every time. So they consistently fell down on the side of being very tough about national security, being very tough with specific terrorists."
He also explained his thought process:
"The question is, is the most important thing to us today to find some kind of civil--American Civil Liberties Union model of making sure that we never offend terrorists, or is the model for us today to say to the CIA and others, 'Do everything you can to protect America....'"
But here's the thing: Gingrich talks about defending America, but he and his pro-Guantanamo, pro-torture crew are not defending America, at least as it has been identified by presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan to even George W. Bush. In fact, the America that we have defended from World War II through W.'s administration seems to be something Gingrich, Dick Cheney and those that agree with them feel comfortable disposing of.
Every U.S. conflict of the 20th century has been explained as some variation of freedom fighting tyranny. That quality, it was said, is what made America special. We had a free society, with a democratically elected government that followed the laws of the land. We bragged about the lack of succession challenges when Richard Nixon resigned, noting that even though Gerald Ford had never been elected president or vice president by the American people, his legitimacy was never questioned, since his ascension to office followed the process set out in our laws. World War II was a battle between democracy and fascism. The Cold War was about freedom versus Communist repression.
Even in the 21st century, Bush spoke a lot about freedom. One of the 1,876 justifications (I may be exaggerating a tad) offered by Bush for the Iraq war after no weapons of mass destruction were found was to provide Iraqis with democracy and freedom. Iraq was to be a beacon of freedom, Bush liked to tell us. He said the terrorists hated us for our freedoms.
But those freedoms seem irrelevant to Gingrich and Cheney, at least with regards to torture and Guantanamo.
Republicans deify Ronald Reagan for standing in West Berlin and saying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." But Reagan wasn't talking about lousy architecture. Rather, he was saying that on one side of the wall lived the good guys who enjoyed democratic freedoms, and on the other side resided people who had no freedom and lived under the oppression of the bad guys, the Communists. It was the guys in the East that did things, like, say, torturing people and holding them without charging them, while such atrocities would never go on in the West.
But what if the governments on both sides of the wall tortured people and held suspects without trial? What then? Would Reagan's words have meant anything?
That is the very question facing Gingrich and Cheney now. If we torture and hold suspects without trial, where is our moral high ground? Can we torture and be Reagan's good guys? What are we fighting for? I thought the whole point of the war on terror is to defend the American way of life. But if we surrender our values to fight the war, to use a popular saw, haven't the terrorists won?
It seems to me that the Cheney/Gingrich crowd have no interest in protecting this America, the America of freedom and due process. Rather, they want to protect America as one side of a conflict, without regard to the very values that they purport to be fighting for. It's as if they've reduced defending America to rooting for a sports team, where you just want your club to win.
So when Gingrich says, "Do everything you can to protect America," or, "Is it to defend America and protect American lives, or is it to find some way to defend terrorists and to get terrorists involved in the criminal justice system?", he is missing the point completely. If we do everything we can to protect America, including discarding the freedom and due process that is at the heart of American values, what are we protecting?
Of course, it doesn't have to be a choice. As President Obama has said, we don't have to choose between our values and our security.
And as Sen. Dick Durbin noted on the same episode of Meet the Press, allowing fear to drive policy is no way to govern. He said:
"[I]f you, if you step back and take a look at history for a moment, you will find the message we just heard from Mr. Gingrich, from Vice President Cheney and Mr. Rush Limbaugh to be the same, it's a message of fear: 'Be afraid, be very afraid.' And to say that this president is not doing everything in his power to keep America safe is just as irresponsible as anything I've ever heard said on your program."
Durbin went on to say:
"America cowering in fear is not going to be a strong nation. I disagree with Mr. Gingrich. We can understand the threat, we can deal with it rationally, we can be strong and we will be safe with President Obama. But this notion that fear is going to guide us is what brought us to the notion of weapons of mass destruction and this war in Iraq and all that it has cost us. You know, Vice President Cheney said the other day without hesitation, 'I'd do everything all over again.' He hasn't learned any lesson from history."
And our entire criminal justice system is built on the principal of suspects being innocent until proven guilty. Why is it so unreasonable to ask that these terrorists actually be proven to be terrorists, in some way that respects the tradition of our laws? It seems that the major impediment to trials is that the Bush administration's torture and other practices have rendered the government's cases harder to prove. Nobody, not President Obama and certainly not me, is arguing that hardened terrorists be released so that they can go out and do damage to Americans. But there is a huge gap from that idea to holding individuals with nothing more than a "trust me, they're bad guys" from the government. If we really are a nation of freedom, we can find a way to give these terrorists basic rights to contest their guilt, while still keeping them from harming us.
What really bugs me is that the items used by Gingrich and Cheney to perpetuate the politics of fear are a huge pile of garbage. Gingrich can sit on Meet the Press and try to scare the American people for political gain, all while he is surrounded with evidence that his claims are wholly without merit.
The idea that keeping Guantanamo open makes us safer has been debunked over and over again. Even if you reject the point that Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have been key recruiting tools for al Qaeda (a point Durbin made over and over on Meet the Press), the support of key leaders for closing Guantanamo and ending torture seems to be overwhelming. None other than Gen. David Petraeus, the right-wing darling who was the architect of the vaunted surge in Iraq, and who currently serves as the Commander of the U.S. Central Command, said last weekend that he agreed with President Obama's decisions to close down Guantanamo and reject torture. Petraeus also endorsed the symbolic value of closing Guantanamo. (Last night, Olbermann showed footage of Petraeus addressing these issues.) Durbin noted that Sen. Lindsey Graham has admitted that we can safely house terrorists in federal prisons in the U.S. And several individuals who have conducted interrogations have related that torture was not -- and is not -- an effective means by which to secure intelligence from suspects, most recently argued by a 14-year military interrogator going by the alias Matthew Alexander.
So, basically, you have Cheney and Gingrich, and others, running around trying to scare the life out of Americans, arguing that President Obama has made us less safe, and if we shut down Guantanamo and stop torturing, the terrorists will run amok. But, at the same time, a vast majority of reputable sources, including Gen. David Petraeus, have completely debunked the Cheney/Gingrich vision of doom.
Of course, I understand the political strategies that underlie the Cheney/Gingrich sky-is-falling claims. As Jonathan Alter pointed out on Olbermann last night, Cheney and Gingrich are "laying a trap" for President Obama, waiting for an attack so they can then say, "See, we were right. Obama made us less safe."
But I think it goes beyond petty partisan politics. People like Gingrich and Cheney (and most of the Republicans in Congress) have a view of America that is completely out of sync with what America has meant over the last century, including what Reagan was drawing on when he made his speech in West Berlin. The America that Cheney and Gingrich see is one in which it's more about us versus them than preserving the very qualities that make America something worth defending.
That is why I say that Cheney and Gingrich don't love America. Because they don't seem to care about American values as they have traditionally been viewed. At least before Bush took over the White House.