The Lawless State
Sometimes the deepest changes in a political system sneak in almost unnoticed. So it has been in the United States, which has quietly shifted from being a decentralized federal republic to being a centralized democracy.
Moreover, the actual power has shifted from the legislative branch to the executive. This would have startled the men who created that republic in reaction against the British monarchy, which they regarded as tyrannical because it concentrated so much power in one mans hands. Their faces would blanch at President Bushs casual claim that he is the decider.
The big decisions, under the U.S. Constitution, were supposed to be made by the Congress, and faithfully executed by the president. Thus Congress declared war after Pearl Harbor and Franklin D. Roosevelt then (and only then) assumed the powers of commander in chief of the armed forces.
But a few years later, Harry Truman took the country to war in Korea without Congresss authorization. Few seemed to notice that Truman had usurped a monarchical prerogative. That is, he had acted as a dictator. Neither Woodrow Wilson nor Roosevelt, both of whom had greatly expanded the executive branch, had dared go that far.
Liberals are now rightly accusing Bush of grabbing power, but unfortunately nobody is listening. After all, were used to overweening presidents by now, thanks in large part to those same liberals who have celebrated the strong presidencies of Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and others. It was only during the Nixon years that they discovered the dangers of the imperial presidency.
During Roosevelts four terms, conservatives had realized the same dangers of what they called Caesarism, and to them we owe the Twenty-Second Amendment, limiting a president to two terms. But as liberal Democrats dominated Congress for decades, they began to see the presidency as their only hope of gaining power and forgot their principles in order to support Nixon, Reagan, and the first Bush.
Today, alleged conservatives favor the current Bushs big-government conservatism, together with all the unprecedented warmaking and national security powers he asserts. Both parties oppose the old constitutional limits on executive power, except when they find some of those limits politically convenient for the nonce. Conservatives are apt to be outraged when the media reveal how far Bush has gone in transgressing private matters we used to assume were safe from government spying.
Its no use asking where the Constitution authorizes Bushs security measures. Instead of vetoing laws he doesnt like, he issues signing statements explaining how he will interpret them, thus substituting his own loopholes for proper vetoes.
Liberals have been paving the way for a president like this for a long time, and theyve finally gotten the conservative they deserve. Theyve done their best to make the Constitution so malleable as to be meaningless, without stopping to think that two can play that game. Now its the Republicans turn.
The U.S. Supreme Court has finally shamed this administration into making a show of humanity to prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, but the liberal majority didnt really make much of a legal case for applying the Geneva Conventions to those prisoners.
Bushs acquiescence was as arbitrary as his former rigor had been. He must have decided that the political cost and worldwide notoriety were just too much, if his own conscience didnt rebuke him for his indiscriminate harshness.
Even if you accept the dubious premises of the War on Terror, you may be uneasy at the indefinite detention of men who may be innocent on any reckoning. Do we really want to punish people for the bad luck of being swept in a dragnet? Dont we have enough enemies without that?
On even the strictest reading, the Constitution may, and does, permit or at least doesnt forbid all sorts of things that are wrong or ill-advised on other grounds, such as the carpet-bombing of cities in wartime. And now that the Constitution has ceased to inhibit the government, its decisions have to be based on those other grounds, such as a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.
If the Founding Fathers could see us now, theyd surely ask, How on earth did you get yourselves into this mess? Weve managed to do nearly everything the Constitution was designed to prevent us from doing.
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