Civil Discourse

      How should Americans talk about really divisive issues? It is hard enough to draw a line between passionate advocacy and discourse that is over the line. The problem becomes infinitely harder when the stakes are higher.

      With the benefit of hindsight, we fault the “good Germans” who were temperate after Kristalnacht. But every excess is not Kristalnacht. So how do we decide when a contemporary policy is so dangerous, so wrong, that moral people simply cannot smile nicely, pour tea and politely disagree with it? Ironically, this dilemma is one of the most troubling consequences of engaging routinely in intemperate political language; as I said in a recent column, when every tax increase is met with hysteria about creeping socialism, and every over-reaction by a police officer is evidence of fascism, what language is left for serious threats? It’s the boy who cried wolf syndrome.

      I’ll be the first to admit that I lost it when Congress passed the so-called “detainee” act a few weeks ago. When this bill passed, I thought—and I still think—that words like “totalitarian” were factually descriptive, rather than rhetorically excessive. But if it is okay for me to cry “fascist” about this bill, what about the people who believe abortion is genocide, or that progressive taxation is theft? When we use such terminology, we are not communicating with anyone, or changing anyone’s mind.

      Let me specify my problems with the detainee bill, and why I see it as a dangerous break with time-honored American legal and policy traditions. I wasn’t the only one, by the way—diplomats and military officials sent statements strongly objecting to this legislation, and warning that it would actually encourage terrorism while making our soldiers less safe. This measure:

·        Suspends Habeas Corpus, a protection we’ve enjoyed for 700 years.

·        Allows use of illegally-obtained evidence against suspects—in violation of the 4th Amendment.

·        Protects torture: first, by giving the President the right to define what torture is and isn’t, and second by shielding those who have tortured during the past several years from prosecution.

·        Allows the administration to designate someone as an enemy combatant—and gives the individual so designated absolutely no way to challenge that designation. Think about it: the President can say that you are someone who has “purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States.” To begin with, that’s a pretty subjective standard. But what’s worse, let’s say you are a citizen, or someone else who shouldn’t even be subject to this law—there is no way for you to appeal, no way to show that you are entitled to a trial, no way to demonstrate that you are the wrong person.

·        As Senator Feingold testified, “this legislation would permit an individual to be convicted on the basis of coerced testimony and hearsay, would not allow full judicial review of the conviction, and yet would allow someone convicted under these rules to be put to death.”

·        What is truly perverse, once the government actually has enough evidence to charge a detainee with a crime, then and only then do the few due process protections left under the act apply. Before that, they don’t—and prisoners can simply be indefinitely detained. No trial, no hearing, no nothing. The result, as Senator Obama has noted, is that the less evidence the government has, the fewer rights the detainee has. When you realize that out of the 700 people held at Guantanamo, only ten had been charged with any crime as of a couple of months ago, the enormity of that really hits you.

So–how do we talk about this? How do we impress on our fellow citizens the magnitude of what this law does? how do you say “such measures are beneath us, inconsistent with what it means to be an American?”

      Just yesterday, a student sent me a partial answer to that question, a link to You Tube with a speech made by Senator Barack Obama during the floor fight in the Senate. Obama was fighting for an amendment to curtail some of the most extreme features of this legislation. He began by acknowledging that the threat posed by terrorism was real, and that it needed to be dealt with. He also said “if we are properly agressive in addressing the threat, it is inevitable that mistakes will be made, that we will occasionally cast too broad a net. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that—so long as we retain the means to correct those mistakes.” He went on to list the troublesome elements in the bill, to offer very specific evidence of the harms done by each, and to suggest with a good deal of precision what corrective language or policy he would propose. And he concluded with a statement that went to the heart of his objections: “We don’t have to imprison innocent people to win the war on terror.”

      Obama was polite, but not weak. He respected his opponents without conceding to their arguments. That’s terribly difficult—especially if you tend to be a bit emotional, like me—but I don’t see any feasible alternative. At some point, we all have to trust in the good-will and good sense of other Americans. We have to trust that in the marketplace of ideas, truth will ultimately prevail. That doesn’t mean we should work less diligently or passionately to get American values back; it means we have to offer arguments and evidence that will persuade our fellow citizens, we have to object to the use of dishonest arguments, and we have to safeguard the mechanisms of constitutional government to ensure that all arguments will be heard and all relevant evidence considered.