Wednesday, November 03, 2004


By William Fisher

Political scientists, operatives and junkies will be debating the 2004 US Presidential campaign for decades. But it is unlikely that many will be talking about a set of critical issues virtually ignored by the candidates and their parties: the erosion of civil liberties and human rights.

Surely the candidates knew these issues, albeit they would probably have had widely differing views. And if their polls and focus groups told them the voters were interested in these issues, or cared about them, we can be certain they would have crept into stump speeches, debates, and campaign ads.

They didn’t. They were ignored.

We heard endless rants, though little substance, about how to win ‘the war on terror’. And no sane human would argue that it is a war that must be won, not just for us, but for everyone in the civilized world.

But who can remember hearing anything about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, or other venues for prisoner abuse? Or about US citizens being held incommunicado, without charge and without access to legal counsel? Or about Attorney General John Ashcroft’s wholesale round-up of 5,000 “suspected terrorists”, held for long periods in immigration prisons without charges or lawyers – and of whom not a single one was ever charged with or convicted of a terror-related crime? Or about the Justice Department’s arrant defiance of the Supreme Court’s finding that ‘the president does not have a blank check’ to arrest and detain anyone and be accountable to no one? Or about the failure of the Congress to demand an independent investigation of prisoner abuses? Or about the failure of the Central Intelligence Agency to produce its promised report on its ‘ghost detainees’, or its despicable practice of ‘rendering’ detainees to countries whose prisons are famous for practicing torture?

In 18 months of largely superficial frothing – much of it about phantom issues – the state of our civil liberties and our respect for human rights took on an eerie silence. Knowing that a candidate’s every move is triggered by a poll or a focus group, one can only conclude that it is the voters who don’t understand why these issues are important -- or don’t care.

As I pondered this thundering silence, two quotations kept popping into my head. The first, author unremembered, says, “Be careful who you choose as your enemies, for you will become like them.” Our enemies couldn’t care less about anyone’s civil liberties. If we take the same view, or allow our leaders to take it, we risk becoming like our enemies. In which case, they will have won.

The second quotation, from Churchill I think, says, “There can be no leadership without moral authority”. We happen to live in the world’s last remaining super-power. That places on us a heavy responsibility for leadership. The only credible way we have to exercise that leadership is by example – by what we do. What we do reflects what we believe, and that is the source of our moral authority.

The voters’ apparent disinterest in what is happening to their civil liberties, and what we are doing to other people’s human rights, have the awful potential to change precisely those attributes that make us different from our enemies. If we allow that to happen, we will sadly get what we deserve.

We deserve better.