Monday, January 15, 2007


By William Fisher

A ton of important news stories got spiked amidst the cacophonous white noise created by the Baker Hamilton report and the Bush “surge” plan and reaction thereto.

One of the more important was the effort by Richard Dreyfuss to reintroduce civics to our public schools. The movie legend has launched a personal campaign to urge educators to teach their young students about the US Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, and other government basics.

As a first step, the actor called together a group of school administrators, television producers, writers, and local leaders in Martha's Vineyard to discuss launching a civics pilot program at one of the island community's elementary schools. He told the media he’s hopeful the effort will become a model for other schools across the country.

"By not teaching civics, our children are not learning about current events and how the government works. They need to be informed on what it means to maintain the system while sharing political space," he said.

Bravo, Prof. Dreyfuss! Americans’ ignorance of their own history and institutions is no longer a matter of debate. It has been verified in survey after survey.

For example, one survey, cited by Rosa Brooks in the Los Angeles Times, found that although 52% of Americans could name two or more of the characters from "The Simpsons," only 28% could identify two of the freedoms protected under the 1st Amendment. Another recent poll found that 77% of Americans could name at least two of the Seven Dwarfs from "Snow White," but only 24% could name two or more Supreme Court justices. Yet another poll showed that only two-thirds of Americans could identify all three branches of government; only 55% of Americans were aware that the Supreme Court can declare an act of Congress unconstitutional; and 35% thought that it was the intention of the founding fathers to give the president "the final say" over Congress and the judiciary.

Other studies sadly point in the same direction. One showed that a majority of college students thinks the press has too much freedom. Another found that most Americans believe the freedoms of American Muslims should be restricted. Still another found that a majority of high school graduates couldn’t find China on a map. And year after year, America’s knowledge scores vis a vis other industrialized democracies keeps going south.

On the birthday of Martin Luther King, it is instructive to quote Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, who wrote of a recent survey of college students that found that while more than 81 percent knew that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was expressing hope for "racial justice and brotherhood" in his historic "I Have a Dream" speech, most of the rest thought King was advocating the abolition of slavery.

The question we should be asking is: How did these survey respondents ever get to be college students? Could there be a sadder example of the dereliction of responsibility in our primary and secondary schools?

Somehow, No Child Left Behind has managed to leave a heap of kids behind.

Lately, amidst our xenophobic immigration debate, there’s been lots of chatter about the new test the government is proposing to determine which immigrants qualify for naturalized U.S. citizenship. The LA Times’ Rosa Brooks writes, tongue in cheek, that it “will rigorously assess immigrants' knowledge of ‘the fundamental concepts of American democracy’," asking tough questions such as ‘Why do we have three branches of government? , ‘What is the rule of law?’, and ‘What are inalienable rights?’ “

Ms. Brooks says that requiring those who want the privileges of U.S. citizenship to have some minimal knowledge of American civics “is a great idea.” Why, she asks, “should this country mint new so-called citizens who don't know the first thing about American history or law?”

Her zinger, however, is that she wants to make native-born Americans take the test too — and deport them to their last known countries of ancestry if they flunk. Why, she asks, “should we ask first-generation immigrants to know more about the United States than the rest of us?”

Good question.

Many readers will remember Richard Dreyfuss’s 1996 film, “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” about a high school music teacher who "never gives up." In one scene, the principal tells him, "Your job as a teacher, Mr. Holland, is to 'give a compass for life' to the students..."

I’m all for people listening to their emotions and beliefs. But it’s tough to get a reliable compass for life absent information. And there is no information more critical to our country’s future than the history of what has made us Americans. And what is expected of us if we are to remain Americans.

My family, I think, is more fortunate than most. My ten-year-old granddaughter’s current assignment is to research and report on the life and work of Rosa Parks, and what it meant to her country and her countrymen. This, I hasten to add, had nothing to do with MLK’s birthday. It was simply one of many subjects that are a regular part of her curriculum.

Would that this were the situation in most public schools in our country – where civics education has become a seriously endangered species. I hope that at least a few readers will keep that in mind when their local school board chooses football over civics!

First They Came for the Lawyers

By Marjorie Cohn

In one of the most severe blows the Bush administration has dealt to our constitutional democracy, the Pentagon attacked the lawyers who have volunteered to represent the Guantánamo detainees. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Stimson threatened corporate lawyers who agree to defend the men and boys imprisoned there. Flashing a list of corporations that use law firms doing this pro bono work, Stimson declared, "Corporate C.E.O.'s seeing this should ask firms to choose between lucrative retainers and representing terrorists."

In 1770, John Adams defended nine British soldiers including a captain who stood accused of killing five Americans. No other lawyer would defend them. Adams thought no one in a free country should be denied the right to a fair trial and the right to counsel. He was subjected to scorn and ridicule and claimed to have lost half his law practice as a result of his efforts. Adams later said his representation of those British soldiers was "one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country."

Federal Judge Green, who has handled the many habeas corpus petitions filed by the Guantánamo detainees, expressed appreciation for the lawyers: "I do want to say we are very grateful for those attorneys who have accepted pro bono appointments. That is a service to the country, a service to the parties. No matter what position you take on this, it is a grand service."

More than 750 men and boys have been held like animals in cages during the last five years at Guantánamo. Many were picked up by warlords and sold to the US military for bounty. None has been tried for any crime. Very few even have any criminal charges against them.

Ironically, there were no alleged terrorists connected with 9/11 there until Bush recently transferred 14 men from his secret CIA prisons to Guantánamo. Meanwhile, hundreds of detainees languish in custody, aided by 500 courageous lawyers from 120 firms who have volunteered countless hours to represent them.

Under the Military Commissions Act Bush just rammed through Congress, the Guantánamo prisoners could be held for the rest of their lives without ever seeing a judge. Those who decide that death could not be worse than life at Gitmo have participated in a hunger strike. Rather than subject the Bush administration to embarrassment when prisoners die in US custody, military guards force feed them. Thick plastic tubes are forced down their throats with no anesthesia. Tubes are not sterilized before being reused on other prisoners. The UN Human Rights Commission called the force-feeding "torture." Many prisoners also report being tortured during interrogations.

Guantánamo has become the symbol of US hypocrisy. While fighting the "war on terror" and attacking other countries for their human rights abuses, the officials in the Bush administration have become war criminals. Torture and cruel or inhuman treatment are punishable as war crimes under the US War Crimes Act.

The Supreme Court held in Rasul v. Bush that the Guantánamo prison is under US jurisdiction, so prisoners there are entitled to the protections of the Constitution. The Sixth Amendment mandates that every person charged with a crime has the right to be defended by an attorney. The government is forbidden by the Fifth Amendment from denying any "person" - US citizen or not - due process of law. The presumption of innocence is enshrined in our legal system.

Bush's attack on lawyers is the latest assault on our civil liberties, which now includes warrantless surveillance of our phone calls and email, and most recently, our US Mail. Although Bush says he's spying on the terrorists, those who criticize his policies, including his illegal and immoral war on Iraq, are also invariably in his cross hairs.

All Americans should heed the words of Martin Niemoller: "First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did little. Then when they came for me, there was no one left who could stand up for me."

George W. Bush must immediately renounce Stimson's threats and relieve him of his duties. A country that would sacrifice its own values under the guise of protecting them has no moral authority in this world.

Marjorie Cohn, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, is president of the National Lawyers Guild and the US representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists. Her book, "Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law," will be published in June.