Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Presidents and the Rule of Law

Last night I watched Part 3 of PBS' The American Experience: We Shall Remain series about Native American history. This is history that I didn't learn in school-- not even in AP U.S. history as late as 1997.

Part 3 is about the forced emigration of the Cherokee from Georgia territory. Andrew Jackson was the first president to defy a Supreme Court order, he refused to stop Georgia from expelling the Cherokee even though the Court ruled that Georgia had no right to do so and that the Cherokee were a sovereign nation.

Jackson was a Southern populist and staunch defender of state's rights. Cherokee pleas for him to intervene fell on his deaf ears.

Watching the show, you feel outrage (which is probably the point). Here's a U.S. President more interested in catering to his political base and a particular ideology than upholding the Constitution of the United States (as determined by the Supreme Court in that case) and basic human rights (thousands of Cherokee would later die on the Trail of Tears).

When you compare it to modern-day circumstances, there is a sad similarity. I'm outraged to hear that President Bush and other members of his administration ordered the repeated torture of enemy combatants. While FoxNews has discredited the "183 times" story, it still doesn't sit right that we moved aggressively to do things like waterboard. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld reportedly weren't just trying to keep America safe-- they were trying to coerce confession that there was a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda (there wasn't). Cheney (or someone) ordered the confiscation and destruction of legal memos that expressed concern or opposition to the practice. There was only one interpretation of the law that mattered to them.

There was clearly an ideology that pushed our nation into Iraq, condoned treating detainees harshly (either at secret prisons or at Abu Gharaib... what's the difference?), and then refused many of the people whose country we broke entry into the U.S. It sounds to me like we considered some Middle Easterners about like Jackson considered the Cherokee-- as less than human.

Bush has his ideological supporters. You can see them on FoxNews. Unfortunately, I've also seen too many pastors in recent days lining up to defend the use of "harsh interrogation tactics," including waterboarding. My opinion is that if John McCain, a man who knows what torture is, says waterboarding is torture, then it is torture. And I'm ashamed to see so many professing Christians defending and praising the practice.

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