Our Warden-in-Chief

Mostly I agree with Glenn Greenwald that only a politician’s actions matter, and speculation about his or her motives is pointless. But when a politician reverses himself repeatedly on core campaign promises and rhetoric immediately after taking office, as Obama has done, it’s hard not to wonder what’s driving him. It’s not just that my day job is writing novels, meaning character motivation is a particular obsession of mine. It’s also that in understanding what could cause Obama to make such a liar of himself regarding transparency, the rule of law, and civil liberties, we might learn something not just about the man, but about the system in which he operates.

The list of Obama’s reversals is long, but in brief: amnesty for telecom companies that violated eavesdropping laws; abuse of the state secrets privilege; not releasing photos of torture at US-run prisons; continuing the Bush administration’s plans to establish “military commissions” with lower levels of due process. Most outrageously of all, Obama now proposes that the government should be able to imprison people indefinitely without trial.

Pause for a moment and consider: the US government. In America. Imprisoning Americans. Who might or might not have committed a crime. Forever. Without trial.

Obama wants to call this “preventive detention.” Pretty-sounding, isn’t it? Detention is such a friendly word. It’s what I used to get in high school when I didn’t turn in my homework (here’s more on the political abuses of “detainee” and “detention”). Rachel Maddow was being far more accurate when she used the language of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s story, Minority Report: “Pre-Crime.”



Now, some people see “Trial by Jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” But what kind of of extreme-left, tree-hugging, blame-America-first, granola-eating, America-hating, socialist, ACLU card-carrying librul retard would believe something like that?

Well, Thomas Jefferson, actually. Obama’s a pretty smart guy. But does he know better than Jefferson?

So now we come to why. Why would a guy who campaigned on promises of open government, the rule of law, and the importance of civil liberties and all that, a guy who actually taught Constitutional Law, suddenly position himself to become Warden-in-Chief?

I think it comes down to fear.

Americans have become so fearful of being Attacked by the Terrorists that the fear is increasingly distorting our politics. President Bush claimed his most important responsibility was to keep the American people safe — despite the lack of any such provision in the Constitution. Dick Cheney distorts his oath of office to invent a responsibility to protect America rather than to defend the Constitution. Obama apes Bush in claiming to wake in the morning and fall asleep at night worrying about how to keep us all safe. Wouldn’t it be great if these guys would read their job descriptions, as provided for in the Constitution, and try to govern accordingly?

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So Americans are afraid. The fear is fed by demagogues, mostly on the right, who either share the fear or cynically exploit it. As the fear worsens, the level of safety the populace expects and demands from the government increases to unreasonable levels. But because perfect safety is impossible in life, politicians know that, like other forms of crime, terrorist incidents are inevitable. Faced with the impossible demands of the citizenry, what’s a politician to do?

Well, basically you do every batshit crazy, extremist thing you can think of: torture (sold for consumer comfort as “enhanced interrogation techniques”); secret prisons (“detention facilities”); preventive wars (“self-defense against mushroom-cloud smoking guns”); warrantless eavesdropping (the “Protect America Act of 2007″); secret laws (“Our Playbook“); show trials and kangaroo courts (“military commissions”); pre-crime prisons (“preventive detention”). Then, when the inevitable happens, the politician can say to the angry, frightened public, “Look what I did to protect you. No one could possibly have done more.”

If Americans have become insane with fear, even otherwise responsible politicians might conceive of their job as just managing the insanity.

And that’s my take on Obama. I could be wrong, of course; he could be a power-mad tyrant wannabe who — muwahuwahuwa — fooled everyone with all that talk of not sacrificing our values for safety, and certainly the powers he’s claiming for himself would support that theory. But my essentially unsupportable sense, for what it’s worth, is that he’s someone with the education, experience, and temperament to know better, who’s doing what he’s doing merely to protect his political flanks.

What’s the difference between a demogogue and a cynic, then? Or between a cynic and a coward?

In the end, perhaps not much.

But what’s an honest politician to do? The people are so fearful, the Dick and Liz Cheney Be Very Afraid Show is playing 24/7, when the next attack happens the right will scream it was Obama’s fault, he did this, he could have protected you but he didn’t…

Yes, what to do. A difficult question.

Oh, wait a minute. A politician could, you know, lead.

Nah, that’s crazy. What was I thinking. You’re right, cash in the Constitution to protect yourself politically. What the hell, everyone’s doing it, why shouldn’t you.

But if Obama did actually want to lead, he could try something like this:

“My fellow Americans, there’s no such thing as complete safety in this world. And that’s always been okay for Americans. We’re risk takers and we love liberty — a combination perfectly summed up in Patrick Henry’s ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ There was a man who knew there were things in life more precious than safety.

“Actually, there is such a thing as perfect safety in the world. I’ve heard they have it in North Korea. Of course, the population there isn’t safe from the government, but they are safe from pretty much everything else except malnutrition, and that might not be so bad. At least they’re not being attacked by Terrorists.

“But is that what we want for ourselves, to cash in the freedom we cherish to make ourselves as safe as North Korea? Generations of Americans have fought and died to protect the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. Are we really prepared to barter away the freedom they bequeathed us with their blood?

“No, we won’t break faith with those previous generations of brave Americans. We won’t allow the government to spy on us without warrants, or to govern under secret laws, or to imprison people without trial, or to torture. And if any of that puts us at some additional risk, that’s fine. We’re Americans. We embrace risk and we love freedom, and we’ll be damned if we’ll allow a bunch of medieval cave-dwellers to call our tune.”

Obama could actually say all this, you know. But it wouldn’t be convincing. After all, it would be awkward for the president to try to inspire us to steadfastness against terrorists while he’s simultaneously caving in to fear-mongering from Liz Cheney.