Civil liberties: never count on the man

Like most liberals, I’m disappointed by Barack Obama’s early track record on civil liberties issues — disappointed, yes, but not all that surprised. He isn’t, after all, the same person he was as a candidate a year ago. And he certainly isn’t the same person he was as a community organizer, a law professor, a state senator or even a US senator from a fairly bluish state.

No, he’s now the man. And since when do we look to the man to go to the wall on civil liberties issues? Isn’t that a job that more often falls to outsiders, to “ugly” people who offend polite company — you know, the damn pointy-headed liberal intellectuals, sipping their lattes, and those beer guzzling libertarians with the Live Free or Die bumper stickers on the back of their pickup trucks? 

Sure, Obama needs to be held accountable for his constitutional failings. Accountability goes with the territory, or at least it’s supposed to. He took the oath of office, after all — placed his hand on the bible — Abraham Lincoln’s bible no less — and swore to uphold the constitution. But he’s also the man. And it’s worth remembering that it was Abraham Lincoln himself, back when he was the man, who suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War. And he stretched the constitution in other ways as well. He had a war to win and a union to save, and if that required cutting a few corners so be it.

Like most things in life, it comes down to perspective. And being the man changes your perspective. High minded civil liberty concerns seem less important: keeping America safe more so. Is that an excuse for ignoring the constitution? Of course not. But the reality is that it’s naïve to expect the man to be the person leading the charge in the defense of civil liberties. That’s just not how it works. 

Franklin Roosevelt, for example, the ultimate liberal hero, committed one of the worst civil liberties offenses in the nation’s history, the internment of Japanese Americans. How could he have done it? How could the great man have stooped so low? Beyond question, it was an unforgivable act — one of the most shameful moments in American history. But the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. FDR was the man. Protecting civil liberties wasn’t his highest priority at the time.

Rocket ahead 60 plus years. Barack Obama, who wants more than anything to concentrate on issues like finally bringing the United States into the 20th century (one century too late) by adopting universal health insurance, finds himself facing a God awful mess not of his own making. The gulag at Guantanamo Bay has to be shut down. But what to do with the prisoners still held there, many of whom are extremely dangerous people — folks who really do want to kill us in our sleep — or in our wakefulness, for that matter (they’re not that picky)?

And that’s only the beginning of his troubles. It turns out that due to the incompetence and misconduct of the preceding administration some of these presumptive bad guys can’t be convicted in a court of law. So what to do? Let them go free. That’s certainly the correct answer legally, at least if viewed from the perspective of criminal justice: if you don’t have evidence to prove guilt they’re presumed innocent, right? That sounds fine, or at least unavoidable, to a civil libertarian. It might even have sounded fine to a liberal law professor in Chicago a few years back. But to the man? Not so much.

The man looks past the principles to the consequences, for the nation and, yes, for himself as well. What would it mean if a terrorism suspect released by the Obama Administration led a successful attack against the United States? The damage that would do the nation, to our cohesion as a society, would be immeasurable. And for Obama and the Democratic Party it would likely become a political apocalypse. It might be enough to return the torturers to office. God knows that’s what they’re counting on.

When you’re the man you think about things like that. The man always will. 

I have no doubt Barack Obama will be a much more law abiding president than was George W. Bush, and one much more respectful of constitutional rights. Liberals who have given up on him are jumping way too quickly. But he’s not going to push the envelope in protecting civil liberties. He’s the man. That isn’t what the man does.

So sometimes we’ll have to fight him. That’s our job — every latte sipping and pickup truck driving one of us.

6 Responses to “Civil liberties: never count on the man”

  1. mgrello Says:

    I got an idea, and it may seem naive; but here goes. Why doesn’t somebody talk to these people? I mean it’s not like they’re going anywhere. Like human beings. “Hello Mr. Alleged terrorist (or, I think more dangerously and certainly more discouraging, Mr. Brand new terrorist, thanks to the abuse we heaped upon your previously innocent ass and the fact that we killed your family and neighbors to make George feel like a man), How can we come to some sort of resolution?” Again it’s not like they can agree to meet with us and bring explosives, they’re in a frigging prison camp! And if they indicate that we can die, then we know who we are dealing with. Just a thought. I mean we can’t continue to deny the majority their freedom because of the minority who are really guilty.

  2. richl Says:

    In keeping with the Lincoln theme

    What I understand is that I quickly loose respect for the captain of the ship when, instead of working on the rot within, he calls for another coat of paint to keep it looking shiny bright.

    Seems a bit short sighted. A smart captain would know that that the first priority, no matter how shiny bright the outside looks, is tolocate and eradicate the corrosion within. As any scrap dealear can tell you, when the rot within meets the paint the ship ends up as just another dream on the scrap pile.

  3. Chuck Says:

    Well said richl!

  4. concerned Says:

    A really thoughtful piece, Steve. Thanks.

    I wish I had your rose colored glasses, but I really think the man (who recently, evidently, sent representatives to the Bilderberg meeting if you’re into conspiracy theories) is just too much over the top in his attempts to quash the FISA trial judge. No doubt that system (well, that judge) appears to be working, but at what expense?

    At least with Lincoln and Roosevelt there was a greater good that was tangible to the People. In the instant situation, where is the greater good in having the People shat upon by their former president? Where is the greater good in having the People ripped off by their bankers and brokers? Where is the greater good in not being able to at least get to court on those issues? Where is the greater good in having Cheney in our collective face night after night when he should be on trial for treason in the Plame outing?

    Just because Obama’s the man shouldn’t preclude him from letting the People use the Process. That’s just plain scary - man or no man.

  5. Larkrise Says:

    What I dislike intensely is misrepresenting himself as the Change Agent, then backing out of some very important changes. I dont agree that he should be cut some slack. Hold his feet to the fire. He is making unjust and irresponsible decisions when it comes to investigating torture. He may be The Man, but he is still WRONG. And in being wrong, he is causing harm.

  6. richl Says:

    Thanks Chuck. Now if I could just find that spell chick everyone keeps talking about…

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