11 June 2006

Our Darkest Secrets

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The amazing thing about the recent news is not that America, through the CIA, did little to round-up certain high-profile Nazis after World War II, including the infamous Adolf Eichmann. Anyone who has studied the history of the U.S. involvement in that war and its aftermath knows that the nation’s response was often ambivalent, or driven by political (rather than humanitarian) motives. Rather, the amazing thing is that because of the recent declassification of a trove of documents, we have a chance to find out exactly how little the U.S. government did, over a broad period of time and in great detail.

This is all the more remarkable since it has seemed very clear, since his inauguration in 2001, that the direction in which George W. Bush’s United States has been heading is an environment of constant, indeed omnipresent, secrecy. President Bush and Vice President Cheney have orchestrated a very careful, persistent campaign of incrementalism, leading the country towards a greater acceptance of undemocratic and unconstitutional principles of governance. This includes steps like...

  • Reclassifying documents from previous presidents, changing what had been a standard process of (slowly) allowing scholars and historians access to the records of past administrations.

  • Demanding – and achieving – confidentiality for some invented notion of executive advice, as epitomized by Vice President Cheney’s energy task force.

  • Using “security” as a justification for everything from rendition to torture, but also for explaining why the American public should have less access to information about the operation of their government.

  • Ignoring the writ of habeas corpus, in deciding to lock up Jose Padilla and other American citizens, while working to deny them access to the courts, or the information needed to defend themselves. (This is to say nothing of those “enemy combatants” locked up in Guantanamo.)

  • Repressing free speech and new coverage, from suppressing protests at the time of the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004 (by arresting law-abiding protesters) to preventing the news media from showing pictures of the coffins of dead American soldiers.

  • Again, using “security” to justify its actions, after the fact, such as with the National Security Agency’s program to spy on Americans by tapping our phones without warrants, in a very evident violation of a very clear law.

Inch by inch, we grow more and more accepting of the Bush-Cheney bottom line justification: what we know might hurt us. Moreover, the logic appears infallible: Americans shouldn’t know that the phones are tapped because then we might not use phones to plot attacks. We shouldn’t know that our e-mail is being read, or our web activity researched, because then we might behave differently in trying to organize our nefarious activities. In other words, if we know they’re coming for us, we might hide. “We” meaning terrorists, of course – it’s only terrorists that have anything to fear. We-the-people shouldn’t worry about unconstitutional government activity: if we have nothing to hide then what do we have to fear?

A few weeks ago, I wondered out loud to a friend how long it would be before any history about the American Revolutionary War needs to be hidden – exhibitions at the Smithsonian and elsewhere closed, textbooks revised, etc. After all, the most basic message of our founding war was the fight for liberty and freedom from government interference: it was a citizen's rebellion against a distant, confused chief executive (King George III) with overly-invasive policies. At what point will our history from the 18th century – the actions and words of our Founding Fathers – start to resonate with today’s Americans? When will they begin to see that the policies of our present-day King George have been at odds with the intent of our own Constitution?

As I thought about this article, I again recalled the famous “poem” by the German reverend Martin Niemöller – one of the most telling statements about the potential horrors of incrementalism. No irony is lost here in quoting Niemöller in an article that began by commenting on the U.S. government’s efforts to whitewash the history of certain Nazis and German anti-Semites; Niemöller’s past does not diminish the raw truth of his words. We may not feel that we are in imminent fear of being rounded up and imprisoned, and perhaps that is true. That, however, is the point: the biggest danger of Bush-Cheney style incrementalism is how difficult it can be to see what the next set of government actions will look like. We should have demanded better of our government in the aftermath of World War II, and we should continue to do so now – but “better” actions (and the intentions behind them) cannot take place under a veil of secrecy.


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