The Fleeting Lights of Freedom

In the mystic haze of midsummer, a most unlikely Oberon stepped forth last week to fling a spray of fairy light across the murk, rousing the ill-enchanted sleepers on the ground with the hope that dawn had finally come again. But as the magic glow fades, the spell-struck victims will likely find they are still caught in a curse of perpetual night.

We speak of course of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the ludicrous and lawless "military tribunals" concocted by President George W. Bush to serve as meat grinders for the captives in his Terror War. Led by the sprightly — if not spritely — 86-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens, a narrow Court majority delivered a stinging rebuke to Bush’s assumption of imperial powers over the past five years, clearly rejecting the fundamental principle underlying the Crawford Caligula’s foul misrule: that the president’s unbridled will is the law.

The ruling has been hailed as a "victory for democracy," the "light at the end of the tunnel," a "turning point" in the long struggle to reclaim the Republic from the usurping junta of the Bush Regime. But we have seen these lights before, and watched them fade. All the previous "turning points" — scandals, atrocities, judicial rebuffs, investigations, criminal convictions — have only led to more depredations; every seeming defeat of unlawful power becomes instead a springboard for its further advancement. There is no reason to think it will be any different this time.

To be sure, Stevens and his allies have fought a valiant rear-guard action on behalf of liberty. They could have restricted their response to the narrow technical points at issue in the case, but instead took a broad scythe to the rank undergrowth of legal perversion spawned by the White House and its chief Constitutional corrupter, David Addington, the ruthless vizier to Vice President Dick Cheney. As the New Yorker reports, all laws must now pass through the hands of this unelected factotum, who feverishly screens them for any possible encroachments on presidential power — then writes the "signing statements" that Bush appends to every major piece of legislation, declaring that he will follow the new law — or not — as it suits him. "I’m the decider," as Bush likes to say in his cretinous playground patois. But it is Addington and Cheney who have sown the noxious weeds of tyranny that Bush so happily grazes upon.

So there was rich irony in seeing their malevolent system chastised by Stevens — a conservative (in the old sense) Republican whose 1975 appointment by President Gerald Ford was certainly handled by Ford’s powerful chief of staff: an ambitious apparatchik named Dick Cheney. And the Stevens decision would indeed be a landmark ruling, a return to sanity — if we were still in an era where the institutions of American government and society were actually functional, and office-holders felt bound by law. But if there is no political will in the American establishment to enforce the ruling — to make it mean what it manifestly says — then it will be nothing more than a pretty ornament for the Republic’s coffin.

And where does that will exist? Not in Congress, not in the media, not in the streets — and certainly not in the confused, craven Democratic opposition. Yet the true nature of the Regime’s wide-ranging war on liberty has been glaringly obvious for years. I’ve been writing about Bush’s power grab in the Moscow Times and elsewhere since November 2001, when I noted that he had given himself the right to order the killing or incarceration of anyone on earth whom he arbitrarily deemed a terrorist — or even a terrorist suspect. This was reported openly at the time, with approval from the gung-ho corporate media and the American political establishment, with record-breaking poll numbers for Bush — and nary a peep from the Democrats. The first press reports of tortured captives quickly followed, again without controversy.

Indeed, for all its reputed obsession with secrecy, the Bush Regime has been remarkably open about its usurpations. "Extrajudicial killing," torture, indefinite detention, mass surveillance, defiance of court rulings and Congress, employment of death squads, an unprovoked war of aggression — all have been carried out openly, readily apparent to anyone with access to mainstream media sources. That the Supreme Court has only now challenged the essence of Bush’s claim to authoritarian power is poignant testimony to how deep the rot of tyranny has spread.

Bush’s reaction to the ruling is more evidence of the decay. After a vague, haughty promise to "look at the findings" — rather than simply obey them, as the law requires — Bush declared: "One thing I’m not going to do, though, is I’m not going to jeopardize the safety of the American people. People have got to understand that." Thus in his mind the circular core of his authoritarian philosophy — the voracious worm that is devouring the Republic, the very thing that the Court ruled against — remains intact: any action that he arbitrarily declares necessary to ensure "the safety of the American people" cannot be restrained by laws or courts.

Already, the lickspittle, lock-step Congress is preparing laws to retroactively "legalize" past Bush crimes and countenance future offenses. As legal scholar Mark Garber notes, this will likely satisfy at least one of the Court’s wavering moderates when the next test of Bush’s tyranny comes around, sinking the razor-thin majority for liberty — which will soon disappear in any case when the ancient Stevens shuffles off this mortal coil. His bold stroke for freedom was magic indeed, but it may prove, in the corrupted currents of this world, to be such stuff as dreams are made on.