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Delta Gents Speech (given February 20, 2008)

17 Jul

On December 23, 1776, Thomas Paine wrote in The American Crisis:

“These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

Obviously, the times Thomas Paine talked about are different from today but his words capture the essence of the emergency this nation is in today. Ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, this nation, through fear, has been led down a dangerous path that could erode the most sacred principles on which it was built.

In March of 2003, the United States invaded Iraq on the grounds that the Iraqi government possessed nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The American government also asserted that the Iraqi government had connections to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, thus, making the country a threat to American national security. Over time, these reasons were proven false. The 9/11 Commission found no collaborative link between the Iraqi government and al-Qaeda. In addition, the Duelfer report, a 1,000-page document, discovered that there were no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that Saddam’s weapons programs were destroyed after years of sanctions and weapons inspections. It would have taken many years and lots of money that the Iraqi government did not have to revamp these programs. While Saddam Hussein did have the intent to reconstitute these programs after the lifting of sanctions, his primary enemies were Israel and Iran – not the United States. Therefore, the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq by the United States was utterly unjustified.

And yet, we’re still there. So far, millions of Iraqis and nearly 4,000 American soldiers have died in this conflict. In terms of financial costs, the United States has spent over $800 billion to fund both the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, already surpassing what we spent to fund the Vietnam War. And by the year 2017, that cost is expected to rise to about $2 trillion. Meanwhile, companies like Blackwater and Halliburton continue to profit handsomely from this war and the United States is currently building permanent military bases in Iraq, signaling that it does not intend to leave any time soon. Seeing that the vast majority of the Iraqi people does not want, and never did want, the United States military occupying their country, what America is doing is nothing more than 21st century imperialism.

However, you never hear this in the media. Instead, what is currently highlighted is the drop in violence that occurred after the troop surge, supposedly lending credit to the argument that American troops are making the country safer. What is underreported, however, is that, according to the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration, nearly 5 million Iraqis have been either internally or externally displaced from their homes, making the Iraq War the worst refugee crisis in history. Perhaps the reason why attacks have gone down so much is because the people we would be killing are either already dead or displaced from their homes.

In addition, the goal of the United States was not to invade Iraq, spark a huge level of violence, instigate a troop surge and then bring the violence level down to pre-surge levels – the stated goal of invading Iraq, from the very beginning, was to protect American national security. However, according to a recent national intelligence estimate, “The Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.” So a war that was supposed to protect American national security has done the complete opposite. But what is more troubling is this. When General David Petraeus testified before Congress to provide an update about the effects of the troop surge, Virginia Senator John Warner asked him this, “Are you able to say at this time, if we continue what you have laid before the Congress here, as a strategy, do you feel that that is making America safer?” After initially trying to dodge the question, General Petraeus said, “Sir, I don’t know actually.” I find it troubling to know that our nation’s top general in this war effort cannot answer that important question.

As devastating as the Iraq war has been on the lives of American soldiers, their families, and the Iraqi people, something else troubling occurred on October 17, 2006 – that something was the passage of the Military Commissions Act. Very broadly, what this act does is create military commissions to try enemy combatants but a careful reading of this act reveals many troubling provisions. First of all, its definition of an “unlawful enemy combatant” is terrifyingly broad. It states an “unlawful enemy combatant” is anyone who is

“engaged in hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents…[or] to have committed a hostile act in aid…[or] to have supported hostilities in aid of such a force or organizations so engaged.” – §948a.(7) of Military Commissions Act.

However, according to Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch:

“Under international humanitarian law – the laws of war – combatants are people who directly participate in hostilities. People who merely support hostilities – such as cafeteria workers at a military base – are considered civilians. Unlike combatants, they cannot be deliberately targeted for attack…[This] bill’s definition is unjustifiably broad.”

While the military commissions established in this bill do not have jurisdiction to try American citizens, its broad definitions of terms such as “alien” and “unlawful enemy combatant” are broad enough to cover non-citizens such as legal permanent residents of the United States.

Secondly, the bill states that hearsay evidence is admissible but may be rejected if the judge does not find it to be useful. The mere fact that the government would allow a judge to consider hearsay as a piece of evidence, even though it considered to be unreliable by both civilian and military courts, is extremely troubling.

Third, the bill states that

“…no court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider any claim or cause of action, including an application for a writ of habeas corpus…brought by or on behalf of any action detained by the United States as an unlawful enemy combatant, relating to any aspect of the alien’s detention, transfer, treatment, or conditions of treatment…”-SEC. 5(e) of Military Commissions Act.

The bill also states that the only court that may have jurisdiction to hear these kinds of appeals is the D.C. District Court of Appeals, provided that the government determines the detainee’s prisoner status through a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT). But Combatant Status Review Tribunals are troubling, in and of themselves. While the defendant is able to provide evidence in their defense, the procedural rules of Combatant Status Review Tribunals state that, “there shall be a rebuttable presumption in favor of the Government’s evidence.” Therefore, any piece of evidence offered in favor of the defense is inferior to the evidence offered by the government.

Lastly, probably the most troubling aspect of the bill states that

“No person in any habeas action or any other action may invoke the Geneva Conventions or any other protocols thereto as a source of rights…” – SEC. 6 (b) (1) of Military Commissions Act.

What supporters of this bill like to argue is that unlawful enemy combatants are not covered under the Geneva Conventions, therefore, this clause is pointing out a legal reality. Those supporters are dead wrong. The kind of people defined in this bill’s definition of “unlawful enemy combatant” ARE covered by the Geneva Conventions and do have protection under international law. You would think the President read the Constitution before he signed this act, as it clearly states that

“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land…” – Article VI of the United States Constitution.

And guess what – the United States signed the Geneva Conventions in 1949. President Bush and his supporters have no right to pick and choose whom they want to have covered under the Geneva Conventions.

Over the past few years, the Bush administration manipulated the 9/11-catastrophe to erode our freedom and pursue its own imperialistic agenda, all under the guise of protecting America from terrorism – and the American people, through their fear, silence and apathy, have allowed it to happen. You would think that these kinds of actions would result in a strong backlash against the government but no, the opposite has happened. The American people are more afraid of its government than ever before and no one in the government is held accountable for their actions. Instead, they’re rewarded for their actions. Look at Donald Rumsfeld. Even though he was a leading architect in the campaign of lies to sell the Iraq War to the American people and authorized the use of torture, he managed to attain the title “distinguished visiting fellow” from the Hoover Institution, which is at the geographic heart of Stanford University.

Such an outright erosion of liberty is a signal of a democratic nation slowly creeping towards totalitarianism. The state promises to protect its citizens from an external but vague enemy and, slowly but surely, the state begins to eradicate the rights of the people to the point where the people have no rights at all. The state controls everything and the people have no power. Dissent is considered treason and freedom is virtually slavery. This is exactly what Benjamin Franklin was warning about when he said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” And yet, our nation seems to have suffered from collective amnesia, as there have been many times throughout history when leaders have abused their power when claiming to protect the nation. Under the Espionage Act, Woodrow Wilson jailed pacifists and anyone critical of American involvement in World War I and denounced them as traitors. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, under Executive Order 9066, interned hundreds of thousands of American citizens for merely looking like the enemy America was fighting against. In both of these actions, the government claimed to be defending America from an external enemy. But, in the end, it was not some external enemy that eroded the freedoms of the people – it was the United States government that did that.

And for those who think I am being hysterical, I wonder this – I wonder if you would still place your faith in this government after they stop you on the street, brand you an alien or an unlawful enemy combatant based on hearsay evidence and throw you in a secret prison in some unknown corner of the globe with no attorney or right to challenge your conviction in an American court. How many attorneys in the United States do you think would be willing to risk their careers, or even their lives, to defend somebody convicted by a military commission of being an unlawful enemy combatant? Do you think this Attorney General will help you? He doesn’t even think waterboarding is a form of torture. This president now has a blank check to erase every freedom we hold dear. The very freedoms, which so many of our patriots have fought and died to protect, all erased with the swipe of a pen.

Despite these bad times, there is hope. The Democratic takeover of Congress in November of 2006 is a sign that the American people are beginning to wake up and rise up to take their country in a better direction. And both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama voted against the Military Commissions Act and expressed their desire for ending the war in Iraq. And, indeed, our nation has bounced back from the horrors of the Espionage Act and Executive Order 9066. However, it’s going to take a lot more than voting for a specific candidate to move this country in a better direction. Literally days before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. said

“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ And Vanity comes along and asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But Conscience asks the question ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”

Far too long have Americans stayed silent under the blanket of bipartisanship and stifled dissent for fear of emboldening the enemy or criticizing the president in a time of war. Far too long have Americans listened to voices of cowardice, expediency and vanity as flames engulf our nation. Now is the time for the American people to listen to the voice of conscience, do what is right and put out the flames. Not because we are Democrats, not because we are Republicans, not because we are Moderates, Independents, Libertarians, Socialists, Maoists, or Anarchists, and not because we are seeking bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship but because we are Americans and the future of our country is at stake. Although an imperfect man, Thomas Jefferson once eloquently said, “A little revolution now and then is a good thing; the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Far too long has our tree of liberty been soaked with the blood of a tyrant. It is time for the true patriots, not the sunshine patriots, to reclaim that tree. And so, my fellow Americans, I end here with the words of another great patriot, “Good night, and good luck.”

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