Thursday, November 6, 2008

An Open Letter To Our President-Elect

As I was signing the AVAAZ petition today, I considered the irony of having to beg someone who is a Constitutional scholar and a member of a minority ethnic group to consider ending the kind of injustice that petition was addressing. Yet, I fear that you will probably ignore it anyway.

On election night, a friend who is also very concerned about human rights and I were discussing whether you would end the travesty of Guantanamo and the other "black sites" that human rights activists believe are still operational. We both voted for you. Yet we both agreed that you probably wouldn't.

Both of us would love to be proved wrong.

In your acceptance speech on election night, you said this:

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world -- our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down -- we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security -- we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright --tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.

Barack Obama [Acceptance] Speech

Yes, I emphasized those last few words, but I was listening to that speech. I think you emphasized those words, too. Our ideals include the belief that the government does not have an unlimited right to imprison people, and that the decision to imprison someone must be preceded by a trial and a conviction by a jury of our peers. Yet we have not lived by those ideals where the occupants of the black sites are concerned. We kidnapped these people, or hired others to kidnap them for us, and then flew them to remote locations where they were, in many cases, never heard from or seen again.

You also mentioned the experiences of Anna Nixon Cooper, a 106 year old black woman:

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.

Barack Obama [Acceptance] Speech

For the people who have been disappeared into these prisons, the injustice they face is as great as the ones African Americans faced in places like Selma and Montgomery. For the rest of us, they are a stain on our honor as a nation that is equal to those places, or to Manzanar, Wounded Knee, or Andersonville. To the rest of the world, they're a reminder that when it suits us, we often ignore our ideals to do whatever we want, particularly if we feel threatened.

Maybe the worst aspect of this, though, is that we haven't just done this to foreigners. Our own citizens are now freely being spied on, even though, until you and many other legislators gave them a get out of jail free card, it was illegal. The PATRIOT Act allows the government to require librarians to inform it of the tastes of its citizens without informing those citizens that this information has been gathered. Presumably, an unexplained interest in Arabic or Islam is all the government needs to start an investigation. The Military Commissions Act does away with habeas corpus, the longest-established right in our legal tradition. We have become a nation of fearful people. The stupid among us are afraid of terrorists. The smart among us are becoming afraid of our government.

Yet even when you had the power to stop this from continuing, you ran away. It's what you've done most of your career. If past is prologue, the coda of this impending Shakespearean tragedy will be something many Americans won't want to see the end of.

As a country, we are headed for a darkness the likes of which we haven't seen since the Civil War. What's worse, there seems to be no end in sight to the erosion of our freedoms. These changes have been abetted by Democrats nearly as much as Republicans. They're the result of opportunism and lack of courage on the part of our "leaders". So far, you have done nothing to change any of it.

Come January, you will have it within your power. With a single executive order, you can start the dismantling of the black sites, and you can say that any American accused of a war crime will stand trial in any court that has standing. You can ask Congress to undo the damage it's done to our Constitution in the last few years, and keep after them until they've done it. We citizens will be glad to help you with that last task.

In your speech, you also mentioned the armed forces:

Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us.

Barack Obama [Acceptance] Speech

Some of these people will undoubtedly criticize you for doing what I'm asking you to do. But I've worked with these people for a long time, so I can tell you two things about them that ought to make that easier to endure. First, there are plenty who will cheer your decision as well, knowing that their jobs winning the hearts of the people whose countries they are occupying will be easier when we've finally declared that we will no longer torture them or make them disappear. Second, they are also courageous and honorable, and if their country and their leaders say that they must operate according to a set of rules, they will do so. They deserve far better leadership than they've had recently.

[How it should be - Liberty standing tall in the face of terrorism, not running around in a panic. Image credit: National Park Service]

You are a great communicator of ideas. I saw the audience at your acceptance speech, too. They felt the power of your words, because they felt the power of the thoughts behind them. They are passionate, generous, and courageous. Explain to them why we need to live with uncertainty in order to remain true to who we are, and they'll believe you. They, too, deserve far better leaders than they've had recently.

So, how about it Mr. President-Elect? Do we continue down this course because it's an easy one for you, or do we go back to becoming the country we want to be? The people who voted for you want and deserve better than more of the same, but now it's up to you.

UPDATE (Nov. 9): Dana found a great cartoon that encapsulates the hope of this article. For more inspiration, check out Bob Geiger's weekly roundup of political cartoons.

UPDATE 2: If you have something you'd like to tell the President-Elect, you can write to his team directly. I've passed on the URL to this letter.

UPDATE 3 (Nov. 10): The latest on the subject here, including an AP article on what the Obama transition team is up to and some comments at another blog that I wish I could put on a full page ad in the Washington Post.


Dana Hunter said...

He said he'd listen to us. I plan to hold him to that.

The giddy hope I'm displaying right now is partially a reaction to the first sign of light after eight years of darkness, and partially the belief that Obama has some definite ideas about ending the abuses of the last eight years and setting us firmly back on the right course. We gave him the majority he needs. We gave him the mandate he needs.

Through the next few months, we'll keep sending these reminders that we're watching, and come January 20th, we'll be holding his feet to the fire.

You might want to consider mailing your open letter directly to him just to let him know.

Cujo359 said...

Most politicians say they'll listen. I suspect Obama will listen, but even if he does, listening ain't gettin' it done.

We certainly gave him the majority he needs. Mandates are largely illusions created by people how love shaping illusions, I think. In the end, a politician will find out what the limits to his power are and then work within them, if he's lucky. The example that springs to mind is Bill Clinton and gays in the military. Clinton could have won by 60% and he would have had a tough time making that one go.

Thanks for the suggestion. I'm sure Obama's staff would love a hard copy. ;-)