Notes on the Atrocities
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Sunday, July 04, 2004  

Declaration Revisited

What I implied in yesterday's reposting (and occasional editing) of sections of the Declaration of Independence is today made explicit by the extraordinary Barbara Ehrenreich. Rarely do I quote vast portions of original articles, but this is a great time for an exception.

George III is accused, for example, of "depriving us in many cases of the benefits of Trial by Jury." Our own George II has imprisoned two U.S. citizens — Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi — since 2002, without benefit of trials, legal counsel or any opportunity to challenge the evidence against them. Even die-hard Tories Scalia and Rehnquist recently judged such executive hauteur intolerable.

It would be silly, of course, to overstate the parallels between 1776 and 2004. The signers of the declaration were colonial subjects of a man they had come to see as a foreign king. One of their major grievances had to do with the tax burden imposed on them to support the king's wars. In contrast, our taxes have been reduced — especially for those who need the money least — and the huge costs of war sloughed off to our children and grandchildren. Nor would it be tactful to press the analogy between our George II and their George III, of whom the British historian John Richard Green wrote: "He had a smaller mind than any English king before him save James II."

But the parallels are there, and undeniable. "He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power," the declaration said of George III, and today the military is indulgently allowed to investigate its own crimes in Iraq. George III "obstructed the Administration of Justice." Our George II has sought to evade judicial review by hiding detainees away in Guantánamo, and has steadfastly resisted the use of the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows non-U.S. citizens to bring charges of human rights violations to U.S. courts.

The signers further indicted their erstwhile monarch for "taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments." The administration has been trying its best to establish a modern equivalent to the divine right of kings, with legal memorandums asserting that George II's "inherent" powers allow him to ignore federal laws prohibiting torture and war crimes.

Then there is the declaration's boldest and most sweeping indictment of all, condemning George III for "transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation." Translate "mercenaries" into contract workers and proxy armies (remember the bloodthirsty, misogynist Northern Alliance?), and translate that last long phrase into Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.

But it is the final sentence of the declaration that deserves the closest study: "And for the support of this Declaration . . . we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." Today, those who believe that the war on terror requires the sacrifice of our liberties like to argue that "the Constitution is not a suicide pact." In a sense, however, the Declaration of Independence was precisely that.

By signing Jefferson's text, the signers of the declaration were putting their lives on the line. England was then the world's greatest military power, against which a bunch of provincial farmers had little chance of prevailing. Benjamin Franklin wasn't kidding around with his quip about hanging together or hanging separately. If the rebel American militias were beaten on the battlefield, their ringleaders could expect to be hanged as traitors.

They signed anyway, thereby stating to the world that there is something worth more than life, and that is liberty. Thanks to their courage, we do not have to risk death to preserve the liberties they bequeathed us. All we have to do is vote.

posted by Jeff | 1:33 PM |
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