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Our Un-American Government


Wednesday, Aug. 01, 2007

What does it mean for something to be "un-American"?

The term is associated with Joe McCarthy, who, although he didn't actually serve on the House Un-American Activities Committee, was the public face of the extreme, demagogic anti-communism that the committee represented. To have been un-American during McCarthy's heyday was to have been linked to the Left: to have been a communist, socialist, subversive, or fellow traveler. Or to have known one. Or to have known someone who knew one.

Fast-forward 50 years, and with Bill O'Reilly, the public discovered a pernicious new form of the phenomenon: Al Franken's teasing. "It's vicious," O'Reilly said, "it's un-American, and it needs to stop."

Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at least wielded the term against a more deserving target: torture. When the Abu Ghraib scandal first broke in 2004, Rumsfeld said publicly that the abuses that were photographed there were exceptional, and in no way typical of U.S. soldiers' conduct. They were "certainly un-American," he explained.

But of course Rumsfeld himself had played a central role in creating the policies that resulted in the torture of detainees. He had publicly questioned the relevance of the Geneva Conventions, ordered detainees to be hid from the Red Cross, and authorized illegal interrogation methods such as the use of guard dogs to intimidate detainees.

Was Rumsfeld himself un-American?

What one considers un-American depends on what one views as characteristically American. Was slavery American or un-American? What was more American: the Civil Rights Movement or Jim Crow? Can anyone truly rank the following on a scale of American to un-American: the Marshall Plan, the Enola Gay, the massacre at Wounded Knee, and the First Amendment?

Given U.S. history and its vicissitudes, one has a choice: either recognize that the term is malleable and essentially meaningless, or use it to claim what is best in the country's heritage, and to firmly reject what is not.

The real questions are what do we want to be as Americans, and what do we want our country to represent?

A coalition of groups -- the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch,, and others - have started a campaign that provides a hopeful answer to these questions. The American Freedom Campaign, launched yesterday, is an online and offline effort to build grassroots support to strengthen American democracy, restore constitutional checks and balances, and remedy abuses of power.

The central focus of the campaign is to reassert the notion that the United States is a nation of laws, and that even the President is not above the law. What this means, in its particulars, is that the campaign has ten basic goals, each addressing an abusive practice of the current administration. They include:

* Fully restore the right to challenge the legality of one's detention, or habeas corpus, and the right of detained suspects to be charged and brought to trial.

* Prohibit torture and all cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

* Prohibit the use of secret evidence.

* Prohibit the detention of anyone, including U.S. citizens, as an "enemy combatant" outside the battlefield, and on the President's say-so alone.

* Prohibit the President from "disappearing" anyone and holding them in secret detention.

* Use the federal courts, or courts-martial, to charge and prosecute terrorism suspects, and close Guantanamo down.

The centerpiece of the campaign is the "American Freedom Pledge." The pledge, which more than 100,000 citizens have already signed -- and which the campaign will urge presidential candidates to sign -- takes an optimistic view of what it means to be an American:

We are Americans, and in our America we do not torture, we do not imprison people without charge or legal recourse, allow our phones and emails to be tapped without a court order, and above all we do not give any President unchecked power. I pledge to fight to protect and defend the Constitution from assault by any President.

The Constitution protects American freedom. With checks and balances, and basic legal rights, it has prevented tyranny and safeguarded our liberty. Yet today, under the pretense of the "war on terror," the White House is dismantling the Constitution, concentrating power in the President, and undermining the rule of law. THIS IS UN-AMERICAN.

Joanne Mariner is a New York-based human rights lawyer. She invites readers to visit the American Freedom Campaign Web site, at

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