Friday, July 3, 2009

With Liberty and Justice for All: A Year in Review

Independence Day on July 4th represents the birthday of freedom for America. As our nation has completed its 233rd year, it is time to assess the state of liberty and justice in this land.


The last year saw an historic change, as the Bush Administration gave way to the new administration of America’s first African-America President, Barack Obama. Not only was this a change in party and racial background in the office of the president, but also there was a fundamental change in how liberty and justice would be applied both here and abroad.

While the Bush-Cheney Administration was intent on limiting liberty and justice to protect us from the “terrorists,” the Obama Administration brought the hope of a return to our principals of liberty and justice for all.

Foreign Relations: How Do We Treat Our Enemies?

In this regard, the US has always had enemies. The names change – British, Spanish, Germans, Russians, terrorists – but there have always been one or more enemies and we can expect this in the future. And there will always be evil in the world. The attacks of 9-11 are not the only incidence where evil deeds have or will result in the death of innocent people.

But, the question is how we deal with the perpetrators of such evil deeds.

Under Bush-Cheney, the deeds of terrorist were raised to a level of concern greater that of past enemies of the US. New methods were needed:
Indefinite detention conveniently fit the loophole that some terrorists are not agents of a particular nation, and therefore not soldiers protected by international convention. Nor were they criminals, as they were committing acts of war and not crimes. This loophole was large enough to round up even suspected terrorists. Clearly some were associated with terrorists groups, but others may have been little more but in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Extraordinary rendition was also applied to these combatants. This is a fancy term for out-sourcing the imprisonment, torture, and possible execution of captured alleged terrorists. Some subjected to rendition were nationals of friendly nations such as Canada and the UK.

Special interrogation was the fancy term for what most would call torture. While Cheney argues to this day that waterboarding is not torture and was effective in gaining information, most Americans were not proud of a nation that used torture in interrogations carried out by the CIA, military or even government contractors.

Change Under Obama?

So far, we have seen positive steps under the new president. We’re seeing administration officials call waterboarding and other “special interrogation” methods as torture. We’ve heard the call to close the prison at Guantanamo. But we have heard of no call to end indefinite detention for these prisoners.

While official use of rendition appears to have ended, it was disappointing that the Obama administration still claimed “state secrets privilege” in February in regard to a lawsuit against Boeing Company for arranging rendition flights. (See my posts Rendition Revisited and Rendition Revisited-Update.)

Domestic Issues

Under Bush/Cheney we saw a reaction to the attacks of 9-11 that coupled fear with restrictions on liberties. Whereas FDR proclaimed “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” we saw Bush/Cheney emphasize the need to fear the terrorists. The change in administration has been accompanied by the end of this fear campaign.

On the liberty side, we saw greater restrictions for airline passengers, more surveillance cameras in public areas, and the wiretapping of citizens’ oversees calls. In this category, as the memory of 9-11 faded, there was some let-up, but most of these still remain.

Civil Liberties

The constitution guarantees equal rights for all. But theory and practice often diverge.


Clearly, minorities are making advances, but poverty is still afflicts minorities to a greater degree. While some of this is economic disparity, there is also a correlation between economic means and the ability to ensure one’s rights are protected in legal and civil matters. We still see a much higher percentage of minorities in prison. Affirmative action remains controversial.

Women’s Rights

The presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton raised the hope for women of crashing the ultimate glass ceiling. On the other hand, the choice of Sarah Palin for Republican vice presidential candidate was more problematic – clearly she did well as mayor and governor, but was not quite ready for the national stage and this became quite evident.

Women have generally arrived at the place where they are accepted in professional settings, but the economic disparity remains. And also the glass ceiling.

Immigration Issues

The question of what to do with millions of illegal immigrants remains a hot issue. Bush gets a positive mark from me on advocating a guest worker status, realizing the reality that so many have lived here a long time and contribute to the economy and their communities. However, while there remain many who want to deport all undocumented aliens, there is simply no political will for this. Therefore, the undocumented remain in this legal limbo where they remain here but lack many essential civil rights.

Perhaps most preposterous of the Bush-Cheney era proposals is the wall on the Mexican border. In many places, this would be like a prison wall with multiple fences and watch towers. Maybe it works in the desert border of Arizona or New Mexico, but along the winding Rio Grande River in Texas, the wall would be back some distance from the river bank, thereby appearing to cede territory to Mexico and leaving a good number of citizens and their property in this DMZ between the wall and the riverbank.

Trumping this preposterous idea was the funding provision exempting the wall construction from all federal laws and regulations! Like the terrorist, the illegals are such a threat that extraordinary means must be taken.

GLTB Rights

During the Bush-Cheney term, there was no spoken support for gay rights, even if the Vice President had a more inclusive view that the party line (because of a close family member). Under the Obama administration, there is some movement for additional rights for partners. However, “don’t ask, don’t tell” remains. At this point in time, when we all know gay people either in our family or at work or elsewhere, this policy no longer makes sense.

Gay marriage states are increasing, despite the referendum loss in California. As I mention in my post, I’d like to see the state get out of the marriage business – they’ve only been involved for 100 to 200 years of human history. I say let government administer legal contracts between people and let other institutions of society (e.g., religions) define “marriage” as they see appropriate. Lagging behind gay rights is transgender rights. Some states are enacting anti-discrimination provisions, yet understanding of these issues is lagging behind the progress for gay rights.


So, on this 4th of July, what is the overall status of “liberty and justice for all” in America? Definitely, the nation took some major steps backwards in the previous administration. While there has been positive motion under the current administration, we are not where we should be. Some policies and procedures of the Bush-Cheney administration have not been reversed. Minorities and women still have a ways to go to gain full equity. And “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a policy whose time has past.

While the struggle is still ongoing, we still remain a nation founded on the principal of liberty and justice for all. Happy Independence Day!