Thursday, February 02, 2006

Tin soldiers and Nixon comin'

Regarding the Cindy Sheehan incident, and what it says about governmental power and civil liberties and even political opinion in this country, let me just say:


This wasn't Kent State. Or COINTELPRO. Or Hoover's FBI compiling a massive file on Martin Luther King, Jr. (if ever we needed evidence of the abuse of church by state, it was the scurrilous campaign to defame a Baptist minister by the premier federal law enforcement agency). Nor was it Chicago in '68, or the Chicago 7. Nor even King wriing from the Birmingham jail, or Selma (Lord, Selma!).

One of the commenters at Glenn Greenwald's site mentioned being largely unconcerned with the Sheehan arrest, until he read Greenwald's post about it. But it isn't a matter of passion, it's a question of law. Government is simply not authorized to act, under our Constitutional system, without statutory authority (this is true even when the agency or office in question has been created by the Constitution). The Capitol Police officer apparently had no authority to so much as ask Ms. Sheehan to zip her jacket back up. But it's hardly a sign of the end of the republic.

The issue here is not how seriously deteriorated our civil liberties or Constitutional rights are (the provisions of the PATRIOT ACT added by Sen. Specter are a far more haunting). The issue is how scared the GOP is, that the message would trickle down to a Capitol Police officer that Cindy Sheehan in a T-Shirt needs to be not only removed from the building, but kept out of sight and incommunicado until the next morning. And it backfired. The story was on NPR the next morning, it was on the news, and there was no clear justification for the arrest.

Nor can there be.

No matter how reactionary some think we have become, no one wants to roll back the Gideon opinion, or Miranda, or the school prayer decisions (well, some want to, but hell is more likely to freeze over first), nor most of the myriad Fourth Amendment opinions which have severely limited the power of the government to conduct searches (and which most law enforcement agencies accept as sound practice, including those within the Federal government). Indeed, the Capitol Police realize they screwed up, and have apologized to three people they ejected from the Chamber, and issued public apologies. Which, let us admit, is something. This matter isn't over, but it reveals a great deal of tension which needs to be better understood and handled.

I've grown fond of saying that giants once walked the earth, and pointing to events like Pearl Harbor as proof we once knew how to handle such unforeseen attacks. But then, the country responded with the incarceration of all Japanese Americans, an event some still champion. And NPR yesterday found someone in Kansas to repeat the old canard that it was the "politicians" who cost us the war in Vietnam.

The truth is, we have never been wiser or less easily scared than we are now. We have always been foolish, and have always escaped by the skin of our teeth. I lived through 1968, a year some later said should have seen the downfall of the republic. Frankly, I still don't think it was all that revolutionary, nor the violence and civil unrest all that disruptive. How easily we forget the floods that wiped out Louisiana in 1929; the race riots that swept Tulsa, Oklahoma ; the lynchings that were so common in 20th century America people mailed each other post cards commemorating the latest one. We have, in other words, faced devastating events before; and been through times of extreme violence. I still think most of the "unrest" the country has experienced since World War II is simply the growning pains of a new nation. Before the Great Depression, FDR, and that war, we still largely saw ourselves as a collection of states, not a single nation.
The country is still struggling with that new identity.

And so it may be several generations yet before we stop saying we "lost" Vietnam, and can acknowledge we had no business being there. It is only in my middle years that I've stopped hearing, as an almost common refrain, that "the South will rise again." And the Civil War ended almost 100 years before I was born.

If Ms. Sheehan chooses to pursue a suit on this matter, I wouldn't blame her. But it does reflect on all of us, that we are so easily scared, so lightly disrupted in our comfort. Not only the officer who overreacted (and who probably recognized Ms. Sheehan when she entered the chamber), but all of us, whether we voted for Bush or not. I live near a very wealthy neighborhood in Houston, one with some of the wealthiest people in the city living in it, but just across Interstate 10 from my part of town, one composed of Mexican immigrants, both legal and illegal, as well as Korean and Vietnamese immigrants; some industrious, some poor, some criminal. Frankly, we scare the other side of the freeway, rather badly. They don't like to come over here. And they don't want "us" coming over there.

It is a neighborhood hard to drive through, one you have to want to enter, rather than one on the way to somewhere else (as most of Houston is). It is also patrolled constantly by its own police force, as it is a small set of villages incorporated separately from the city of Houston. A sort of "gated community," in other words, where strange cars would be easily noticed, and have a hard time zipping away to the freeway and easy escape (as opposed to my side of town, where homeless people are gunned down near my house and the shooters simply disappear into the constant flow of traffic). And yet they are more afraid there of keeping what they have, than I am where I live. It is obvious in the gates and fences around their houses, the lights that illuminate every square inch of the huge lots their huge houses sit on; the suspicion with which they eye any car (like mine) which is more than a few years old, and seems unfamiliar.

They are afraid, in other words, but as Frank Herbert said, "Fear is the little death, fear is the mind killer." As a result of fear, "we are the idiots who keep electing a rogue president and a cowardly congress because an old murderous fanatic in Afganistan scored one big massacre." And it is indeed "discouraging how fragile our liberties really are, in light of how readily we have allowed them to be curtailed." But that is the consequence of fear, and fear is a spiritual issue, not just a national or political one. George Monbiot noted recently that all the wealth of the "First World" has not bought it happiness, or even necessarily contentment, but it has brought fear of losing what "we own." The study he cites is an interestingly almost empirical affirmation of something obvious to any observer from a spiritual perspective.

Am I trying to spiritualize the issue of Cindy Sheehan's arrest? Yes, and no. It's not a spiritual issue. But our response to it is. Despair? Over something like this? Or even so pedestrian and predictable a speech as the State of the Union address was? Please. If my spiritual comfort (despair is a disruption of the spirit) depends on the country's political situation, then I condemn myself to a permanent sense of hopelessness.

And frankly, the nation doesn't really care what I think, nor will it act to relieve my discomfort. Why make myself such a hostage to fortune?

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