People of Conscience, Challenge the President!
Human rights activist Ross C. "Rocky" Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City, delivered these remarks May 28, on the occasion of a visit by President Bush. They are published here as part of the ongoing Moral Compass series, focusing on the spoken word.
You who are here today, raising your voices for an end to the tremendous abuses of power that are causing so much damage to our nation, are the true patriots!
For the third time in as many years, President George Bush is visiting Salt Lake City, the capital city of the state in which he enjoyed the greatest margin of victory in both of his presidential elections. And for the third time, thousands of us are gathered here on the occasion of his visit to raise our voices out of great concern for our nation.
We join together as people of conscience--people who not only love our country and the values upon which our Constitution rests, but who strongly believe that our actions, and the actions in which our country engages, should be consistent with our most basic moral values.
We are grateful that Daniel Ellsberg has joined us today. He is perhaps the greatest example in our time of the courageous exercise of conscience, who put everything on the line--his security clearance, his career, and a possible life sentence in prison--to let the American people know the truth about the lies that led us into, and perpetuated, the catastrophic war in Vietnam.
We raise our voices in unison today because President Bush, Vice- President Cheney, and other members of the Administration have engaged, with the sad and dangerous complicity of Congress and much of the mainstream media, in unprecedented, egregious human rights violations; vast deceit of Congress and the American people; astounding crimes against peace, of the same nature as those for which men were convicted during the Nuremberg trials; war crimes; crimes against humanity; and blatant violations of our Constitution, the rule of law, our nation's most critical treaty obligations, and the system of checks and balances so crucial to our constitutional democracy.
We gather today because we understand that it is only through citizens embracing our democracy and demanding far better of our elected representatives that our nation's course will be altered toward the restoration of the rule of law.
Although this Administration has only a little more than seven months left, we gather here today, not out of partisanship or a hunger for retribution, but out of a heartfelt conviction that our great nation will be irreparably harmed without the full disclosure of the truth and reforms that will, in the future, prevent the abuses suffered by our nation, and by people around the world, as a result of the unlawful and immoral conduct perpetrated by the Bush Administration and condoned by Congress.
We gather today because it's not yet over. Far from it. So much damage is being done to our country every day, so much more hatred is generated toward us every day, and so many atrocities are being perpetrated against people around the world every day, with the unprecedented authorization of the Executive Branch and, in some instances, with the collusion of an astoundingly craven Congress.
In addition, there is a substantial risk that, especially with a complacent citizenry, the President will order an attack against Iran, having contrived a case for another illegal, tragic war of aggression, against a people who stood in sympathy and solidarity with us on 9/11, on the basis of the same sort of lies and fear-mongering that led us to the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq.
We gather because we value our democracy, the reality of which depends upon an informed electorate rather than a nation that has been deceived and kept in the dark because of the obsessive secrecy of this outlaw administration--and because of the timidity and irresponsibility of a Congress that has failed in its constitutional role as a co-equal branch of government that is supposed to serve as a check and balance to the Executive Branch.
We gather together because we want to be able to say to our children, to others who look back in history, and to ourselves that we took a stand for our country, for our most fundamental shared values, and, most importantly, for our moral values, as reflected in the best of religious and humanitarian traditions.
Some people want us to just go along and keep our mouths shut. We're here to say that we won't keep our mouths shut--not as long as we are able--not as long as we can pass along to our children and later generations the moral imperative that, in the face of wrongdoing, we must all do what we can to bring about positive change.
To those who want us to keep silent, who urge us to fall into lockstep obedience to dishonest, immoral, human-rights-abusing tyrants, we not only say that we'll never let up; we invite them to join with us in calling for a return to decency, a return to truth-telling, a return to the values that, until now, have distinguished the United States from totalitarian governments that have no regard for civil and human rights.
Of course, our nation has had serious lapses, as with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; as with the enslavement of, then continuing horrendous discrimination against, people of African descent; as with the serious abuses of the intelligence community during the Cold War; and as with the CIA outrages as it organized the overthrow of the democratically elected governments of Iran and Guatemala, and as it supported death squads in Central America in the 1980s.
However, because people of conscience tenaciously and courageously took a stand, our nation has, in the past, embraced progress, pledging to do better, striving for the higher moral road.
Now, with the deceit that led us to the illegal disaster in Iraq; the officially-sanctioned kidnapping, disappearing, and torturing of people around the world; the illegal spying on American citizens; and the assertion by the President of unrestrained, totalitarian powers, we have taken the lowest road, regressing in a most dangerous manner, subversive to our Constitution and the best of our democratic values.
As people tell us to just be quiet and go along, let us all keep in mind: Silence is the essential collaborator with evil.
Complacency is complicity.
An unwillingness to stand up to challenge wrongdoing is itself wrongdoing.
Either we stand for positive change or we sustain the status quo.
In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., "Our lives begin to end the day we remain silent about things that matter."
And as Edmund Burke is often credited with saying, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
When our President and others in the Executive Branch have lied to us, leading our nation into a war of aggression against a country that posed no danger whatsoever to the United States, and causing the deaths or lifetime injuries to tens of thousands of Americans and to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, as well as untold chaos and destruction for millions of people throughout Iraq, are we to blindly fall in line like a bunch of amoral sheep behind the man who calls himself "the decider," but who we know to be "the defrauder"?
Who and what have we become if we simply remain quiet while agents of our nation's government, pursuant to the authorization by our President, kidnap people around the world and send them to torture chambers in nations renowned for torture and other human rights violations, while the victims' families are without any information about what has happened to them?
Is it any wonder that the United States has forfeited the good will demonstrated in many nations after the attacks on 9/11? Is it any wonder that our nation is viewed as a world-class, immoral hypocrite as our State Department criticizes numerous other countries for their human rights abuses? Sadly, in the eyes of many people around the world, the Statue of Liberty has been replaced as an American icon by images of a hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner standing on a box, with electrodes attached to his body; by naked Muslim men in US custody forced to simulate sex acts on each other; by the corpse of a man who has been beaten to death, next to a US soldier, smiling broadly, giving a "thumbs up" sign; or by a naked, terrified prisoner attacked by a US military dog?
Now the heinous atrocities committed as a result of an unprecedented authorization by the President of the United States serve as justifications by other human-rights abusing nations. Sudan and Zimbabwe have justified the kidnapping and disappearances of political opponents on the basis that the United States is doing it too. The Zimbabwean representative to the United Nations responded to US criticisms of abuses by Zimbabwe, noting that, in their words, "those who live in glass houses should not throw stones."
The Olympic Games are supposed to represent high-mindedness, good will, and peaceful relations between nations. However, one day before he came to Salt Lake City for the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, President Bush outrageously and erroneously declared that the Geneva Convention protections against cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment do not apply to detainees in the so-called war on terror. Since then, President Bush and Condoleezza Rice, relying on a bizarre, incredibly narrow definition of the word "torture," have maintained that the US does not torture people. These are such monumental, shameful lies.
Let them tell that to Abu Zubaydah, a man with a serious mental illness, who was severely tortured.
Let them tell it to Ibn al-Sheik al-Libi, who provided a torture-induced false account of a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Tragically, that false statement, resulting from his torture, was relied upon by Colin Powell when he made the case at the United Nations for the attack against Iraq.
Let them tell Maher Arar the US doesn't torture people. Arar, a Canadian citizen, was returning home from a family vacation when he was kidnapped at JFK Airport and taken, without any information provided to his family, to a torture chamber in Syria, a nation with a long record of severe abuse of prisoners. There he was interrogated for eighteen hours a day, beaten on his palms, hips and lower back with an electric cable. His captors beat him with their fists on his stomach, face and the back of his neck.
He suffered excruciating pain and pleaded with his captors to stop. When they did not, he gave them a false confession, as often occurs when torture victims will say whatever is necessary to stop the torture.
He was placed in a room where he could hear the screams of other people being tortured and was told that he would be placed in a spine- breaking "chair," hung upside down for beatings, and subjected to electric shocks. Then, after more than a year of being detained without any charges or opportunity for a hearing, the Syrians released him.
The Syrian ambassador to Washington admitted there was no reason to think that Arar had been involved in terrorism. A Canadian investigation concluded that the only evidence against Arar was that he had lunch with a suspect a year earlier in Ottawa.
Arar sought justice in US courts, but the perpetrators of the crimes against him--the Bush Administration--successfully argued that the continuation of the case would result in the disclosure of so-called "state secrets". His case was dismissed by the court. Hence, once again, one branch of government failed to provide any checks and balances to the abuse of executive power.
Let President Bush and his Secretary of State tell Khaled el-Masri that the US does not engage in illegal torture. Because his name was similar to someone suspected of ties to terrorism, el-Masri, a German citizen, was kidnapped by CIA agents while on vacation in Macedonia and taken, without word to his family, to an Afghanistan prison, where he was told:
"You are here in a country where no one knows about you, in a country where there is no law. If you die, we will bury you, and no one will know."
Three months later, it was determined he was not the suspected terrorist. Astoundingly, the CIA held him for another two months, then released him only after the State Department applied pressure. As with Maher Arar, El-Masri has been denied any justice in US courts because of the bald invocation by the Bush administration of the "state secrets" doctrine.
These are not isolated cases. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people around the world have been kidnapped, disappeared, and tortured--with no information provided to their families, no legal representation, no charges, no hearing. All of this is illegal, contrary to domestic statutory law, treaties, and customary international law.
As recognized by more than 175 religious organizations that have joined the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, including mainline and evangelical Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh members, torture is immoral, a gross violation of human dignity. The executive director of that campaign has noted that torture is in the same category as slavery, genocide, and rape--immoral practices that should be banned, without exceptions.
What is a democracy, what has happened to the rule of law, what has happened to our moral principles when such lawlessness and immorality can occur, and continue, with no accountability?
Some people talk about winning or losing the so-called war on terror, as if we could ever win by creating so much hatred and bitterness throughout much of the world by committing atrocities and militarily occupying a country that posed no security risk to our own nation.
One thing is clear: We have lost so much when we have abandoned, with the complacent acceptance of so many Americans, our moral bearings as a nation; when we have transformed our system of government from a constitutional democracy to a totalitarian, human-rights abuser; when we have abandoned the moral high road that has been the source of admiration throughout much of the world; when we have witnessed, without any meaningful challenge, the assertion of the President that he is not bound by the Constitution, treaty obligations, or laws passed by Congress; and when we have allowed the Executive Branch, without so much as an audible whimper from a spineless Congress, to engage in felonious, unconstitutional electronic surveillance of our telephone and e-mail communications.
Those of us gathered here today will proudly continue to call for a return to our constitutional democracy and the rule of law.
We will proudly continue to call for consistency between our professed moral, religious, and humanitarian traditions and our actions, individually and as a nation.
And we will proudly continue to stand tall as patriotic Americans, insisting that our leaders in the Executive Branch and Congress provide principled, competent, lawful leadership, in times of conflict as well as in times of peace.
We recognize that the protections of our Constitution, and our obligations under treaties, are to be honored at all times--and that the deviations from those commitments in times of war or other national emergency can produce extraordinary mischief, particularly by an Administration that has made it so clear that it intends to assume unlimited, monarchical power, without constraint and without accountability.
Let us all, without regard to political partisanship, join together in restoring our democracy, restoring the rule of law, and restoring our nation's moral standing on history's high road.
Let us never be silenced. Let us always stand against wrongdoing. And let us exercise our moral agency in every way we can to build a safer, more peaceful, compassionate world together.