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Ambiguous but alarming new wording, which is tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and was just passed by the Senate, is reminiscent of the "extraordinary measures" introduced by the Nazis after they took power in 1933.
And the relative lack of reaction so far calls to mind the oddly calm indifference with which most Germans watched the erosion of the rights that had been guaranteed by their own Constitution. As one German writer observed, "With sheepish submissiveness we watched it unfold, as if from a box at the theater."
The writer was Sebastian Haffner (real name Raimond Pretzel), a young German lawyer worried at what he saw in 1933 in Berlin, but helpless to stop it since, as he put it, the German people "collectively and limply collapsed, yielded and capitulated."
"The result of this million-fold nervous breakdown," wrote Haffner at the time, "is the unified nation, ready for anything, that is today the nightmare of the rest of the world." Not a happy analogy.
The Senate bill, in effect, revokes an 1878 law known as the Posse Comitatus Act, which banned the Army from domestic law enforcement after the military had been used --and often abused -- in that role during Reconstruction. Ever since then, that law has been taken very seriously -- until now. Military officers have had their careers brought to an abrupt halt by involving federal military assets in purely civilian criminal matters.
But that was before 9/11 and the mantra, "9/11 changed everything." In this case of the Senate-passed NDAA -- more than a decade after the terror attacks and even as U.S. intelligence agencies say al-Qaeda is on the brink of defeat -- Congress continues to carve away constitutional and legal protections in the name of fighting "terrorism."
The Senate approved the expanded military authority despite opposition from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director Robert Mueller -- and a veto threat from President Barack Obama.
The Senate voted to authorize -- and generally to require -- "the Armed Forces of the United States to detain covered persons" indefinitely. And such "covered persons" are defined not just as someone implicated in the 9/11 attacks but anyone who "substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces."
Though the wording is itself torturous -- and there is a provision for a waiver from the Defense Secretary regarding mandatory military detentions -- the elasticity of words like "associated forces" and "supported" have left some civil libertarians worried that the U.S. military could be deployed domestically against people opposing future American wars against alleged "terrorists" or "terrorist states."
The Senate clearly wished for the military's "law and order" powers to extend beyond the territory of military bases on the theory that there may be "terrorsymps" (short for "terrorist sympathizers") lurking everywhere.
Is the all-consuming ten-year-old struggle against terrorism rushing headlong to consume what's left of our constitutional rights? Do I need to worry that the Army in which I was proud to serve during the 1960s may now kick down my front door and lead me off to indefinite detention -- or worse?
My neighbors have noticed, after all, that I now wear a longish beard and, sometimes, even a hat like Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. And everyone knows what a terrorsymp he was. "If you see something, say something!"
Worse still, a few of my neighbors overheard me telling my grandchildren that President Obama should be ashamed to be bragging about having Awlaki, an American citizen, and later his 16 year-old son murdered without a whiff of due process. "If you hear something, say something!"
A Lost Respect
Citizens of powerful countries used to have their rights widely respected -- at home and abroad. "I am a Roman citizen" -- "Civis Romanus Sum" -- once counted for something. Even more respect tended to greet "I am an American" -- because of our power abroad and our once famous adherence to a written Constitution at home.
Adherence? Lately not so much. Not since power-hungry politicians set out to exploit 9/11 so that "everything changed," including even the rights formerly guaranteed us by the Bill of Rights and the habeas corpus protection in the Constitution itself.