The Fourth of July used to be a pleasant holiday, families at the beach, barbecues, small town parades and fireworks. It was a genuine celebration of pride in country combined with an affirmation of the good life that most Americans enjoyed. But no longer. The bloom was definitely off the rose in the aftermath of the Vietnam fiasco, but it was still possible to think that Washington had blundered badly and learned its lesson, never to be repeated again. Subsequent wars in Latin America were quick and easily forgotten while Desert Storm benefited from an enemy who was plausibly the aggressor leading to a short conflict in which numerous nations lined up to follow the American lead. Washington wisely left Iraq to the Iraqis after the fighting was over, eschewing any attempt at nation building, though later participating in enforcing sanctions that devastated the Iraqi people.
But still, Americans were able to plausibly think that overall they were doing what they thought to be right, serving as the world's policeman only reluctantly. That all changed with 9/11. President George W. Bush declared war on the entire world with his Global War on Terror and his you're either "with us or against us rhetoric." The Patriot Act was passed by an overwhelming majority almost immediately, without anyone in congress having actually read it, and it was followed by the Patriot Act 2, the Military Commissions Acts of 2006 and 2009, and, more recently, by the National Defense Authorization Acts of 2012 and 2013. Overseas, the United States first invaded Afghanistan and drove out the Taliban and al-Qaeda in short order. Inexplicably, it then decided to stick around and is still engaged in trying to turn a pig's ear into a silk purse in that unhappy land. The war in Afghanistan is now the longest war in United States' history and there is no certainty that it will end any time soon.
The Afghan tour de force was followed by an attack on Iraq leading to the overthrow of its government, a conflict that was justified to the American people through deliberate falsification of intelligence to preposterously suggest that Baghdad was actually threatening the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction. The media and congress bought into the lies and no one has ever been held in any way accountable. Some leading Republicans, including Mitt Romney and John McCain, continue to regard the war as both necessary and a success and there are even unfathomable reports that George W. Bush now enjoys a favorable approval rating. The U.S. eventually got out of Iraq when forced to leave, but the destruction of the country's government and infrastructure has never been remedied, with terror bombings currently taking scores of lives nearly every day. A major justification for the war was the elimination of "terrorism," but the fact is that there were no terrorists in Iraq when the American army arrived and the country is now full of them.
With the wars came every conceivable abuse. Torture, renditions, extrajudicial killings, imprisonment of completely innocent people in overseas secret prisons, and the increased use of killing machines called drones which can and do wipe out entire wedding parties with a hellfire missile have become the enduring images of America that are broadcast to the rest of the world. It is often death without any rhyme or reason whatsoever, with signature strikes against targets in Pakistan meaning only that a man walking on the ground fits a general description of someone who might be hostile. Anyone who cannot prove ex post facto that he is not a terrorist -- difficult to do if one is dead -- is considered to be a legitimate kill. Having an American passport is also no defense against the final judgment by drone and the White House even has gone so far as to draw up a kill list, which it refers to as a "disposition matrix." The war against terror also has expanded geographically as the terrorists began to increase in number, growth fueled in large part by the anger over the indiscriminate American actions worldwide. Yemen became a target, as did Somalia. Drone bases began to appear all over the Middle East and increasingly in Africa. Both the Pentagon and White House have acknowledged that the war against terror is a conflict that will never end.
Overall, it has become somewhat shameful to be an American. But possibly far worse than the way the rest of the world perceives us is the damage that we have done to ourselves. Consider for a moment what the past 12 years have meant in terms of what the United States government can now do to any American citizen.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution requires a warrant for law enforcement to initiate a search but now we have learned that the National Security Agency has "blanket" authorization to obtain telephone and email information on nearly everyone, a process that has been going on in secret since shortly after 9/11. Ditto for the FBI, which has been using the National Security Letter provision of the Patriot Acts to obtain personal information, to include financial records, with virtually no oversight. If you are a journalist, the government has decided that it can tap your phones and otherwise investigate you to determine if you are in contact with any "leakers."
The Military Commissions Acts gave to the Pentagon authority to try terrorism suspects before military tribunals. As material support of terrorism, a convenient resource for those seeking to make a case against anyone who has not actually done anything, is a charge covered under the act, nearly anyone can be arrested, held indefinitely, and eventually tried by a panel of military officers who quite likely would be inclined to convict if any kind of plausible case can be made (or possibly even if it can't be made).
In December 2011 the bad policies rooted in the war on terror all came together in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which declared the entire world to be a "battlefield" against terrorism and authorized the US military to detain indefinitely anyone suspected of being a terrorism supporter. The new authority initially was derived from a section of the $690 billion Defense Appropriation Bill for 2012. The section, referred to as the "Authorization for the Use of Military Force," permits the president to wage war using military rather than police resources against anyone anywhere without any specific approval by congress, an expansion of the executive authority authorized by the legislature to pursue al-Qaeda and any other groups, individuals, or nations that were involved in 9/11.
The authority was originally granted in the aftermath of 9/11. The new language in the bill de-links the presidential authority from 9/11 by identifying al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and "associates" who are "engaged in hostilities" against the United States. The enemy no longer has to be al-Qaeda and, given the elasticity in the definition, it means that the war on terror will go on forever and everywhere as the authority has no spatial or time limitations. Any group or even individual will suffice to keep the global conflict going. Congressman Buck McKeon, the drafter of the relevant section of the appropriation bill, has stated that "the threats posed by al-Qaeda cells in Yemen and Africa underscore the evolving and continuing nature of the terrorist threat to the United States." In other words, killing Osama bin Laden and dismantling the al-Qaeda he heads is not enough because there will always be new al-Qaedas and associates who are hostile who will be available. And the president has a free hand to go after them, anywhere and by any means.
The authorization also expands the understanding of what constitutes an "enemy" since anyone can be so designated. The language suggests that the new rule will permit identification of an enemy as anyone so identified by the executive because of his or her "hostility" towards the United States. That also means that there will be no judicial process for those accused and they can safely be whisked off to Guantanamo Prison by the military for further processing or indefinite incarceration, as the case might be. The new language permits the president of the United States to open up entirely new areas of conflict, without any congressional or judicial review. The subsequent NDAA of 2013 confirmed the new powers and also made it clear that U.S. citizens could be subject to what Obama describes as "prolonged detention," without any charges and without a trial, a denial of the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy and fair trial.
The Obama Administration has also taken up George W. Bush policies and expanded them, to include an increase in the number and range of drone operations, together with an assumption of presidential authority to order drones or special forces to kill American citizens overseas who represent a threat as defined by the White House based on secret evidence. And if anyone seeks to challenge any of the presidential powers in court the Obama Administration has shown itself more than willing to invoke the state secrets privilege to stop the proceedings.
So here in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave in its 2013 incarnation the government can investigate you and violate your privacy at will without having to demonstrate probable cause or go through any judicial procedure. It can arrest you on suspicion without having to present any evidence that you can challenge and hold you in prison indefinitely without charges before trying you before a military court if and when it decides to do so. It can even kill you if it finds you threatening, without trial or due process.
On this Independence Day one might reasonably ask how this nightmarish perversion of our Republic has been allowed to take place, but we really only have ourselves to blame. In a country where nearly half the voters pulled the voting booth handle for McCain-Palin or Romney-Ryan, there is little option for change, even if the empty suit currently in the White House should be vulnerable because he has done so much damage to our constitution in such a short time. The peoples' ability to choose to restore a credible and responsible government has really come down to no choice at all.