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Is this what we swore to defend?

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I’ll never forget the day I took the oath of enlistment.  It was April of 1990, and I was preparing to leave for Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training.  Little did I know that in a little less than a year, I’d be keeping that oath for real, on a battlefield in Iraq.

I enlisted because I’m a believer in democracy.  An idealist, if you will.  I grew up knowing that my father had served in Vietnam, and that his father had spent more than three years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.  And, though there was no war on the horizon on the date I enlisted, I knew that the possibility was there that I would one day be called to arms to defend those principles I believed in.

That’s one of the reasons I find it so difficult to accept where I believe our country is headed today. As a longtime activist and novelist very concerned about the future of our country, I keep asking myself, how did we get where we are?

Here are just a few of the things that frighten me for the future of America:

The Military Commissions Act. Need I say more? All you need now is the mere suspicion of involvement in terrorism to be denied the basic writ of habeas corpus.  What’s the bottom line?  Your freedom.  The fundamental basic right to challenge your detention. Even if we give the President the benefit of the doubt (yeah, I know), there’s nothing to prevent a future president from abusing this power.  What constitutes support for terrorists?  Does this diary count?  Who knows?  So let’s say – just for example – that the government breaks down your door in the middle of the night, and carries you off to an undisclosed location because you are suspected of involvement with terrorism, you don’t have the right or the ability to challenge that designation.  You could be held for years, with no charges, no access to an attorney, and no way to contact anyone on the outside.

That scary part about this is that it seems many Americans, who are so terrified of Islamic terrorists sneaking into their house at night and beheading them, don’t really care or even know about the erosion of their rights. After all, we trust our government.  They wouldn’t do something like this to us, only to those bad guys (the ones with brown skins, I mean).

Who can blame Americans for thinking this? After all, 4 in 10 American still believe Iraq sponsored 9/11, and 20% of them believe that "most" of the hijackers came from Iraq.

Fear, ignorance and prejudice have allowed our government to steadily increase the scope of its activity as well its intrusion into our own lives, from the large issues to the small.  You have to ask permission from the government to start a business, open a bank account, or make alterations to your home. The government, on the other hand, doesn’t have to ask you for permission to do anything, anymore.

In other words, it is all turned upside down.  Pretty soon, with the so-called "REAL ID" in the works, you’ll have to have federal identity papers to board a place, train or enter a government building.  How long will it take before you have to show your papers to open a bank account, or register your child for school. There’s no way to opt out.

Today, if you are, like me, a frequent traveler, you can do a "pre-clearance" background check in order to go through security quickly at some airports.  How long will it be before you have to have a background investigation in order to get on a plane at all?  And god forbid if you, like this woman did, bring your child through the gates with a dangerous sippy cup. Luckily for her, she only had to get down on her hands and knees and wipe up the water spill while the agents stood around watching.  It could have been a lot worse.

Even as the federal government takes more and more notice of our every day lives, it’s doing everything it can to keep citizens from paying attention to what they are doing. There’s been plenty of talk all over the internet about Vice President Cheney’s role in trying to shield the office of the Vice President from any form of public disclosure, as well as the illegal use of private email accounts by White House staff in order to shield activities from legal oversight of federal information systems.  But it’s not just Cheney, and it’s not just the White House.  There has been a concerted effort at all levels of the  federal government to deny access to documents and activities that normally are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and after September 11, the feds went through an orgy of pulling data offline because it might in some way endanger us all.

Sadly, it’s not even just the government getting into the act.  Even as a federal court judge slammed the President today over the domestic spying scandal, AT&T is moving to develop technology that will allow it to monitor the internet usage of all of its customers.  After all, they might be trading pirated software.  Or talking about democracy. Who knows? This explains why French officials have been given the hard line – no more Blackberries, because the network traffic would cross U.S. networks.

We do know that according to a recent audit, the FBI violated its own rules on privacy in more than 1000 cases, and that states investigating the illegal release of information about their citizens by public utilities to the federal government are being stymied by that same federal government, which is seeking to have the investigation and court case dropped on the grounds of "state secrets."

I know.  I’m probably going a little over board. After all, the feds don’t really go around rounding up people in secret.  

That is, unless they’re foreigners (or maybe just look like foreigners). German citizen Khaled el-Masri was kidnapped by the CIA, drugged, beaten up, taken to central Asia and held without charge for months.  When they finally realized they had the wrong guy, they dumped him off on a hillside in yet another country.  Crazy.  Masri’s case, however, is going nowhere, however, because – you guessed it.  State secrets. In this case, as well as one in Italy, a number of CIA agents and pilots are now facing investigations and trials for those activities, which the US government won’t accept responsibility for.

On the flip side, it’s becoming increasingly dangerous to demand the level of transparency and accountability from our government that a democracy demands.  For example, a few weeks ago in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, an 18 year old passenger attempted to videotape a traffic stop.  The driver got a ticket.  The kid with the camera, ironically, now faces felony wiretapping charges. Go figure.

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Charles Sheehan-Miles served in combat with the 24th Infantry Division during the 1991 Gulf War, and was decorated for valor for helping rescue fellow tank crewmen from a burning tank during the Battle at Rumayla. He is a former President and (more...)
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