Columns » Warwick Sabin

Tortured logic

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Even by the Mark Pryor standard — which allows for the routine craven capitulation to the Bush administration — his vote last week in favor of the Military Commissions Act was a colossal outrage.

Pryor was one of only 12 Democrats in the U.S. Senate to vote for the bill, which gives the president unchecked authority to hold terrorist suspects indefinitely while denying them a traditional judicial process and all but the most basic physical protections.

It’s literally one of the most un-American laws ever conceived, considering our Constitution and the Bill of Rights were expressly written to repudiate concentrated executive power that can imprison and torture at will.

What evidence did President Bush present to prove that such extraordinary measures are necessary to combat the threats against our nation? None. He merely demanded the unprecedented authority and accused those who opposed him of being weak.

Pryor, being weak, gave in.

His concession to Bush is not unlike that which took place in ancient Rome, as related in a recent article by the British historian Robert Harris. A terrorist attack on the Roman port of Ostia in 68 B.C. — when Rome was at the height of its power — became an opportunity for Pompey the Great to seize power through a Senate law that overturned constitutional checks and balances.

“By the oldest trick in the political book — the whipping up of a panic, in which any dissenting voice could be dismissed as ‘soft’ or even ‘traitorous’ — powers had been ceded by the people that would never be returned,” Harris wrote. He added that passage of the law “was the beginning of the end of the Roman republic” because “it fatally subverted the institution it was supposed to protect.”

Pryor’s role in enabling a similar subversion is particularly galling because, as a Democrat, he has a special obligation to provide some principled resistance. It’s certainly not going to come from the Republicans, who long ago set aside principle in favor of political expediency, evidently having descended to the point where pedophilia registers as an election liability instead of a moral atrocity.

At least Blanche Lincoln, the other Arkansas Democrat in the Senate, recognized what was at stake in the legislation and voted against it.

“I am concerned that the administration’s attempt to clarify these interrogation rules will have the unintended consequence of placing our American soldiers and citizens at risk,” Lincoln said after the bill passed. “I cannot support legislation that sets such a dangerous precedent.”

It appears that Pryor arrived at a similar understanding less than a year ago, when he praised a ban on detainee abuse in a Dec. 22, 2005, press release. “I’m pleased that after months of opposing a ban on torture, the president has finally come around,” Pryor said. “Now that the House, the Senate, and the president are on the same page, the United States is sending a clear, consistent message to the world that the United States stands for morality and the rule of law.”

But when it came to upholding the Geneva Conventions and the Constitutional right to file a writ of habeas corpus — which the U.S. Supreme Court called “the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action” — Pryor last week sent a more chilling message, making it less clear what he and this nation stand for.

Asked to explain his vote, Pryor said in a statement, “Terrorists must be interrogated and prosecuted in a way that is consistent with our laws, principles and national security. … This act, for the first time, provides nine specific activities defining what is punishable as a war crime. In addition, it provides the parameters by which the military tribunals will be established and conducted, and defines the individuals who can be tried as enemy combatants. While I am disappointed measures to strengthen congressional oversight and habeas corpus were defeated, I believe this blueprint provides the necessary and legal framework to bring terrorists to justice.”

That’s basically an admission that he threw the baby out with the bathwater, since the war crime definitions, military tribunal parameters and enemy combatant designations did not require the decimation of congressional oversight or habeas corpus, which are integral elements of our democracy.

As a lawyer and former state attorney general, Pryor must comprehend that, meaning he either did not have the courage to fight against it or is actually a willing participant in the erosion of our most precious individual liberties and international moral standing.

Not exactly what one would expect from a U.S. senator.


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