Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The meaning of "dictator"

God Save the King:
The White House's claim, essentially, is this: The president may do whatever he sees fit in order to keep the country safe. For some, those last seven words justify and legitimize the unlimited powergrab of the first eight. But many of us cannot accept the beginning of that sentence -- "the president may do whatever he sees fit" -- regardless of what follows. Those of us who reject that claim call ourselves "democrats" or "republicans" -- words that refer to forms of government in which the leaders are accountable to the people and to the rule of law, and therefore may not simply do whatever they see fit.
This is essentially the argument advanced by protein wisdom. We're at war, so Shut the F--- Up about the rule of law. Eventually, the war will end, and our benevolent dictator will quietly cede the powers he has quietly seized.

To make that argument requires that we ignore historical precedent. Rome became an Empire because Caesar was granted power as "dictator," a position created in times of war or great threat to the Roman Republic, which by law was to last only 6 months. The Wikipedia explains that "there could never be more than one dictator at any one time for any reason, and no dictator could ever be held legally responsible for any action during his time in office for any reason." Caesar extended the length of his term to 10 years, and as Caesar accumulated power, acclaim, and influence, the Senate simply made those powers permanent. The Senate persisted as a frail shell of its Republican glory until the Visigoths showed up a few hundred years later, and all that time, the Senate was never more than a formality.

I'm waiting for someone to explain where I'm wrong about this. Did Congress make Bush a dictator in the Roman sense with the Afghanistan resolution? Which Constitutional rights may he abridge? The Second amendment is pretty fuzzy in its impact on individual citizens. Could he round up all the privately owned firearms? Did Congress inadvertently authorize that? Between the torture and the secret prisons and the domestic spying, we've basically trampled all over the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th amendments. The third doesn't apply in wartime (we know that because the text actually specifies how to handle times of peace and times of war). The 9th and 10th are catch-all amendments. That leaves only the 1st and 2nd of the original 10. Sure, they all managed to survive a Civil War, two World Wars and a Cold War (complete with nuclear weapons). The "war on terror" is different. We're fighting an emotion, and in a war like that, you might as well piss away the liberties this country was founded to protect.

Before I descend wholly into the madness Terry so eloquently describes, I'll stop for the night.

The Power and the Glory” by Pete Seeger from the album God Bless The Grass (1966, 2:32).

She's only as rich as the poorest of the poor.
Only as free as a padlocked prison door
Only as strong as our love for this land
Only as tall as we stand

Here is a land full of power and glory
Beauty words cannot recall.
Her power shall rest on the strength of her freedoms,
Her glory shall rest on us all.