I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, January 13, 2006

A Nation of Jonah Goldbergs

(UPDATED: See update below)

There is a widespread, tacit assumption that no matter how apathetic and inattentive Americans become, there is still some line which they will not allow the Government to cross when it comes to exceeding or abusing the limits of government power. That assumption has taken a huge beating over the last four years, and is now in serious doubt.

Americans have sat by more or less passively by while this Administration detained American citizens and threw them into a military prison without charges being brought, without a trial, and without even allowing them access to a lawyer. Many are basically indifferent to revelations that the Bush Administration is eavesdropping on American citizens in secret and with no oversight of any kind. And worst of all, a sizable portion of the population is acquiescing to the fact that we have a President who was just discovered breaking the law, and rather than expressing shame or remorse once he was caught, has vowed to continue doing it based on the theory that he has the right to violate the law and that it's for our own good.

It is sometimes hard to put one’s finger on exactly what motivates such passive acceptance of these obvious government abuses, but Jonah Goldberg puked up a paragraph last night in the Corner which really captures everything that is rancid and decaying in our country and which casts an ugly though illuminating light on all of this.

In his little item, Jonah was talking about – and, of course, defending – the strip searching of the 10-year-old girl in the case where Judge Alito ruled that the search warrant issued to the Police authorized searching of the girl. Jonah then went further - much further -- and defended all strip-searching of all children, even without a warrant, whenever the Police thinks the kids’ parents are "drug dealers":

STRIP SEARCHES [Jonah Goldberg]

I understand the need for following the procedural niceties, but as a plain moral common sense issue, if you are a drug dealer and keep drugs on the premises with your child, you get zero-point-zero sympathy from me if your kids are searched, warrant or no. It may be wrong for the cops to do it. But you are not a victim for choosing a life where you can rationally expect to expose your kids to far greater risks than a search by a polite cop. The kid's a victim -- of bad parents.

If you can stomach it, let’s review this, because it really illustrates what is going on in our country. Constitutional safeguards guaranteed by the Bill of Rights are nothing more than what Jonah calls "procedural niceties." While it would be nice and all if the Constitution were adhered to, "plain moral common sense" means that it’s actually unnecessary, even undesirable, to be restricted by such things.

After all, we’re dealing here with people whom the State says it suspects, but has not yet proven, are "drug dealers." With those people (and, of course, with "suspected terrorists"), anything goes, even before a trial and without any due process of any kind. All of this can be done strictly on the Government's say-so, even if the Constitutional "niceties" which exist to prohibit such behavior haven’t been complied with. "It may be wrong," spits out Jonah, but we should do it anyway, because these people deserve it.

Isn’t it exactly this depraved thinking which lies at the heart of almost every current controversy we have? The whole point of the Bill of Rights – really, its principal function – is to prevent the Government from punishing those whom the Government claims (but has not yet proven in a court of law) are bad people deserving of punishment. That’s why there is a sequence mandated by the Constitution before rights can be abridged and punishment inflicted – first, charge someone with a crime, then give them the right to defend themselves along with other protections of due process, and then convict them. Only then are they considered criminals whose rights can be abridged.

What people like Jonah Goldberg stupidly refer to as these "procedural niceties" happen to be the only things which distinguish our country from every two-bit dictatorship around. If the Government has the power to simply decree American citizens to be criminals -- or terrorists -- without bothering to prove it in accordance with "procedural niceties," then the Government has the power of tyranny. It means the Government can act against whatever citizens it wants without limits, strictly on the Government’s say-so. That’s why we have a Constitution - to impose those limits and to prevent the Government from exercising exactly this power. That is so obvious. It’s basic civics. It’s something we learn in the sixth grade.

There is, of course, a great irony that self-styled "conservatives" like Jonah constantly rail against the evils of disregarding the mandates of the law in order to achieve some desirable outcome. That’s the whole "judicial activism" shtick -- that these judges are evil and undemocratic because they want to exceed the law in order to achieve the outcome they like. And yet their entire world-view has come to be based on the premise that transgressions of any and all types of laws – from FISA to anti-torture laws to Constitutional guarantees of due process – are perfectly justifiable as long as they are in pursuit of some desirable outcome, usually fighting the "terrorists," but other results they like can justify these lawless transgressions as well.

Thanks to the ceaseless fear-mongering of this Administration, we are becoming – excuse the grotesque imagery -- a Nation of Jonah Goldbergs, scared and lazy creatures who sit around believing that the Government is justified – even obligated – to act literally without constraint against the Bad People, the ones who are deemed to be Bad not pursuant to any "procedural niceties" but simply by the unchecked decree of the Government. These Jonah Goldbergs love to talk tough. But they are repulsively coddled and effete, whining about every perceived petty injustice which affects them but breezily endorsing the most limitless abuses of others, as long as the "others" seem sufficiently demonized and far enough away.

This brazen willingness to glibly endorse such government abuses is a natural by-product of a personality which loudly beats the drums of war and, in doing so, boasts about how tough that makes him, only to then insist that others should be subjected to the resulting risks because he’s too busy and too important playing computer games, watching Star Trek, and wiping drool off his daughter’s chin to bear that burden. It is a mindset that is as selfish and weak as it is indifferent to the fate of others.

Such individuals want more than anything for the Government to protect them, and in exchange, are willing and even eager to give the Government unlimited power to act against those citizens whom the Government says are bad and dangerous people. It is a mindset of great cowardice which is devoid of any principles other than fear and petty selfishness. And it really is the antithesis of everything which gave birth to the United States.

Thus, the Government can and should throw Jose Padilla in a military prison without a trial and without a lawyer because George Bush has decreed that he is bad. The Government can and should eavesdrop without warrants or oversight on American citizens because it assures us it's only doing it to those people who George Bush believes are bad. The Government can and should strip search children, even without the warrants required by the Constitution, because it’s only doing it to the people who are bad. And the Government can and should break whatever laws it wants to break in order to act against those people who George Bush says are bad.

It is truly nauseating to watch the basic principles of our country, which have preserved both liberty and stability with unprecedented brilliance over the last 200 years, be inexorably whittled away and treated like petty nuisances by the depraved Jonah Goldbergs among us. It is a mindset based on a truly toxic brew of glib self-absorption, sickly laziness and profound ignorance, and it is being easily manipulated by an Administration which is demanding -- and acquiring -- more and more power in exchange for coddling and protecting the little Jonah Goldbergs of the world.

UPDATE: Jonah has responded to this post with a breathless little item in the Corner. He tries, understandably, to back away from what he wrote by saying that he likes warrantless strip searches of children "as a moral and practical (as opposed to a legal matter"). Then, backing away further still, he says in a subsequent post that he was merely defending "police operating in good faith on a legal warrant" doing "something eminently reasonable."

In Jonah’s first post, he specifically referred to the strip searching of children, "warrants or no" -- not, as he now claims, "police operating in good faith on a legal warrant." And the whole point of Jonah’s post was to say that it’s no big deal if the Police strip search people and their children without warrants because, after all, they’re "drug dealers" and they deserve what they get.

But as Atrios points out, it’s third grade civics that a person is not guilty of any crime until they are proven to be guilty of it, which is why it’s only in a Police State that the Government has the power to search people (let alone their kids, let alone the power to eavesdrop on them or incarcerate them indefinitely) without judicial oversight and approval.

And Jonah’s dismissive claim that "this country wasn't a dictatorship before the Warren Court" is breathtakingly ignorant. It wasn’t the cartoonishly evil "Warren Court" which held that basic liberties prohibit the state from searching us without a warrant. The Founders provided for that in what they called "The Fourth Amendment." That’s what Jonah wants to wave away based on his perverted notions of "plain moral common sense."

What makes Jonah’s post conclusively reflective of not only his ideological corruption but also his severe character flaw is that Jonah would never be quite as breezy or casual about lawless strip searches if it was him or his daughter being subjected to them.

But Jonah is convinced that abuses of this sort will never happen to him and he therefore doesn’t care that they happen to others. To the contrary, he eagerly wants other people – the alleged, suspected "drug dealers" and "terrorists" and other Bad People – to be subjected to those abuses because he thinks it will protect him from bad things. That’s why I described his thinking as a mindset based on fear and petty selfishness. He is willing to give up and even denigrate the most basic liberties of our country because he thinks he doesn't need them and would be better off without them.

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