The Framers of the United States Constitution built deliberate inefficiencies, deliberate frustrations of power, into the interlocking system they created. They did not trust power; or, rather, history led them to trust that power would be abused sooner rather than later, hence must be vested in competing interests if they wished to prevent dictatorship. They knew that egotism, smallmindedness, ambition, and a hundred other unlovely human qualities would guarantee constant collisions among the competing branches of government they created. Indeed, they counted on it. By this mechanism -- and here is the genius of the Constitution -- they increased the likelihood that human nature would tend to prevent, rather than ensure, graft, corruption, and tyranny.
In case I haven't been clear about it, herein lies my greatest fear of this administration, and the elements of the Republican Party (and some few Democrats) supporting it. Since taking power, and with growing speed since 9/11/01, the Bush-Cheney administration and its hardcore GOP allies have sought to systematically remove all checks and balances from the path of the executive: to establish an unfettered monarchy, answerable to no one on earth.
This is, of course, what the Framers intended their Constitution to prevent...hence the growing opposition among American patriots of all political views, right, left, and center, to the current monarchical drift.
Those planned inefficiencies and frustrations of power also provide the strongest argument against checks and balances, of course; an argument rendered more compelling, in the minds of some, since the events of 9/11/01.* "The Constitution is not a suicide pact," the argument runs: that is, we can't afford Constitutional protections in a "post-9/11 world." I have to confess that such arguments disgust me. I find them cowardly, unworthy of the "land of the free and home of the brave." Most of the world has endured perfectly terrible conditions throughout history, and many industrialized nations have endured brazen acts of terror without imposing open-ended dictatorship to meet them. Apparently some Americans don't have the stomach to preserve their system of government in the face of a sudden, unexpected feeling of vulnerability. This makes me sad, and ashamed of them. I honestly believed that Americans were made of sterner stuff.
On the specific issue of detainment of terror suspects, don't think that I'm either naive, or trying to apply the Geneva Conventions wholesale where they don't well fit. The Geneva Conventions were designed to cover armed conflict between nations; not terror tactics by non-state actors, traditionally handled by criminal statutes. Beyond that, I understand the argument that increasingly well-funded, -armed, and -disciplined international terrorists are not well-handled by the deliberate inefficiencies of U.S. criminal law. My own argument here is intentionally simpler than that, need not try to settle these thorny problems. In brief, my argument is this:
I believe that whatever tactics the executive branch devises to deal with terrorism MUST be subject to review by both the legislative and judicial branches -- subject, that is, to the most fundamental checks and balances the Framers devised. I believe this because I am certain, as the Framers were, that the more Constitutional checks and balances you remove, the sooner you arrive at a dictatorship. We might get there anyway, of course: plug enough fans of dictatorship into the executive, legislative, and judicial branches and you end up with a dictatorship in any event.
But checks and balances tend to slow such a drift. That's why they matter.
Final thought experiment, on the detainee question.
Suppose a dangerous lunatic -- let's call him Chick Deney (though Ronald Dumsfeld is funnier) -- were to decide to start arresting every American who disagreed with him and interning them, for the rest of their lives, in offshore prisons. Under the provisions of yesterday's federal appellate ruling, what could stop him from doing so? The answer is, of course, literally nothing whatsoever. Those detained this way could not even ask a court to look into their detention. That, my friends, IS absolute dictatorship...and it is what the administration has consistently argued for, and yesterday's decision by the D.C. circuit purports to provide.
Maybe such a nightmare will never happen; but without Constitutional checks and balances there's no way to prevent -- maybe even, for a time, to find out about -- its happening. Given an administration that has spent five years arguing for absolutely unfettered executive power, one of whose officials recently threatened to blacklist private lawyers who sue to limit that power, and looks to be about to consolidate that power regardless of its own unpopularity? Yeah, I'm worried, all right.
Regardless of your political affiliation, maybe you should be, too.
93 93/93 -- AJ
* This is, of course, the biggest reason paranoids suspect there's something fishy about those events -- their usefulness for those who wished to replace the American system with a dictatorship, much as Adolf Hitler used the Reichstag Fire in Germany. Such worrywarts read horrific significance into everything from, say, the swift availability of the PATRIOT Act after 9/11, through persistent efforts to remove all checks on the monarch, to last year's efforts to streamline the imposition of martial law, should it become necessary. As one wag put it, "I'd really love, just once, to find an example of Al Qaeda doing something which didn't seem tailor-made to help the administration get what it wants." I DO NOT endorse such paranoid speculations...but I'd sure like to live in a world where they were obviously ridiculous, and don't (alas!) feel like I've lived in such a world since December 12, 2000.