Terrorism by a Republic: A hypothetical question

Bomb attack in Chabahar, Iran. (Photo: BBC)

The BBC is reporting that the official Iranian news agency has described a suicide bombing in the impoverished town of Chabahar, in south-eastern Iran, which has killed, so far, 38 people including women and children and has injured many more. There is some confusion over whether there was one or two explosions and whether there was one or two bombers. There is a report that one of the bombers was taken into custody.

The bombing took place outside a Shia mosque at a time when Shias are observing the Day of Ashura, a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali (the grandson of the prophet Muhammad) at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. Among the Shia, and in Iran particularly, this observation has taken on political overtones. It became associated with the ideology of the revolutionaries in Iran during the Iranian Revolution and after. It has also (in Iraq, for instance) been a day chosen by Sunni rebels to launch attacks on civilians to demonstrate their anger over discrimination by Shias or their demands for political power.

For a number of reasons, suspicions have been directed at Jundallah (Soldiers of God), an organization that only in the past month was included on American terrorist organization designations. Junhallah has not claimed responsibility for the attack, although it has a history of assassination attempts, bombings, ambushes and kidnappings in the Balochistan province. They claim to be fighting for the culture and faith of the ethnic Baluch people.

In the past there have been reports that America has secretly supported the Jundallah. Whether this is true or not, I make no claim. Nor do I want to explore here the nature of the proof or the denials by the US government. Suffice it to say that given everything we know about our government and the way it has acted abroad from its subversion of Chile during the Nixon administration, to it support of the mujahedin during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to its involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, to its torture of “terrorist” suspects and numerous other clandestine operations, the claim is, I think it fair to say, at least plausible. (It is perhaps an indication of how far the US has fallen from grace that there is a general assumption that the US government regularly acts in secret and supports unsavory organizations which don’t agree in the slightest with any of the values we purport to stand for.) But for the sake of this “thought experiment,” let’s assume that Jundallah was responsible and that the US has given material support to the organization.

Here’s the question: Do the American people have a “right” to know the involvement of our government?

If the answer to this question is no, then in what respect is the United States a republic?

Perhaps, you say, we don’t have the right to know operational details or even which groups our rulers decide (in our best interest) to support, because just by disclosing that information, it puts those organizations or other of our friends at risk. Isn’t that always the defense of secrecy? And then you might argue that it is sufficient for us to know the general “principles” of our candidates so that we can decide who we can trust with all this secret discretion.

Setting aside that politicians lie or, perhaps more accurately, obscure their beliefs during a campaign so that they can obtain votes from people of opposite views on an issue, how can Americans even have an opinion on a policy when our leaders pursue a relentless “bipartisan” course of hiding their behavior from us? Despite indications given during the campaign, our current President quickly drew the veil over the actions of the previous Administration, many of which were plainly illegal, under the guise that it would harm our servicemen simply by the disclosure. (And since we will always, it seems, have soldiers abroad in the never-ending battle against something, there can never be disclosure.) Where are we to have any basis on which to exercise choice or oversee the actions of those who are supposed to be acting in our name and with our consent?

Doesn’t the answer have to be that we must rely on the press? And by that I mean the confrontational and whistleblowing and muckraking press. (Not the respectable talking heads who attend press briefings and go to cocktail parties with the President’s press secretary.) In fact, that is exactly what Justice Hugo Black said in the Pentagon Papers case:

“In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.” New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713, 717 (1971).

And even though the government will pursue its own employees with a vengeance of mad blood hounds (unless of course someone like Dick Cheney authorizes his aides to disclosure state secrets to harm his political enemies), at least since the Pentagon Papers case there is rarely a serious call for the prosecution of people like Seymour Hersch–one of the people who have reported on the US connection with Jundallah.

So what do we make of the blood fury over Julian Assange? Is it because he is a foreigner? How could that possibly make a difference legally? Is it because he doesn’t form part of the pack of lazy, overpaid, unprofessional pseudo-pundits who swarm around Washington politicians and are happy licking their boots so that they can be considered “wise” and be quoted throughout the land? There is probably more than a little truth to that. Is it that our current set of “statesmen” has so completely lost any sense of the nature of a republic that they are willing to pander to and indeed incite the lowest elements of mob fury to distract the public from their own corruption or incompetence? The manipulators of the Tea Party and Joe Lieberman and his fellow principle-free concern trolls certainly make that case.

But how does someone like our current Attorney General, who has fairly strong legal credentials, succumb? Why is he acting the fool claiming to be working hard at trumping up charges against Assange that he would never bring against the New York Times? Granted, he was never a beacon of moral clarity, as his involvement in the Marc Rich pardon showed. But even in that case he demonstrated that he was not subservient to public opinion (even when he was quite wrong and served a corrupt purpose). It must be, as the enlightened thinkers here and in Europe during the Age of Reason repeatedly said, that power has the ability, and indeed the inevitable tendency, to corrupt. This is even truer now that we live in the Age of the Unreasonable.

We will soon see if the core beliefs of the rationalists who founded our federal government two centuries ago can be sustained in an age where government has perfected the ability to mislead, where the media has been coopted by organized money and its friends, and where the ability to believe what you want to believe, despite the evidence, has become a civil right, more important than those actually contained in our founding documents.

We of course stand to lose the right to participate in our own government. With that will go all the many benefits that the eighteenth century radicals believed in. But given that we have decided to hand over to our government the ability to bring death, destruction and despair to large areas of the planet without the smallest amount of accountability, the rest of the world has a stake in the outcome as well.

For an Administration that has appeared to betray most of the “principles” on which it was enthusiastically supported two short years ago, the final test of whether it is going to sell the last remnants of its soul will soon be determined. If the past is a prologue, then Julian Assange’s fate will be left in the hands of a group who exalt political expediency over the long-term welfare of this country and call it statesmanship.

  1. December 16th, 2010

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