Thursday, June 26, 2008

'Why we do what we do'

Most professional reaction to the McClatchy Washington Bureau's investigation into Guantanamo: Beyond the Law has been overwhelmingly positive. The biggest criticism I saw was from the Boston Phoenix, which argued that other mainstream media weren't paying enough attention to it.

Reader reaction has been more varied. Most of them were likewise supportive and positive, but John Walcott tells me some only wanted to debate whether we should be waterboarded before we were all executed for treason.

Macon Telegraph Editorial Page Editor Charles Richardson heard from a lot of them in his Georgia, military community, and offered them a splendid answer. It's not online anymore, so I am posting the whole piece here:

Why we do what we do

The McClatchy Newspapers' series "Guantanamo: Beyond the Law" published in this newspaper Sunday through Thursday, has elicited a number of comments. Several readers have called the paper unpatriotic. One said the series "Totally undermines our nation." Another said the report was "totally biased" and suggested this newspaper "take a lesson from FOXNews and start publishing the good news about our country and our military rather than constantly trying to destroy our vital institutions." One, reader even said we were guilty of treason.

We are afraid some of our readers have a stilted view of our constitutional duty. But first a little history. Our country was founded as a nation of laws. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 27 were lawyers, five were informal judges educated at the world's most renowned institutions, including Cambridge and Harvard.

When the Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia in June 1776, the colonies were already at war with Britain. On July 4, 232 years ago, members of the Continental Congress unanimously approved the Declaration of Independence. In the historic document's second paragraph, the authors wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, - that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

It is difficult to think of our government as not wearing the white hats; the world has depended on America to come to its rescue time after time. Brave American men and women have given their blood, sweat and tears to liberate people throughout the world. However, there are times we don't live up to the principles our founders set forth. And those principles are not conditional on whether or not we are at war.

War is indeed hell and the atrocities of war are numerous. However, what has set our armies apart from the brutal dictators, puppets and henchmen is our rule of law. One of the cases where we have not followed our own high standards is in the treatment of people we suspect are terrorists. The newspaper series pointed out that in many cases we've been wrong. We have tortured and abused prisoners without evidence of their guilt. The real crime is that those abuses were products of a system endorsed at the highest levels of our government and military. It was designed to rob the suspects of what Americans regard as basic legal rights. Proponents of the bogus system are quick to say, "They are not Americans," but our own Declaration of Independence states: "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The system invented by the Bush administration to deal with suspects has been shot down by the Supreme Court three times. We have watched this administration fabricate stories for its own benefit and play the propaganda game for the sake of the war effort.

Should the American press emulate the history of the former Soviet Union's Information Telegraph Agency of Russia, better known as TASS? Should the American press become the propaganda arm of the government such as "The Attack" newspaper in Nazi Germany, set up by the Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels? Is that what our founders had in mind?

If so, they made a mistakeof including the press in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

In a 1787 letter to Edward Carrington, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them."Jefferson also wrote, three years before his death in 1826, "The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure."

That is our duty. That is our constitutional charge. Yes, our work, in Jefferson's words creates, "agitation," but that turbulence is necessary if our republic is to survive as a free nation with liberty and justice for all.

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