The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, November 3, 2008

Thumbs Up

Does anyone remember Safia Taleb al-Suhail? A leading advocate for democracy and human rights in Iraq, she is the woman President Bush had flown to the United States for his 2005 State of the Union address so she could display her purple thumb to Congress and all those watching.

Only a week earlier, Iraqis had gone to the polls for the first time since the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime to vote for a transitional National Assembly. The job of this body would be to draft Iraq’s new constitution. The voting was often dangerous, with militants firing at voters and setting off bombs at polling places. The trek to vote was especially dangerous for women, since adherents of the strictest, most fundamental forms of Islam deem suffrage illegal and immoral.

Nonetheless, Iraqis of all stripes turned out in record numbers and an election commission official said they “broke a barrier of fear” in so doing. Many people proudly held up thumbs stained with the purple ink used to mark those who had voted. It was a symbol of their defiance and pride.

President Bush greatly admired their courage. For him, it meant America was fated to succeed in Iraq and throughout the Muslim world because “the Iraqi people value their own liberty.” He asked al-Suhail to repeat the gesture during his State of the Union speech and she gave a triumphant purple thumbs-up to raucous applause.

It was a celebratory moment. Whatever the long-term fate of Iraq may be, its people showed great courage that day by rejecting both government oppression and the fear of terrorism in favor of a constitution and the rule of law.

Here at home, this year, as many as one-third of registered voters have already gone to the polls to vote for the next President of the United States. The rest of us will do so tomorrow. Elections are commonplace and usually safe in our nation. Nevertheless, I see this one as an opportunity for each of us to reaffirm, albeit less dramatically, what the Iraqis affirmed in their historic first election.

In response to the attacks of September 11, the Executive Branch, under President Bush and Vice-President Cheney, claimed and exercised new authorities unprecedented in the history of this country. The Patriot Act and its extension have given the Attorney General and law enforcement officials extraordinary new powers and protections.

A slow but sure dilution of civil liberties has been the price for these “weapons” to fight terrorism, particularly the right to privacy and the right of habeas corpus. I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s old maxim – “They who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

This year’s election allows us to join in heartfelt affirmation of Franklin’s wisdom and the best part is that it does not matter for whom we may each be voting.

Although they have differences in this area, either Barack Obama or John McCain will represent an improvement over George W. Bush as regards civil liberties. I believe both have the potential within their respective characters to undo much of the damage done over the past eight years.

To be sure, neither candidate is without blemish in this area. Senator Obama’s decision to support a vote on FISA and continue wiretapping by the federal government is the most disappointing of his campaign and entire career.

Granted, the final version of the bill acknowledges the special FISA court has final say over government spying rather than the President’s wartime powers. Obama was probably also correct that rejecting this version of the legislation would have resulted in an even harsher, more Bush Administration-friendly version passing. Still, some principles brook no compromise and this was one of them.

Senator McCain’s position on FISA was hardly better. He argued the compromise bill did not go far enough in giving the government the authorizations it needed and protecting telecommunication companies from litigation. What is more, he skipped this critical Senate vote altogether.

In other cases, both of the candidates have stronger records on civil liberties than the criticisms leveled against them suggest. Despite an aggressive negative campaign by the NRA, Obama agreed with the recent Supreme Court decision that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to bear arms. Some have derided McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform as a limitation on political speech but there is nothing in McCain’s record to suggest he fundamentally opposes First Amendment rights.

Both candidates have strongly endorsed a ban against all forms of torture against U.S. detainees, including those accused of terrorism, labeling such practices shameful. Both have called, at various times, for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, if under differing timelines and/or condition.

Although McCain and Obama have very different philosophies about the types of people they will appoint as federal judges and Supreme Court justices, both have demonstrated willingness to accept and abide by courts’ decisions, even those with which they may personally disagree.

Both have spoken positively about the Chief Executive’s very real duty to “preserve, protect, and defend” the U.S. Constitution as well as their commitment to the rule of law in general.

If you support a Third Party candidate – Libertarian Bob Barr or “green” Democrats, such as Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney – they are likely even more pro-civil liberties than either of the two major Party candidates.

There are fears again about this election, as there have been in those of recent years, both of voter fraud and voter intimidation/suppression at the polls. Many expect a record turnout November 4. Many others are skeptical this will occur. If any of the above might deter you from voting tomorrow, remember the words of a young Muslim woman in Iraq on her historic Election Day.

Upon hearing the sound of bullets and mortar fire, she wondered if it might be too dangerous to walk to her voting place. Then she thought to herself, “[the opposition is] weak, they are afraid of democracy, they are losing.” She braved the dangers and voted. Let us, as U.S. citizens, endure any inconveniences each of us might experience at the polls for the same reason.

Since President Bush and those currently in charge of our government have such esteem for the pluck of those who would defy the tactics of fear for the hope of liberty, I suggest we send them all a message tomorrow that they will not only understand but also profess to admire.

After you vote, however you may vote, get some color on your thumb. It does not matter how you do it – bring along a bottle of ink or a stamp pad, use a hi-liter or a magic marker, even a ballpoint pen will do.

The point is to get your thumb blue or black or purple. Then, for the rest of the day, give a thumbs-up to your fellow citizens. Not only will it show you voted but that you too have the courage to face the threat of terrorism as it should be faced in a democracy. Vote against an oppressive government and in favor of the Constitution and the rule of law.

On the historic day four years ago in Iraq, Alaa al-Tamimi, the mayor of Baghdad was literally overcome by what he saw happening around him. “I cannot describe what I am seeing. It is incredible,” he told Reuters. “This is a vote for the future, for the children, for the rule of law, for humanity, for love.”

Tomorrow, we can vote for exactly those same things in this nation. Do not be among those who neglect to exercise our privilege, our right, and our responsibility.

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