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Watergate and the War Against Terrorism (June 26, 2002)

As I tried to explain to my class about the tradition of individual rights and the various attempts of the Executive Branch to usurp various and sundry of those rights over the years, a student’s cell phone rang to the first bars of Fur Elise. I had just gotten to the subject of Watergate. The student apologized for forgetting to turn his phone off. I excused him, remarking that Elise surely would have been flattered to have a song written to her by the famous Ludwig von Beethoven. And, I added, this tune plays every few seconds or even more frequently on mobile telephones around the world.

My student stared at me, not locating Elise, Beethoven (maybe a guy on a Beatles song?) or Watergate.

A few of the students knew about Beethoven and even about Elise, the woman who inspired the song. Some knew about the Watergate break in on June 17, 1972, but none could explain it. Indeed, to this day, only the burglars themselves and those who commanded the White House plumbers knew why they raided Democratic National Committee headquarters, a felony that led to the greatest presidential scandal in US history. Yes, I explained, much more important than the Monica-Paula Jones-Whitewater themes combined. 

Richard M. Nixon, as Oliver Stone’s film by that title makes clear, had a criminal mentality. He wanted his plumbers to break into the Brookings Institution to find incriminating documents on his enemies. As we later discovered Nixon organized these plumbers, some of whom were extreme right wing anti-Castro Cubans, to stop the leaks. He feared that the media would learn of some of his plans including opening to China and thus interfere with his secret agendas. Henry Kissinger, his National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State, shared these phobias about openness.

Nixon, a lawyer, showed little concern for the rule of law. His close advisers also displayed extreme contempt for ideas about citizens rights. This was still the age of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal infiltration into the civil rights and anti-war movements.

But with Jimmy Carter, the United States restored some equilibrium between imperial power and republican principles, the delicate bookends that hold our national stack together. Presidents Ronald Reagan and G.W. Bush I eroded Jimmy Carter’s clean human rights guidelines, as did Clinton in his eight years. National Security, the dreaded phrase, always popped out of the mouths of officials to justify more phone taps, less government openness and more contempt for ordinary due process.

Then came 9/11 and it became ever more difficult to explain to students why Nixon’s Watergate caper frightened so many Americans and sent so many high officials to prison, for the crime itself or for covering up the escapade. I argued at the time that Nixon’s lack of respect for law endangered all of us.

But, looking back, I see Watergate as a minor threat to civil liberties compared to the action of our current government. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein informed the public that they had traced a routine break in at an office building to the highest offices in the land. Their media rivals tried to get other scoops. A young CBS reporter, Dan Rather, asked Nixon tough questions and took the mud that the powerful throw at journalists, even suggestions that his actions showed not just lack of respect for the President, but possibly anti-patriotic sentiments as well.

Congress investigated the Watergate hanky panky and public opinion rallied to force the truth into the open despite pleas of national security from the highest offices of the land. Watergate started with the arrest of burglars, in search presumably of documents that might have compromised the president. It ended with the resignation of Richard Nixon.

Watch out, I warn the students, there’s a big difference between Watergate and the War against Terrorism. The arrest of a hoodlum named Jose Padilla is unlikely to have an impact on George W. Bush’s career, but how about on your lives? They stare at me as if I’m either an alarmist or a coddler of terrorists. I don't know if Padilla did or didn’t conspire to make a dirty bomb and detonate it, but I do know that he can’t see his lawyer. That makes me suspicious of our government.

Imagine yourselves, I say, all US citizens, being arrested and charged with being enemy combatants and placed into what New York Times columnist Bob Herbert called a procedural black hole. That’s a place (a Navy brig in South Carolina, not Camp X-Ray) in which legal rights cease to exist, where the Constitution does not apply.

The Justice Department does not have to charge Padilla in our newly defined legal system, nor produce evidence that warrants his detention. They can hold him indefinitely because, under the new Administration guidelines, people like Padilla have virtually no rights. 

This terrifies me, as does the treatment of John Walker Lindh, whatever he might have done with the Taliban. If Padilla conspired with a bunch of Al-Qaeda terrorists why not present the evidence and charge him with conspiracy to commit mass murder? Why hold a US citizen as if he was a non-person?

When I was a student, my teachers drilled into my head that we lived in a country of law, not of men. The law must always dictate because men’s passion can run away with them and lead us to tyranny even with the best of intentions.

I mouthed those sentiments several times, but never really thought much about them. They were akin to other clichés that we learned during those heady World War II years when patriotism meant that teachers stressed democracy in its fullest forms and, of course, equality. Don’t forget, my third grade teacher explained, we Americans are all equal and one American equals ten Japs.

Well, no system is perfect. But during World War II we understood our Nazi enemies and the advantages of our system over theirs. That’s part of what made our patriotic feelings so intense. As imperfect as our democracy seemed, with racial segregation still intact, we still stood on a set of principles from which we could do battle with our enemies and with our hard-won imperfections.

Without that platform of freedom, of absolutely inviolable rights, we become a government of men. It might not be long before a man with a criminal mind like Nixon once again commands. The meaning of Watergate is that our media could report, our lawyers could invoke the law and the citizens could understand a complex legal process. The media has grown more timid since Watergate, and more intimidated. It’s as if each prospective investigative journalist now possesses a self-censoring mechanism which rings like an alarm bell: will this story get you into trouble around the patriotism issue? Will an editor accuse you of undermining the war effort if you show high officials having lied or engaged in some dangerous speculation, no matter how well-documented your story. Will you wear the “soft on terrorism” label?

The war against terrorism, a vague enemy to begin with, has taken a parallel and aggressive track to that ridden by the terrorists themselves. Terrorism makes us frightened. When fear temporarily overcomes confidence in our tradition of rights, men in the Administration act to remove traditional freedoms under the aegis of fighting the covert terrorists. Under the leadership of the ignorant and self-righteous George W. Bush and his humorless and puritanical Attorney General John Ashcroft, the threats to liberties have risen beyond the level of the Nixon Administration.

Watch out, fellow citizens and all the ships at sea, as an old radio commentator once said. This war on terrorism could end up terrorizing all of us.

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