On February 8, our Vice President Joe Biden called Egypt’s new Vice President Omar Suleiman, saying Egypt should cancel the emergency law their government has used to suppress, imprison, torture and kill those who oppose the government’s tyranny. Another provision of the emergency law gives the president the right to bypass the courts, and have people tried by a military tribunal – where the government can go for vengeance rather than justice. Such a repressive law – their emergency law has been in effect for 30 years – means Egyptians must live in a country with no protection from the people who are supposed to protect them.
Biden says the government should invite those who oppose them to start making the process more open and accountable to the majority of Egypt’s citizens, and to the rest of the world. Moving from irony to dark humor, both Mubarak and Suleiman have said they’ll remove the 30-year-old repressive law when … well, when their citizens are so compliant and passive they don’t need it any longer.
We need to give both Obama and Biden some credit here, for they are right: No government should be able to order its armies, police or goon squads to attack citizens on the unchecked whims of the president. No government should criminalize free speech or citizens protesting their government’s duplicity or viciousness. (Egypt’s government is even arresting and threatening journalists.) When a government can spy on its own citizens, arrest anyone its president chooses, imprison them indefinitely without charges, torture them, put out a hit on them, or even persecute and try to capture citizens of other countries (i.e. journalists) who publish state secrets, then the evil a government can do will be restricted only by the limits of its power. Under such conditions, the government has become the rule of despots, tyrants and fascists.
While Biden was asking Egypt to repeal their emergency law last week, President Obama was asking Congress to extend our own emergency law: the USA PATRIOT Act. Some key parts were due to expire at the end of this month; Obama wanted them extended to December 2013. (The Republican-controlled House had proposed extending the act to the end of this year.) The House rejected Obama’s extension by seven votes – most of the new Tea Partiers joined many of the Democrats to defeat it because of their concerns about the almost unimaginable threat such power represented to our civil liberties. Wednesday, February 9, the House voted to proceed, probably bringing it to a vote this week, when it is expected to pass.
The ironies would be funny if they weren’t so frightening. Capricious arrests, indefinite detention without due process and the real possibility of torture and murder are now “legal,” to the extent that any government can legalize atrocities. The Emergency/PATRIOT Law/Act invites and guarantees political leaders spying on their own people, systematic revocation of civil liberties and the tyranny of a government that rules its citizens rather than serving them. These are sketches of a de facto dictatorship in both Egypt and the United States. In Lily Tomlin’s famous line, “No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up!”
If it seems rude to compare our government with Egypt’s, an even ruder comparison helps to explain how and why governments can arrive at deadly decisions that cross the dangerous line we’ve seen crossed so many times in history. The confessional explanation comes from Albert Speer, Hitler’s minister of armaments and war production who, after the Nuremberg trials, became known as “The Nazi who said, ‘Sorry.'” He served 20 years in prison, where he wrote what became two best-selling books. What Speer described was the atmosphere that made the most horrid Nazi decisions seem logical and necessary:
“In normal circumstances, people who turn their backs on reality are soon set straight by the mockery and criticism of those around them, which makes them aware they have lost credibility. In the Third Reich there were no such correctives, especially for those who belonged to the upper stratum. On the contrary, every self-deception was multiplied as in a hall of distorting mirrors, becoming a repeatedly confirmed picture of a fantastical dream world, which no longer bore any relationship to the grim outside world. In those mirrors I could see nothing but my own face reproduced many times over.”
When citizens like those in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere feel free to act out against the duplicity and violence of their governments, it is often the kind of freedom that’s just another word for nothing left to lose. We recognize the spirit guiding those actions instantly: it’s the spirit that once inspired our own American Revolution 235 years ago. It’s the spirit of hope that must be turned into acts of moral defiance against abusive governments, or we may lose our rights, our power and our humanity. Through the extension of our PATRIOT Act/emergency law, our president will retain the right to treat US citizens in ways he so easily identified as tyrannical and inhumane if Egypt’s president did them. The painful irony of our leaders doing precisely what they forbid Egypt’s leaders to do can be reduced to Tomlin’s paralyzing cynicism – or it can be amplified into nonviolent, but unyielding action. As history has shown, however, only that latter route of defiant uprising can ever be looked back upon with any pride.