Thursday, October 19, 2006

I, the jury..and judge

Fury said to a mouse
That he met in a house,
“Let us both go to law;
I will prosecute you.—
Come, I’ll take no denial;
We must have a trial’
For really this morning I’ve nothing to do.”
Said the mouse to the cur,
“Such a trial, dear Sir,
With no jury or judge
Would be wasting our breath.”
“I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,”
Said cunning old Fury;
“I’ll try the whole cause
And condemn you to death.”

Lewis Carroll’s cur is apparently now the model for the American judicial system. On October 18, George Bush signed into law the Military Commissions Act. The act allows the president to decide what is torture and when to use it. It allows him to decide who is an illegal enemy combatant, whether that person is a U.S. citizen or not. If someone is so designated, they can be held without charge, without trial, without recourse. The law overrides the principle of Habeas Corpus which dates back to the Magna Carta. The allows the CIA to continue to send prisoners to secret prisons abroad.

I know this is a blog of crime writers, writing about crime fiction, but I don’t know a more sickening crime than for Americans in the highest positions of power to commit torture and to claim that it is their moral and legal right to do so.

I’ve recently returned from a publicity tour of Scandinavia, where my recent novel Fire Sale was published in translation. While I was there, 40,000 Hungarians—out of a population of 10 million—stood outside their president’s house in silent protest because he had lied about the economy to get elected. In almost every press interview I gave, journalists didn’t have any questions about my work, my deathless prose or my characters, or about me. They wanted to know why Americans weren’t in the streets, or some place, protesting what has been done in our names. They weren’t asking in an aggressive, or censorious way; they were asking out of anguish, because we are so powerful, and what we do affects the whole world.

I didn’t have an easy, or very good answer. I told them that many Americans are protesting, but there isn't an institution, either in media or government, that carries enough weight and enough visibility for the protests to be heard, and for them to make a difference.

How many people objected when the president and his attorney general and secretary of defense decided to contravene the Geneva Convention? How many people protested our abandoning the millennium-old writ of Habeas Corpus, or abandoning the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure of our homes and persons? How many people protested going to war, before Iraq became the debacle that it is?

The answer is that many did so, but consolidation of TV, radio and newspapers into a few conglomerates, controlled by people who are uninterested in anything except further aggrandizing their already vast fortunes, has meant that our protests are like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. These media giants have a vested stake in the government, which has given them many favors, in terms of bandwidths and frequencies, as well as bending anti-trust laws to allow both vertical and horizontal integeration; they don't often show serious protests in depth. (100,000 people were in Washington to protest Bush's first inauguration, but not even the New York Times reported this. I learned about it from an indie journalist who was there.)

I came home to find that the Chicago Tribune Corporation has just fired the publisher of the LA Times because he refused to fire more reporters. Today, NBC announced draconian cuts to its news staff. Basically, media companies have cut their reporting staffs in half, across the country, because that boosts their corporate share prices. The net result is an inability to do in-depth reporting, which means that our population gets less and less information, but more and more entertainment pretending to be news. And an uninformed, under-educated population cannot support a democracy—the ill-informed become easy prey for demagogues.

What should we be doing, we readers and writers, at such a time? If you have a suggestion, I very much need to hear it.

Sara Paretsky


JD Rhoades said...

Don't worry, long as your skin's the right color and you follow the correct and legally approved God, you have nothing to worry about.

And yes, that was snark. I think there'd be a lot more outrage about this if there wasn't a widely held assumption that torture will only be used on Arabs and other dark-skinned people, particularly those of the Islamic persuasion.

What to do? Well, there's an election coming up...

Libby Hellmann said...

Tried to post this before but it didnt go up. Hmm. Hope it makes it this time.

I share your anguish, Sara. And as someone who worked in the establishment media, including NBC, for years, I’m acutely aware of how much the nature of what is reported and passes for news and public affairs has changed.

I think one of the solutions is to use the alternative media to get at the truth – or at least start to discuss the issues that the establishment media won’t.

Blogs, websites, emails are all gaining in numbers and popularity. Your message will be read (hopefully) by hundreds of people. Who might then check out other blogs (I recommend Daily Kos, TalkLeft, Wonkette, for example) who might then check out other blogs, and so on.

Which, btw, is why we have to support the Net Neutrality. ( ) We must make sure that Congress doesn’t cave in to AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and others who are trying to drive smaller internet sites off the “radar screen.”

Writing about these issues in our own fiction may help too. Anything, in fact, that keeps a drumbeat going…even a subtle undercurrent can be an irritant to the establishment voices,

Unfortunately, though, I think JD has a point. Until we are personally denied habeas corpus, are tortured, or know someone who has been, we won’t do much, as a society. We’ll continue to shop at the mall, accumulate mountains of debt, and watch American Idol.

I wish I had a better answer.

Pete said...

I'm dreaming of the day that the Democrats take back the White House, and indefinitely detain Bush in Gitmo as being a threat to the country, under the very legislation he once championed. Now that, Alanis, would truly be ironic.

Maryann Mercer said...

I have to agree with JD about the general perception this only affects 'the enemy'. Or perhaps we're sickened but not brave enough to run the risk of being considered the enemy ourselves. My congressmen heard from me on this and will continue to hear from me until this bill can be repealed. Other than my vote, I have nothing (wealth, power) to affect major change. An occasional letter to the editor here will criticize the present administration...and be followed by three taking the opposite stand. Even small town papers are governed by the leanings of the publisher, no matter how often we're told they aren't.
I have often feared that our current leader has been working on ways to keep himself in power. In my worst nightmare, he uses the war in Iraq and the threat of nuclear testing in North Korea to temporarily 'delay' elections to avoid 'changing horses midstream'.
Sarah, I would not have had any words to answer those questions. And I would have been bothered by that. Which leads me to a question. Did what happened to Natalie Main of the Dixie Chicks after her London remark cause all artists to double-think before saying anything which could be considered politically incorrect?

Kevin Guilfoile said...

But Maryann, what really happened to the Dixie Chicks except that they got a huge amount of publicity and sold a gazillion records? A number of country radio stations didn't play their songs for a short period of time, but it didn't last long. Their current album went straight to number one and has spent about six months on the country charts. And counting.

What happened to the Dixie Chicks was criticism of speech not suppression of it (and criticism of speech is free speech). I certainly hope no one would use that silly affair as an example of why we need to "watch what we say." Our biggest problem in this country isn't that we can't speak freely and pointedly. Our biggest problem is that we don't. Too many of us are too comfortable and comfortable people don't stand up. Too many of us don't even vote.

Maryann Mercer said...

Kevin, I agree with you and I don't. As far as the Chicks were concerned, the remarks ultimately gave them a whole new audience...and the negativity has been forgotten by almost everyone.
I'm not sure America is all that comfortable though. I believe we've been lied to so many times that some people believe it doesn't matter whether they protest it or not. Nothing will change. That's hopelessness not comfort. I also think parts of this country have neatly managed to keep the vote away from some,no matter what the papers say. And maybe the people who are comfortable are not all that anxious to get off their couches, mainly because to them nothing needs to change.
I'm not saying this well. I think something needs to change, and barring a revolution the change has to come on Election Day. Perhaps,at least in my neck of the woods, if there was more time spent on issues and less on one-upsmanship more people would feel there was a true choice. As it is, one candidate seems no better than the other, with no plan to improve things. Why vote when all the choices seem to be bad ones? I hear that more often every year.

JD Rhoades said...

Kevin: what happened to the Dixie Chicks is their lives were threatened.

"There was one specific death threat on Natalie. [It] had a time, had a place, had a weapon. I mean, everything," banjo player Emily Robison recalls. "This was at our show in Dallas. 'You will be shot dead at your show in Dallas' on whatever the date was," she says.

They had to install metal detectors at their concerts. They needed 24 hour armed protection. This went a little beyond criticism of their speech if you ask me.

Sara Paretsky said...

I found this statement from Kevin Tillman, whose brother, Pat, died of "friendly fire" in 2004. Worth reading.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Maryann, you hit it exactly on the head with regard to American cynicism, which I think is a serious problem. But cynicism is a luxury. Our relative wealth and comfort is what allows us to be cynical.

As you and Sara and JD and Libby have pointed out the most disturbing news coming out of this administration frequently involves stuff that happens far away. And they know it. They know they can get away with it when the Dow Jones is busting through 12,000.

JD, the fact that some redneck phoned in a phony death threat isn't evidence of systematic supression of free speech. An idiot in Wisconsin posted a dirty bomb threat against hundreds of thousands of people in football stadiums this week and it was entirely Natalie Maines unrelated. I have no doubt that some in this administration would like to shut up many of their critics (I recall Ari Fleisher's ass-ish comment that Americans "must watch what they say") but the First Amendment has so far been stronger than these idiots.

A better example would be what happened to Bill Maher, who actually got fired, but even he hasn't been silenced by any stretch, and I suspect his standard of living hasn't taken much of a hit. Look to the McCarthy days for people who spoke out when the consequences were real.

The right to free speech isn't the right to say anything you want and never be criticized for it. Natalie Maines said something and what she said happened to piss off some of the same people who buy country records. That shouldn't have surprised her or anybody else. No one is obligated to nod their head just because a singer thinks she has something to say. But those fair weather fans got over it and quickly.

Clearly the person who threatened the Dixie Chicks is mentally disturbed and if they had found out who did it that indiviudal would have been prosecuted. That is the unfortunate (and sometimes scary) life of a celebrity. I'm going to bet Ann Coulter and Tom Cruise and Paris Hilton and Bill O'Reilly all got death threats this month. That's got nothing to do with free speech. It has to do with craaaazy.

Kevin Tillman says it eloquently in the link Sara just posted:

Luckily this country is still a democracy. People still have a voice. People still can take action

It doesn't mean they will. But before people can take action they have to stop pretending that they can't.

V.I. said...

Writers should keep on writing books, and readers should just keep on reading and thinking. We all should go for voting. We never get everything what we want,beacause we are different, each one of as. for example-I'm very unhappy that Poland take ride for Iraq with USA&co., it is outlaw expedition, but I share big part of r.i.p. Oriana Fallaci opinions.
And You, writers, just do Your job good(good win, bad loose:)Even if we like read about 'evil', we like support 'good'-I'mean honest. Well, exluding Simon Templar and Arsen Lupin.

Sara Paretsky said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sara Paretsky said...

The FBI arrested a man at St. Johns College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for making a negative comment about George Bush in a chat room from the college library. The government put a gag order on all the students and faculty, forbidding them to reveal that this arrest had taken place; the staff member who told me about it could be imprisoned for doing so.

People assaulted French foreign exchange students because their government opposed our invasion of Iraq.

The FBI arrested a library patron in Morristown, NJ for looking at foreign-language pages on the Web, held him for three days without charging him, without letting him call a lawyer, or notify his wife.

When the Library Research Center in Champagne, Il, did a survey of libraries in 2002 to see how many had been served subpoenas for records under the Patriot Act, 11 percent of libraries reported yes. They reported anonymously, because the Act permits the government to imprison a librarian for up to 5 years for revealing that her/his library has been served with a subpoena. Nonetheless, the FBI threatened the producer of the study with serious reprisals if she continued for another year. And last spring, 4 Connecticut librarians were, indeed, arrested for simply consulting a lawyer after their library was served with a subpoena. Although the courts decided they could consult a lawyer, the government has not dropped charges.

Close enough to home yet?

V.I. said...

You give me thrill, mrs Paretsky. My mother is librarian:)
But, without laugh. I was grown up in conviction, that USA are country of freedom, any kind of it. Its truly hard to believe in words I read. But I'm still sure, people of Your land dont let make second III Reich or CCCP from Indiana or New Jersey.
After all, there is no fear enough to kill reason in all citiziens and economic(even with export-import deficit)can't collaps. That's what I believe, a stranger.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

This administration has run roughshod over librarians, Sara, and the Patriot Act is an outrage. Those last two are excellent examples of what these folks think of the right to privacy. I'm unaware of the exchange student story but if true it would be another example of crazy person violence not suppression of speech by the state. As for the incident at St Johns College, obviously it's impossible to evaluate without knowing more facts.

But my point is not to defend George W. Bush by any stretch. I just think that opponents of this administration are sometimes so eager to embrace victimhood that they do a better job of creating an atmosphere of fear among themselves than Karl Rove could on his best day. The examples you give are all arguments in favor of speaking out, not cautionary tales of what might happen if you do.

Sara Paretsky said...

Kevin, These are definitely arguments in favor of speaking out. I have two concerns: one is that people like me know about these incidents because we get information from the ACLU or other rights organizations--we don't get them from any mainstream media, with the exception of the arrest of the Connecticut librarians, which was covered in the Times. Major media are so interested in share prices and government favors that they jettison serious news coverage.
Two newspapers, one in Texas, one in Oregon, fired writers who criticized Bush's reaction to 9/11. The head of Fox's news division bragged on air after the 2004 election that he had directed reporters to distort coverage in tight races to guarantee a Republican victory.
The other concern is that as long as it isn't happening in a widespread way, it isn't a problem. Pinochet operated for years in Chile because the middle class was basically unaffected by the torture and disappearances in the country, unless they belonged to a handful of writers willing to speak out. Maybe that will be how our history will be written, too.

Jack Vickery said...

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
after all I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
after all I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
after all I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

Martin Niemöller
from Wikipedia