“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." And with these words, spoken during his inaugural address, President Barack Obama repudiated the Bush administration's entire justification for abandoning our national principles in the face of terrorist threats.
President Bush led our country down a path to infamy when he made the conscious decision to set aside our system of criminal justice and the international laws of war — the two well-established options for dealing with terrorist suspects. He threw out habeas corpus, due process, humane treatment of prisoners and the Geneva Conventions on the basis that the danger posed by al-Qaida was so unprecedented and consequential that these long-standing values and civil liberties needed to go by the wayside.
But Obama would have none of it. His inaugural address echoed the famous words of Benjamin Franklin: "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Obama put into historical context what he meant by a "false" choice. His remarks implied a comparison of 9/11 and the Revolutionary War, suggesting that the attacks of 2001 were not even close to the dangers this hatchling nation faced during its war of independence. Obama wanted Americans to understand that if individual liberty could be secured under such existential threats then it can survive anything, always.
"Our founding fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man," Obama proclaimed.
In other words, as a nation standing on new, unsteady legs, having just experienced a bloody war of revolution, and with crown loyalists aplenty still within the population, our founders nonetheless enshrined in the Constitution a plethora of rights against an arbitrary and unilateral government. And they extended those rights to all "people" whether citizen or not.
"Those ideals still light the world," Obama said, "and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."
Obama then reminded Americans that in our more recent struggles against fascism and communism, our security depended on something beyond raw military power. He said that America's great strength is also derived from "the force of our example."
Here is a man who appreciates the integral role that civil liberties have played in America's national character and in securing our place as a trusted leader. Our "example" made the world better and safer and it was something Obama would not squander.
On his first day in office, in the midst of Inauguration Day hoopla, Obama told prosecutors at Guantanamo to seek a 120-day suspension of the kangaroo military tribunals that were the centerpiece of the Bush legal strategy. It was a move full of encouraging portent. Obama didn't want his administration to participate for a single day in such a rigged and illegitimate process. He suspended the proceedings even as five detainees accused of organizing the 9/11 attacks were being prosecuted, willing to absorb a political backlash from angered 9/11 survivor families.
On Day 2 of his administration, Obama circulated a draft executive order closing Guantanamo within a year's time and clarifying that detainees in the interim will be protected by habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions. On Day 3, he signed it, along with a measure closing the network of secret international CIA prisons.
And as to abusive interrogations which became the hallmark of Bush's security program, Obama swept them away, limiting prisoner interrogations even by the CIA to those techniques outlined in the Army Field Manual.
Obama is resurrecting "the force of our example."
The founders knew that the world was a place where devastating wars were commonplace, and where bad guys roamed and evil flourished. Despite the tangible dangers, they limited government policing powers by encoding due process and the rule of law into the country's DNA. Their wisdom in doing so made us a great nation, and we finally have a president again who understands this. America is becoming America once again.