This week, George W. Bush issued an executive order formalizing the procedures for military commissions that are supposed to try suspected terrorists. The commissions will be empowered to convict defendants, and even impose the death penalty, based on hearsay or coerced testimony.
And we call ourselves the land of the free.
Think about it: the commissions will be composed of American officers. The defendants will be selected from those who have been held at Guantanamo Bay--where a special courthouse is under construction--and have been declared to be deadly enemies of the nation that those officers are sworn to defend. How can we expect the defendants to get a fair trial? Or is that the point?
NPRs Robert Krulwich and Prof. David Hackett Fischer discussed a very different way of fighting enemies: How, in the winter of 1777, George Washington refused to react to the British killing of captured Americans by behaving in like manner. Instead, Washington ordered that captured British and Hessian soldiers be treated with honor and dignity. He met brutality with humanity. And guess what happened?
To begin with, British and Hessian captives were astounded by the decency they experienced. And they reacted in kind. At the end of the war, a full quarter of the Hessians who had come to America to suppress the rebellion stayed in the newly independent nation.
In modern terms, we might say that Washington's enlightened policy helped to win hearts and minds--not only among enemy soldiers, but among civilians of all nations who heard of it.
Almost exactly 70 years after Washington's order, Gen. Winfield Scott, who had occupied Mexico City during the Mexican War, issued an order establishing the first military commissions. Unlike Mr. Bush's order, Scott's was widely regarded as a signal advance, imposing legal standards on an occupying army for the first time.
Writing about Scott's order in The New York Times, Stephen Budiansky observes:
"It is a measure of how far we have come as a nation--and in values at one time widely held--that military commissions, once seen as a great step forward for American principles of justice and the rule of law, will now for ever be associated with the abridgement of rights."
Of all the offenses committed by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their minions, the greatest may be the way that they have betrayed the values on which our nation was founded and built.