Saturday, October 24, 2009

A.G. Eric Holder's Speech at UMaine Offers Little of Substance

Here is what I learned from Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech, Friday:

- Terrorists remain at large and want to kill us all.

- This fight—both the literal war in Afghanistan, and the more abstract “War on Terror”—will go on for years.

- The United States remains committed to the rule of law, except when it comes to matters of torture. In those instances, the Department of Justice looks the other way.

- Authorizing torture is not so much a “crime” per se but a “legal opinion” which the Attorney General happens to disagree with.

- The best way students can help the country fight terrorists is to join the Justice Department upon graduation. (Seriously—this was his actual advice.)

- Oh yes: And former Secretary of Defense, William S. Cohen was known as “Bangor Billy” in college.

Am I the only one who feels I have seen this movie before? Holder’s speech seemed ripped right out of the pages of the Bush/Cheney playbook. It contained so much fear-mongering and militant hawkishness, I momentarily thought I was listening to Michael Mukasey, Alberto Gonzales, or even Henry Kissinger.

While the Obama administration may have retired the phrase, “War on Terror,” Holder’s appearance proved George W. Bush’s pre-emptive, “fight-‘em-there-so-we-don’t-have-to-fight-‘em-here,” mind-set continues to drive the nation’s foreign policy decisions. Perhaps the Nobel Peace Prize committee should have waited three weeks and listened to this lecture before granting President Obama the award?

I certainly am not questioning the seriousness of the terrorist threats Holder spoke of. However, in praising the United States’ success in combating terrorism throughout the country and the world, Holder neglected to take into account how our actions overseas—the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention the ongoing use of torture and rendition of suspected al-Qaeda operatives--might actually be contributing to the rise in hatred towards our country. Noam Chomsky in his book, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (2003) offers some simple, yet profound advice on how to stop terrorism: “Stop participating in it.”

During the question-and-answer portion, in which the Attorney General was subjected to a handful of pre-selected, student-submitted questions, Holder effectively avoided granting substantial answers to questions dealing with torture.

When he was asked about possible criminal prosecutions for members of the Bush administration that authorized the use of torture, Holder hedged the investigation is, essentially, still ongoing. (Which as most of us know, is entirely untrue. Bush and Cheney have confessed multiple times on national television to ordering the CIA to carry out torture in interrogations.) He added, however, that he does not believe CIA operatives who “acted in good faith,” (i.e. were just “following orders”) should be held accountable for their actions.

Since I addressed this issue specifically in my last editorial, I will give it short shrift here: Torture is a crime. Period. Holder himself has gone on record admitting as much. Failure to prosecute all individuals involved in the carrying out and authorization of torture and other heinous war crimes guarantees future presidents will carry out those same crimes again. You do not need to be a history major to understand this.

Other questions concerned the indefinitely-stalled closing of Guantanamo Bay, legalizing medical marijuana, and national implications of Maine’s gay marriage law, which will be voted on next month. Holder gave stock answers to all of these questions, revealing nothing new, or interesting. He put more energy into teasing Cohen about his college-basketball nickname, “Bangor Billy” and the fact that the Maine native was on Obama’s short-list for possible vice presidents, after last year’s election.

The entire lecture ended with both Holder and Cohen calling for an escalation of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. While Cohen bemoaned the hostile, deeply partisan arguing in Congress, for those of us who believe there is little substantive difference between the Republican and Democratic parties, such a cliched call for civilized, “bipartisan” harmony rang hollow.

What was missing from Cohen’s “insights” into the “necessity” of escalating the conflict in Afghanistan was any questioning of the war itself. Cohen, like Obama, sees the Afghanistan war as the “good war”—the one we should have been fighting all along. He likewise, in an apparent rebuttal to recent criticisms of President Obama by former Vice President Dick Cheney, claimed the Iraq War had been handled “incorrectly.” Seeing as how the war in Iraq was based entirely on lies and fabricated intelligence, the issue is not how “correctly” the war was carried out, but whether it should have been carried out in the first place.

If this was supposed to be a debate of some sort, I must have missed the contrarian, anti-war viewpoint. It certainly did not come from the audience, which cheered loudly when Cohen called the war in Afghanistan, not “Obama’s war,” but “America’s war.” Are Cohen and Holder completely ignorant of world history? Are they entirely unaware of the fact that even the Soviet Union was unable to contain Afghanistan during the 1980s? Do they not realize, furthermore, that fighting a clandestine, loosely organized enemy like al-Qaeda requires diligent, investigative police work and covert intelligence operations—not all out war?

As I exited the lecture hall, I overheard several people remark how “inspiring” the talk was. (Note the median age of the audience looked to be about 65. I saw very few college students sitting around me, and the few I did notice appeared to have difficulty staying awake for the entire talk.)

Inspiring how…? The only thing the Attorney General’s speech inspired me to do was race to my apartment, break out my duct tape, lock the door and bolt the windows shut and prepare myself for the next, inevitable terrorist attack. Why did Holder need to come to Maine to give such a standard, routine address? I feel I could have gotten the same sort of militant fear-mongering from any given issue of The New York Times. If Holder's speech proved anything it is that the Obama administration's approach to foreign policy is nearly identical to Bush's.

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