Opening Remarks to the closing session of the International Commission of Inquiry On Crimes Against Humanity Committed by the Bush Administration, Riverside Church, New York, January 20, 2006.
When Clark Kissinger called me yesterday and said, “You will be sharing a platform with Harry Belafonte, I said, “Well, maybe you want to put me on for tomorrow.” But here I am, and of course I’m proud to be in any kind of association with Harry Belafonte. And I’m sure you’re all familiar with Harry Belafonte’s comments that he made to President Chavez in Venezuela a few days ago. And if you don’t remember them, I’ll repeat them. “No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush, says, we’re here to tell you that not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people support your revolution.”
Now what’s remarkable about that, is not only the statement itself but Harry Belafonte response when he was heavily attacked for calling Bush a terrorist. As he, to his credit, has never been willing to do, he did not retreat from the statement. And if you go on the net you will find what he said, at the Children’s Defense Fund, a few days later about that statement to Chavez: “So I made my remarks, they may stir up controversy, but then it’s time to talk about new definitions, new points of view.” And that’s what Harry Belafonte was doing, and that is what we are doing here today, and over the next two days, at these Bush Crimes Commissions.
The other important point about being here, at Riverside of course, is that in April 1967, this is the place, this is the church, where Martin Luther King openly, and notoriously I should say, opposed the war in Vietnam. The speech was called “Beyond Vietnam: A time to break the silence.” It’s a historic place for that reason. He began that speech with these words: “A time comes when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us, in relation to Vietnam.” And then in that speech, he lays out a 5-point program. But the ultimate point of that program was: Remove all foreign troops from Vietnam. Incredibly, even though it was Martin Luther King saying that, in 1967, it took 9 more years, millions of Vietnamese deaths, and thousands of American deaths, to do so.
We today model our conduct on that of Dr. Martin Luther King. As he said then, we say today, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us, in relationship to the war in Iraq. It is time for us to bring the troops home now.
A people’s trial, a people’s commission, is not without important precedents. Almost 40 years ago, in 1968, there was another people’s trial. It was held in Sweden and Denmark. Originally it was to be held in France. But the French wouldn’t allow it; they prohibited it, because it was about Vietnam, and of course the French had been very deeply involved in the subjugation of Vietnam. The witnesses at that people’s trial were well-known progressives, including Jean-Paul Sartre. They gathered in Stockholm and Copenhagen, and they were there to judge another human outrage in our history, the brutal and inhuman Vietnam War. Bertrand Russell, the famous English philosopher, was one of the key participants in that trial. In fact, it was called the Russell War Crimes Tribunal.
Russell opened that trial, and here is what he said: “We meet at an alarming time. Overwhelming evidence besieges us daily of crimes without precedent. We investigate in order to expose; we document in order to indict; we arouse consciousness in order to create mass resistance.” And so, as Russell said then, we say today: we are putting the Bush administration on trial. We investigate in order to expose; we document in order to indict; we arouse consciousness in order to create mass resistance. We want this trial to be a step in the building of mass resistance to war, to torture, to the destruction of earth and its people. It’s a serious moment. Our country and our world are at a tipping point: Tipping toward permanent war, the end of human rights, and the impoverishment and death of millions. We still have a chance, an opportunity to stop this slide into chaos. But it is up to us. We must not sit with our arms folded, and we must be as radical as the reality we are facing.
The witnesses you will hear over the next few days are the truth-tellers: the witnesses to the carnage this country and this administration have wrought. This truth challenges us — challenges us all to act. We, particularly the American people, have not heard or seen the truth. And if some do, in their comfort and complacency, they often turn away. The truth is hidden. It is hidden through cover-up language, euphemisms, legalisms, obfuscations, false investigations, the blaming of low-level individuals: all meant to hide the reality of the criminal involvement of high officials of this administration: Their criminal involvement in war, torture, global and human destruction.
Let’s take a look at a few of these examples, and there are many. The failure in this country, and the media, and pundits everywhere we look, to look at the reality- a reality this commission will examine. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the first example: the war in Iraq. Supposedly, the war was to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Now it is said: that was a mistake. It was bad intelligence. The administration says it, and much of Congress says it , the Press says it, “Had we only known – but we thought they had weapons of mass destruction. So we must in the future get better intelligence.” As if that explains or excuses why we went to war. But of course, that explanation — the failure of intelligence — and it is still the current explanation of today, by the elites, hides the real reasons for war. It blames some negligent officials, individuals, at the CIA, for leading us into war. All we need to do according to them is correct that and we won’t be in mistaken wars any longer. Mistaken wars will come to an end. If you believe that, you believe in the tooth fairy. We all know that is not the truth. In fact, in 1967, at the speech hear at Riverside, Martin Luther King predicted it. He said we will be marching and protesting wars for the rest of our lives as long as we are on the wrong side of history. And we are on the wrong side of history.
Sometimes I ask myself: why did we progressives know the weapons of mass destruction story was a cover for war? But Congress and the media claimed they did not? Because they — all of them– Democrats, Republicans, the media — they were all reading from the same page. And that page is U.S. world exploitation and domination. And of course what does the truth tell us about the war in Iraq? It tells us that it’s an aggressive war, a crime against peace, and according to the judgment at Nuremberg, that kind of war is the most heinous of all war crimes.
I can give you other examples: For example, the fact that they say that they–the administration– does not torture. Here is how they get away with that statement. All of a sudden in this country, torture is not torture. Or at worst it is abuse. And even that abuse is no worse than a fraternity prank. Or if it was abuse, it was because abusive techniques were only for use in Guantánamo. What sense does that make? Used in Guantánamo as if that is ok– and somehow they migrated to Iraq? But what does “migrated to Iraq” mean? Are they birds, like a bird migrates? Without any human agent, torture techniques move from one place to another? Or we are told that it is a few bad apples, but no responsibility of the higher-ups. And yet the media has gone along with this, with these lies and these cover-ups. Even worse, serious media discussion and respectability is given to the legal justifiers. For example, John Yoo, a lawyer for the administration, who wrote that torture could be used in the name of national security — much like the Pinochet defense, torture in the name of national security. I was utterly shocked the other day when I picked up the New York Times and there on the oped page they had asked half a dozen people what questions they would you ask the potential new Supreme Court Judge Alito. And they asked John Yoo what question would he ask Alito. Here they–the New York Times–is giving credibility to a man who should not be writing opeds in the New York Times but should be in the dock— in the dock facing justice.
Let there be no doubt this administration is engaged in massive violations of the law. Torture is an international crime. It is a grave breech of the Geneva conventions. And almost no one is telling you that. And in this country it is anathema to do so.
A third and last example of the hiding of reality, of the blaming of individuals, instead of the nature of this country and its leaders is the example of what happened in New Orleans with Katrina. It is the preparation for and aftermath of Katrina. What do we hear and read? It was an unpredictable act of god. It was the failure of FEMA. FEMA had a bad manger. All sorts of excuses similar to what we heard about the so-called intelligence failures in the Iraq war. But to blame FEMA, to blame the individuals, obscures what we know occurred in New Orleans. What we saw in New Orleans and the Superdome was something very different – it was the legacy of slavery, the legacy of Jim Crow, the legacy of separate but equal, and it was the legacy and the current practice and policy of our country today that human beings are seen as disposable, particularly if they are poor and black. That is the reality of New Orleans, and that is the reality faced everyday in this country. And again, that is the reality this Commission will bring you.
The war, torture, and the effects of Katrina are not looked at as failures or as products of the system. The truths are hidden and by hiding the truth we are disempowered. So we are here this weekend to hear truth tellers; to empower people. It is not just a few bad apples, it is not mistakes or bad choices, it is not just bad managers and getting better ones; but something much more fundamental. It’s that awful alchemy as Dr. Martin Luther King described it in this very church – the giant triplets of “racism extreme materialism and militarism. ”
I want to say a few words about one aspect of the current period that is extremely frightening– Probably the most frightening development, although it does have roots in prior administrations. The short hand for the expression of this period and the scare and fear that I feel is, “The king can do no wrong” or the word might be tyranny, police state or dictatorship. I recall that after 9/11, within a few months afterwards, I wrote an article. It was entitled, “Moving toward a police state – or have we arrived?” And I remember being nervous about it because this was pretty aggressive to be saying a few months after 9/11. Was I going to get trashed for it? Did it really reflect reality? I wasn’t sure. I had some evidence in front of me. I had the Patriot Act. I had internal detentions. I had the President’s military order that allows him to pick up people anywhere in the world and detain them in Guantánamo or elsewhere. But I still was only willing to say ‘moving toward a police state’, not have ‘we arrived’. And a police state to me is one where authority is not under law, where the legislature is overridden, and where our courts are ignored. It is a state where one can be jailed without a court proceeding or trial and where the president, king or what have you, can do as he pleases – wire tap, torture, and disappear people. Unfortunately, and dangerously that is the situation we are in today.
You are familiar with much of the evidence, some of which I have laid out, some of which the next two days will address. There is however one piece of important evidence I want to bring to your attention. It shows that the president, their president, not our president, is open and notorious about his aims, public if you will; and if you miss what we are being told you have to be an ostrich with your head in the ground. What the President has done is basically lay the plan for what has to be called a coup-d’etat in America. It is a small paragraph and it’s contained in what is called a ‘signing statement.’ It was signed on December 30th and it’s the signing statement to what is called the McCain amendment. You probably all remember the McCain amendment. That’s the amendment that prohibits cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, or supposedly prohibits it. The president as you recall, resisted the McCain amendment. But in the end he had to sign it because it was part of a broader military authorization to pay for what we’re doing in Iraq. When a president signs legislation, he sometimes and, more recently with President Bush, almost always, issues a signing statement as to what his understanding of the new law is. The president’s statement on McCain is only one short paragraph. But it is historic. It is unprecedented. And if you’re looking for the grab for power that allows you, permits you, compels you to call this administration a tyranny, it is that paragraph.
It makes three points and I’ll paraphrase. First, speaking as the president, ‘My authority as commander in chief allows me to do whatever I think is necessary in the war on terror including use torture. Second, the Commander in Chief cannot be checked by Congress. Third, the Commander in Chief cannot be checked by the courts.’ There it is. There you have it. That boring stuff I learned as a junior high school student about checks and balances or about limited law or about authority under law – out the window. Gone. In other words, the republic and democracy is over. In Germany what did they call that? They called that the fuhrer’s law. Why? Because the fuhrer was the law. That’s what George Bush is saying here. George Bush is the law.
This assertion of power is so blatant so open, and so notorious, that it is finally shocking some people like former Vice President Gore to speak up. I’m sure many of you are familiar with what he said in his recent speech on Martin Luther King’s birthday. “The President of the United State has been breaking the law repeatedly and persistently.” He was referring to the NSA spying scandal. And then he went on to say, “A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government.” And then he said what that means to a Republic: “An executive who acts free of the will of Congress as this president says he can, or the check of the judiciary, as this president says he can, becomes the central threat that the founders sought to nullify in the Constitution.” And then Gore quotes James Madison.to the effect that what President Bush has done is the very definition of “tyranny.” So there you have it. It’s not just us, its not just progressives, but even someone like former Vice President Gore is saying this government is the very definition of tyranny.
I believe that the president and this grab for power will be repudiated. But it will not just happen. The pendulum does not swing back automatically. It will take an aroused public and an aroused people. And so the question is really – where do we go from here? One place I can tell you not to go is: don’t go to the Democrats in Washington.
I have to tell you I’ve have never in my life been kicked in the teeth as badly as I was on the Guantánamo cases when we were forced to take that issue to the Democrats in Washington. Now I’m just going say it here, there are a million reasons I can tell you don’t go to Washington and the Democrats, but this one is called the Graham-Levin Bill. After we win the right to go court for the detainees at Guantánamo, and we win that in the Supreme Court, Republican Senator Graham and Democrat Senator Levin get together – and what do they decide to do a few weeks ago? But strip the courts of any jurisdiction to hear the Guantánamo cases. That’s what they do – Democrats and Republicans together. And then they say you can use evidence from torture to keep those people in jail. Kicking us right in the teeth! Kicking the courts in the teeth. And sentencing the Guantanamo detainees to years more of Hell. And so if you think that we’re going to get far by going there–to the Democrats, you’ve got it wrong. Lessons of history teach us that we don’t move our leaders without the passion and the protest of the people.
I want to close with a sense of hope. It’s been a rough four years, it’s been a rough twenty years, and it’s been a rough forty years since Dr. King spoke. But I want to close with a sense of hope. This administration is unraveling. There is a split in the elites. Gore is one of the best examples. Everywhere we see former administration officials speaking out. They realize the administration has gone too far. They want to save some remnant of democracy. We see indictments from Scooter Libby to Delay coming fast and furious. We see General Miller, responsible for torture in Guantánamo and Iraq, taking the 5th amendment essentially so he won’t have to testify. We see General Sanchez, who was head of troops in Iraq, retiring without that 4th star. It’s a real opening for us but it is not simply to go back to the normal. It’s not simply to save a remnant of democracy. The malady is much deeper than that. We need a radical transformation of our society. My hopes for today and for the future are that the truth will arouse resistance and with resistance there will be some change. I mean resistance of every sort, mobilizing, protesting, disobeying and disobedience. And then again, when I was reading Dr. King’s speech, the thought that he closed with, and that I want to close with, is that sometimes we can wait too long to take action. Or as Dr. King said, “you can be too late.” And we, unless we act, may be too late.
So let me end with Dr. King’s directive to us all: “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. There is such a thing as being too late. We still have a choice today. Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful struggle for our new world.”
Thank you. We’ll do this together.
MICHAEL RATNER is President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and was co-counsel in Rasul vs. Bush, the historic case of Guantánamo detainees, in which the Supreme Court ruled that U.S. courts do indeed have jurisdiction over Guantánamo. He is an expert in international human rights law and a past President of the National Lawyers’ Guild.
On January 31 MICHAEL RATNER will be joining thousands across the country to protest President Bush’s State of the Union message, and on February 4 he will be addressing the World Can’t Wait demonstration in Washington DC demanding that President Bush Step Down.