The President of the United States owes this country an apology.
It will not be offered, of course.
He does not realize its necessity.
There are now none around him who would tell him or could.
The last of them, it appears, was the very man whose letter provoked the President into the conduct, for which the apology is essential.
An apology is this President’s only hope of regaining the slightest measure of confidence, of what has been, for nearly two years, a clear majority of his people.
Not “confidence” in his policies nor in his designs nor even in something as narrowly focused as which vision of torture shall prevail — his, or that of the man who has sent him into apoplexy, Colin Powell.
In a larger sense, the President needs to regain our confidence, that he has some basic understanding of what this country represents — of what it must maintain if we are to defeat not only terrorists, but if we are also to defeat what is ever more increasingly apparent, as an attempt to re-define the way we live here, and what we mean, when we say the word “freedom.”
Because it is evident now that, if not its architect, this President intends to be the contractor, for this narrowing of the definition of freedom.
The President revealed this last Friday, as he fairly spat through his teeth, words of unrestrained fury directed at the man who was once the very symbol of his administration, who was once an ambassador from this administration to its critics, as he had once been an ambassador from the military to its critics.
The former Secretary of State, Mr. Powell, had written, simply and candidly and without anger, that “the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism.”
This President’s response included not merely what is apparently the Presidential equivalent of threatening to hold one’s breath, but within it contained one particularly chilling phrase.
Mr. President, former Secretary of State Colin Powell says the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. If a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former secretary of state feels this way, don’t you think that Americans and the rest of the world are beginning to wonder whether you’re following a flawed strategy?
â€œIf there’s any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it’s flawed logic,â€ Bush said. â€œIt’s just — I simply can’t accept that. It’s unacceptable to think that there’s any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective.
Of course it’s acceptable to think that there’s “any kind of comparison.”
And in this particular debate, it is not only acceptable, it is obviously necessary.
Even if Mr. Powell never made the comparison in his letter.
Some will think that our actions at Abu Ghraib, or in Guantanamo, or in secret prisons in Eastern Europe, are all too comparable to the actions of the extremists.
Some will think that there is no similarity, or, if there is one, it is to the slightest and most unavoidable of degrees.
What all of us will agree on, is that we have the right — we have the duty — to think about the comparison.
And, most importantly, that the other guy, whose opinion about this we cannot fathom, has exactly the same right as we do: to think — and say — what his mind and his heart and his conscience tell him, is right.
All of us agree about that.
Except, it seems, this President.
With increasing rage, he and his administration have begun to tell us, we are not permitted to disagree with them, that we cannot be right. That Colin Powell cannot be right.
And then there was that one, most awful phrase.
In four simple words last Friday, the President brought into sharp focus what has been only vaguely clear these past five-and-a-half years – the way the terrain at night is perceptible only during an angry flash of lightning, and then, a second later, all again is dark.
â€œIt’s unacceptable to think,” he said.
It is never unacceptable to think.
And when a President says thinking is unacceptable, even on one topic, even in the heat of the moment, even in the turning of a phrase extracted from its context, he takes us toward a new and fearful path — one heretofore the realm of science fiction authors and apocalyptic visionaries.
That flash of lightning freezes at the distant horizon, and we can just make out a world in which authority can actually suggest it has become unacceptable to think.
Thus the lightning flash reveals not merely a President we have already seen, the one who believes he has a monopoly on current truth.
It now shows us a President who has decided that of all our commanders-in-chief, ever, he alone has had the knowledge necessary to alter and re-shape our inalienable rights.
This is a frightening, and a dangerous, delusion, Mr. President.
If Mr. Powell’s letter — cautionary, concerned, predominantly supportive — can induce from you such wrath and such intolerance, what would you say were this statement to be shouted to you by a reporter, or written to you by a colleague?
“Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.â€
Those incendiary thoughts came, of course, from a prior holder of your job, Mr. Bush.
They were the words of Thomas Jefferson.
He put them in the Declaration of Independence.
Mr. Bush, what would you say to something that anti-thetical to the status quo just now?
Would you call it “unacceptable” for Jefferson to think such things, or to write them?
Between your confidence in your infallibility, sir, and your demonizing of dissent, and now these rages better suited to a thwarted three-year old, you have left the unnerving sense of a White House coming unglued – a chilling suspicion that perhaps we have not seen the peak of the anger; that we can no longer forecast what next will be said to, or about, anyone who disagrees.
Or what will next be done to them.
On this newscast last Friday night, Constitiutional law Professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington University, suggested that at some point in the near future some of the “detainees” transferred from secret CIA cells to Guantanamo, will finally get to tell the Red Cross that they have indeed been tortured.
Thus the debate over the Geneva Conventions, is in fact not about further interrogations of detainees, but about those already conducted, and the possible liability of the administration, for them.
That, certainly, could explain Mr. Bush’s fury.
That, at this point, is speculative.
But at least it provides an alternative possibility as to why the President’s words were at such variance from the entire history of this country.
For, there needs to be some other explanation, Mr. Bush, than that you truly believe we should live in a United States of America in which a thought is unacceptable.
There needs to be a delegation of responsible leaders — Republicans or otherwise — who can sit you down as Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott once sat Richard Nixon down – and explain the reality of the situation you have created.
There needs to be an apology from the President of the United States.
And more than one.
But, Mr. Bush, the others — for warnings unheeded five years ago, for war unjustified four years ago, for battle unprepared three years ago — they are not weighted with the urgency and necessity of this one.
We must know that, to you, thought with which you disagree — and even voice with which you disagree and even action with which you disagree — are still sacrosanct to you.
The philosopher Voltaire once insisted to another author, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” Since the nation’s birth, Mr. Bush, we have misquoted and even embellished that statement, but we have served ourselves well, by subscribing to its essence.
Oddly, there are other words of Voltaire’s that are more pertinent still, just now.
“Think for yourselves,” he wrote, “and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.”
Apologize, sir, for even hinting at an America where a few have that privilege to think and the rest of us get yelled at by the President.
Anything else, Mr. Bush, is truly unacceptable.
But, clearly, to the current Federal Administration, the only allowable thoughts are thoughts which agree with them.