The U.S. government’s ongoing dispute with Russian President Vladimir Putin reflects what a disaster the U.S. government’s “war on terrorism” has been, at least from the standpoint of moral standing.
Ever since his election, Putin, harkening back to what he undoubtedly remembers as the fond days of the Soviet Union, has been taking harsh actions to suppress criticism of him, his actions, and his regime. To avoid being seen as an opponent of freedom of speech, however, he uses Russia’s system of a tightly regulated economy and a complex tax system to go after his critics by charging and prosecuting them with tax and regulatory violations.
Putin’s actions should remind us Americans of the real value of a regulated economy and a complex tax code, at least from the standpoint of government officials. It provides a means by which governments can keep the citizenry in line because there is always some regulatory and tax provision that people, especially those in the business sector, have violated.
Have you ever noticed that the heads of big U.S. companies and banks don’t speak out publicly against the federal government’s policies, especially those in foreign affairs? That’s because they know that the federal government can retaliate in the same way that Putin does. That’s what keeps the powerful heads of the business and banking arenas within the United States submissive, quiet, and compliant.
One businessman, Joseph Nacchio, went the other way and, not surprisingly, paid a high price. When President Bush enlisted the support of various American telecoms to permit the federal government to engage in illegal monitoring of their customers’ accounts, many of them said yes. Not Nacchio, the CEO of Quest. The federal government took the same action against him that Putin takes against recalcitrant businessmen. It looked for tax and regulatory violations and went after Nacchio on some ridiculous insider-trading violation. They got him and he’s now in jail, much as many Russian businessmen are now in jail for ridiculous economic crimes for not going along with Putin.
Back in 1963, immediately after he assumed the presidency, Lyndon Johnson engaged in the same sort of sordid tactics, as related in Robert Caro’s latest volume on Johnson, The Passage of Power. To suppress reporters who were delving a little too deep into Johnson’s illegal and unethical actions before he assumed the presidency, Johnson simply threatened newspaper owners and editors with IRS audits or unfavorable regulatory treatment. It worked. The newspapers got into line and suppressed the critiques. There is little doubt that major newspapers all across the United States got the message: Come after us and we’ll come after you with regulatory and tax violations or denial of favorable regulatory and tax benefits.
Where the U.S. government lost all moral standing to criticize Putin was with respect to the U.S. government’s war on terrorism. When U.S. officials recently criticized Putin for his suppression of civil liberties, all Putin had to do was point to the actions of the U.S. government at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere around the world as part of its war on terrorism.
Kidnapping, indefinite detention, torture, abuse, rendition, assassination.
That’s what Putin pointed to when the U.S. government criticized him for human-rights violations. He essentially said: How dare you criticize others for human-rights abuses when you have been doing those things to people for more than 10 years?
What could the U.S. government say in response? It couldn’t say anything, at least not on that point. Ironically, it responded in the same way that Putin would respond: by imposing economic sanctions on Russian officials.
But Putin is right. The discomforting fact is that the U.S. government has used its war on terrorism to embrace policies that are characteristic of totalitarian regimes, including communist ones.
Oh, it’s all justified under “national security,” the two most meaningless, but also the two most important, words in the lives of the American people. Nonetheless, no one can deny that the U.S. government, with its war on terrorism, has been able to maneuver around the constraints in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eight Amendments, including due process of law, trial by jury, protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments, the right to confront adverse witnesses, and speedy trial — procedural rights that once distinguished America from the rest of the world.
Putin’s actions remind us, once again, that democracy does not constitute freedom. Putin, like George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has been democratically elected. Nonetheless, he, like Bush and Obama, is exercising dictatorial powers over the citizenry. Democracy is good for achieving a peaceful transition of power but it is certainly no guarantee of freedom. Freedom turns on the extent to which government officials, including the president, lacks the powers to engage in totalitarian actions against the citizenry.