The Tree of Liberty

Two thousand four will be the year that determines whether American democracy survives. Although this notion has been growing for some time, two articles from the front page of Monday’s Washington Post confirm the diagnosis.

The first was headlined “Army Stops Many Soldiers From Quitting” and said the U.S. Army has issued a series of “stop-loss” orders preventing the expiration of enlistment or retirement of over 40,000 soldiers, many of whom are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Aside from creating anger and hardship for the soldiers and their families, the stop-loss policy has caused the Army to grow to 500,000 troops, 20,000 more than the congressionally mandated ceiling of 480,000. What are a couple thousand troops among friends? We are at war, after all, aren’t we? In the past two-plus years, the U.S. has invaded two countries and now has occupation troops in each and yet George Bush has never gone to Congress to ask for a declaration of war. Congress has passed resolutions authorizing the use of force, but those open-ended “authorizations” are a politically expedient way of both doing something and not doing something. “Let’s just trust the president,” the House and Senate say and power slides from the legislative to the executive branch. As his power grows, Mr. Bush claims even more authority through his stop-loss orders, which are a form of conscription without the political fallout that would accompany a new draft, the usual form of conscription. (The “stop-loss” concept was created in the 1970s, when the unpopular Vietnam draft had been abolished and the military was at an all-time low. The first “stop-loss” order was issued during the first Gulf War by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.)

Congress could stop this, but it won’t. The president’s party controls both houses and besides, the Army has to rotate 130,000 troops out of Iraq in a few months, it will want all the experienced soldiers it can find. We wouldn’t be in this situation if Mr. Bush had not alienated those nations best positioned to contribute troops or if the Pentagon had proposed a realistic assessment of the occupation before the war. (Former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki predicted this morass exactly, but Gen. Shinseki was the only soldier George Bush allowed – nay, forced – to retire in 2003.)

The other story from Monday’s Post concerned the spate of prosecutions aimed at physicians who use narcotics to treat chronic pain. The story was not about shady, fly-by-night doctors who write prescriptions for any drug a patient asks for, but serious medical people who are seeking ways to bring relief to people who need it.

Charges have been lodged against dozens of doctors across the country, who must take time away from their practices and run up tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills defending themselves.

In California, a woman died in an auto crash; she was a passenger, not a driver. Pharmaceutical painkillers were found in her blood and the doctor who prescribed them was charged with murder. In Arizona, the Drug Enforcement Agency eavesdropped on a closed hearing between a doctor and a medical review board. A federal prosecutor brought charges against that doctor and when two of her colleagues publicly protested, investigations were opened into their activities. In a Virginia case, a doctor was acquitted of murder in a painkiller prosecution, so federal attorneys filed a second set of lesser charges. Those too, were dismissed. It’s not just doctors. John Ashcroft’s Department of Justice has filed charges against pharmacists, office managers and receptionists.

The real target of this intimidation campaign is the medical profession at large, which Mr. Ashcroft hopes to scare away from prescribing narcotics. Not being satisfied with telling judges how to sentence convicts, Ayatollah Ashcroft now wants to tell doctors how to practice medicine.

What these stories have in common is power. The GOP Congress, with its “let’s just trust the president” mantra, surrenders power assigned to it by the Constitution. Meanwhile, the White House, Pentagon and attorney general are grabbing up power that was never meant for them. We are watching the system of checks and balances – and the republic that rests upon them – slip away before our eyes.

Two thousand four is an election year. If the Republican Party, with its increasingly totalitarian views, retains control of the White House and Congress after the November elections, we will likely see the end of the American republic as we know it and the beginning of a new tyranny on the earth.

The time to refresh Mr. Jefferson’s tree of liberty may soon be upon us.

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