Saturday, March 26, 2005

We Americans may be known for a lot of things, but a firm and abiding commitment to rationality isn't one of them. When faced with a choice between efficiency or logical consistancy, we tend to go for the efficiency.

The upside of this is that we're able to enjoy an unprecedented amount of wealth. The downside is that it inures us to a fair amount of political contradiction: so long as the gap isn't too yawning, our public officials are invariably granted a certain leeway when it comes to matching political rhetoric with political action.

It would seem, however, that the current government has just passed the point at which its contradictions are too obvious -- and the abuses they contain too egregrious -- for the public to continue looking the other way.

Two examples from today's papers should illustrate what I mean.

First, from the NYT story on the detainees who have died in U.S. custody:
In one of the three cases in which no charges are to be filed, the commanders determined the death to be "a result of a series of lawful applications of force."
Second, from the Knight-Ridder story (via Kevin Drum) about the Shiavo law enforcement fiasco:

Hours after a judge ordered that Terri Shiavo wasn't to be removed from her hospice, a team of Florida law enforcement agents were en route to seize her and have her feeding tube reinserted - but they stopped short when local police told them they would enforce the judge's order, The Miami Herald has learned...

For a brief period, local police, who have officers around the hospice to keep protesters out, prepared for what sources called a showdown...

"There were two sets of law enforcement officers facing off, waiting for the other to blink," said one official with knowledge of Thursday morning's activities. In jest, one official said local police discussed "whether we had enough officers to hold off the National Guard."

"It was kind of a showdown on the part of the locals and the state police," the official said. "It was not too long after that Jeb Bush was on TV saying that, evidently, he doesn't have as much authority as people think."

These two stories are the flip side of the same coin. In the first, the question at play is whether an agent of the U.S. government can lawfully effect an individual's death. In the second, the question is whether the U.S. government can lawfully prevent an individual's death.

Yet judging by the government's logic, you'd think it were the other way around. The Army seems to think that it is not an MP's role to prevent 'lawful' deaths from occurring; meanwhile Gov. Bush seems to think that the Florida judiciary is actively trying to kill Terri Shiavo.

The only solace I can find here is that, again, we seem to have passed a tipping point. As horrible as the detainee deaths are and the Shiavo fiasco is, collectively they have at least acted as an alarum for many conservative apologists. Andrew Sullivan, of course, has long since called out the administration on the torture scandal as well as its social-policy federalism, but he's now being joined by a host of others, from Ann Althouse to Glenn Reynolds.

As a result, I get the sense that the present administration is about to learn an invaluable lesson: the average American may be willing to let a lot of things slide, but the biggest thing of all -- abusing the power of life and death -- most certainly is not one of them.


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