This week, Vito Fossella, a Republican politician who represents New York State's 13th district in the US House of Representatives, issued a broad statement declaring that no torture is taking place at the American prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. How does Fossella know? He visited the prison himself on a specially arranged, escorted by top Pentagon officials.
This visit reminds me of nothing so much as the trip that a little American girl took to the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. She had written a letter to the Soviet leader asking why the Soviet Union didn't let people live in freedom. Sensing a public relations opportunity, the Soviet leader invited the girl to come to the Soviet Union herself, to see how things really were there. She was taken on a grand tour of the CCCP, and everywhere she went, she saw smiling, happy people, and dancing children, and beautiful homes. Everyone she met told her, through state translators, how very happy and free life was in the Soviet Union. Then, the little girl came back to the United States and, in a specially arranged press conference, told all of America that we just didn't understand how wonderful the Soviet government had made life for the people under its rule.
I am also reminded of an experience during my short time as an elementary school teacher in Memphis. All of us teachers were rounded up one day after school, and told that an observer from the State of Tennessee would be visiting the school the next week. The observer was part of a program designed to assess how well school reform models were being implemented. We were instructed on how to rearrange our classrooms, alter our files, and change our lessons for the day so as to create a favorable impression. The impression our school gave was, of course, nothing like what the observer would have seen on a typical day.
So, when Vito Fossella is taken on a special, pre-scheduled, escorted tour of the Guantanamo Bay prisons, and declares that conditions there are humane, I'm not impressed. Neither should Mr. Fossella be.
The truth is more disturbing than the rosy scenario that congressman Fossella describes. The International Red Cross, a neutral organization with no axe to grind against the United States, has described the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay as consistently "tantamount to torture".
A memo obtained from the FBI uses the word "torture" to describe the treatment of prisoners at the American camp at Guantanamo Bay, and describes a direct order from President Bush to torture prisoners there. These are gung ho FBI agents talking, not a bunch of liberal anti-war protesters.
Then there are the consistent stories, given independently by people who have been released from Guantanamo Bay. They all describe the same kinds of torture, even though they never met after release from prison. Republicans have attempted to explain away these allegations, which include the sexual assault of children kept as prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, by citing what they describe as an "Al Quaida training manual", which is purported to instruct Al Quaeda members to claim being tortured when taken prisoner, even when no torture had taken place. These Republicans never acknowledge the huge holes in this excuse for ignoring torture:1. The suppposed training manual has never been authenticated as genuine. We're left to take the word of the Bush Administration - the same people who used forged documents and doctored photographs to persuade us that the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein was a grave threat to the whole world, with vast arsenals of weapons of mass destruction capable of striking at Europe and the United States, including an active program that could produce a nuclear weapon in something like a year - that it is authentic.
Sure, the huge weight of evidence shows that agents of the American government have been systematically torturing people held at Guantamo Bay. The evidence doesn't matter much to Republican politicians like Vito Fossella. They're content to hear the Bush Administration's version of events, see a scripted performance, and accept it all as undeniable truth. The foundations fo American freedom were not built upon such lax acceptance of authority.
The issue is larger than just the question of whether the American government is torturing people. The greater issue is whether our representatives in the U.S. Congress have the strength and integrity to stand up for the principles of the Constitution that they are sworn to protect, and demand honest answers about and a full accounting of the activities of the federal government. When the Congress fails to oversee the activities of the executive branch, it becomes nothing more than a rubber stamp to implement the will of the President. Under such conditions, the system of checks and balances that keeps our government accountable to the people falls apart, and we all are at the mercy of the mood of the President.
Congressman Vito Fossella is not merely an eager dupe for the Bush Administration's coverup of torture at Guantanamo Bay and around the world. By failing to exercise the disciplined oversight that is his authority and duty, he is betraying the interests of his constituents in favor of loyalty to the partisan agenda of his political party.
Unfortunately, while a few Democrats say that they are considering a challenge to Vito Fossella, not one has had the courage to step forward and make an announcement. They know that Vito Fossella is counting on the people of New York's 13th congressional district to be ignorant and apathetic, and they're betting that Fossella's arrogant attitude about his constituents will be proven correct.
It's up to the people of New York's 13th district to prove Fossella wrong. I'll make it easy: If you're from the Brooklyn or Staten Island, there's a good chance that Fossella represents you. Visit our congressional scorecard page for Congressman Fossella, and you'll find the information you need to get in contact with Fossella's congressional staff to let them know that you disapprove of his lazy and gullible attitude about his duty to oversee the activities of the Executive Branch. Then, email the New York State Democratic Committee and call them at 212-725-8825 to tell them that you expect them to find a strong candidate to stand up against Fossella in the next congressional election.
That next congressional election, by the way, starts not very long from now - in 2006. With 2005 already one quarter gone, it won't be that much longer until all of America is in the midst of another important election year. Every single member of the House of Representatives faces re-election in 2006, but the Republicans who control the House are betting that Americans won't bother voting in what they arrogantly call an "off-year" election. Consider this: Without the approval of the Congress, the President of the United States is practically powerless. Remove Republican control of Congress in 2006, and we can stop the radical nationalist agenda of George W. Bush in its tracks.
You can prepare the way for an effective progressive resurgence in 2006 to take back the government for the people. You can help to push the Democrats to get active now. Or, you can rest your head in your hands, sigh, and go along with the conventional wisdom that there's just nothing you can do. The choice is yours, but consider: When you sit by passively, merely complaining that there's nothing you can do, you are serving as a rubber stamp for the Bush Administration agenda just as much as Vito Fossella is.
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