In perusing old notes for a new book, I came upon observations made in an interview with Robert Oxnam, former President of the Asia Society. Oxnam was describing what to him was the need for a true ideology for China, one that could reach beyond "to be rich is glorious" to give the emerging world power a moral and political identity to be proud of, and one that might hold it together more than break it apart.
The real message of Tianenmen Square, Oxnam said, was that students demonstrating for openness, tolerance, and democracy were exercising their right to be students, and to be the conscience of the nation. (My emphasis added).
The phrase stopped me. Where, I wondered, are US students today acting as "the conscience of the nation?" Or did this fade after Vietnam, or go underground after the draft expired?
President Obama, without conferring with Congress, has just put the nation into a third war front in Libya. This is part of a multi-national effort apparently entered into hastily, and without a broad US Mideast military policy to address fomented rebellions there. This Presidential act, one could argue, overreaches the power of the presidency despite alleged authority to fight terrorism on any front for almost any reason. Obama went on TV to the nation March 28 to explain his rationale for US involvement.
I personally support efforts to block Qaddafi's intent to kill his own citizens (whom he may define as 'terrorists,' if it suits him), in the same way I favor intervening if the man upstairs is beating his wife. Boundaries are not the issue, and time is of the essence. I favor intervention when morally and practically required - but not without Congressional due process, and that does not have to take a lot of time. (In the case of the man upstairs, there is no due process and he does not deserve a warning.)
On another front, we learn this week that Obama no longer believes that suspected terrorists should get the Miranda warning afforded them constitutionally, depending on the circumstances and the perceptions of the FBI agent at the time.
An FBI internal memo revealed this week advises its agents:
1. If applicable, agents should ask any and all questions that are reasonably prompted by an immediate concern for the safety of the public or the arresting agents without advising the arrestee of his Miranda rights.
2. After all applicable public safety questions have been exhausted, agents should advise the arrestee of his Miranda rights and seek a waiver of those rights before any further interrogation occurs, absent exceptional circumstances described below.
3. There may be exceptional cases in which, although all relevant public safety questions have been asked, agents nonetheless conclude that continued unwarned interrogation is necessary to collect valuable and timely intelligence not related to any immediate threat, and that the government's interest in obtaining this intelligence outweighs the disadvantages of proceeding with unwarned interrogation.
I find it hard to believe that someone who has conspired to commit acts of terrorism will talk if he has not been apprised of his Miranda rights but will clam up once informed that he can be represented by an attorney under US law. Really?
If the students I have in mind were to act conscientiously, they would object to the abuse of presidential power, or even the appearance of it, whether or not it is taking the US into war. They would also object to the selective application of Constitutional rights for "terrorists" because it would occur to them that anyone can be considered a terrorist, and treated accordingly. Surely the farmers in the American Revolution were terrorists in the eyes of the British, who probably had no trouble burning the soles of their feet to coax their plans out of them. That was long before the Geneva Convention or the evolution of US Constitutional law that made us a model for the world.
I would like to see our students defending that.