The great thing about getting older is you tend to say what is on your mind without worrying about what others think. So, here is a little of what is on my mind, or at least what is left of it.

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Of Witches, Inquisitors and the Lust for Power

The Malleus Maleficarum was written by two Dominican priests at the request of Pope Innocent VIII. It was the manual for the torture and execution of hundreds of thousands of women and girls with the paltry addition of a few men to lend a sense of "equality." What the Malleus came down to, as noted by Carl Sagan in his book, The Demon-Haunted World was a circumstance where if you were accused of being a witch, you were judged a witch. Those accused were allowed no witnesses other than their accusers, no public trial, and no reprieve save the charity of being garroted before you were burned, if you signed a confession and named the obligatory names.

The inquisition became a booming business with all manner of vermin benefiting from its continuance. In England, there were those know as "prickers" who, with some slight-of-hand with a pin, could provide proof that someone was a witch. They were paid a generous bounty for each witch they turned over to the inquisition. But these pickers were just the lowest echelon in the pyramid of profiteers who kept this death mill running for hundreds of years. All of the expenses for the inquisitors—their travel, pay and banquets—were paid for by the accused or their family, and property not taken by the inquisitors for their own use was turned over to the church and state. All and all, the torture and killing of the accused not only provided fine spectacle, monetary rewards, and a certain prurient delight by those did the inquiring, but their deaths also helped fortify church doctrine and power.

During the Salem witch trials in colonial America, fear and superstition also took hold. Again, there was a strong profit motive for if you wished to take your neighbors property then what better way to get them out of the picture than with a whispered accusation. Though there was less prurient interest on the part of the Puritans, the spectacle was still fine entertainment. There were forms of torture such as submersion in water, and of course the mandatory naming of names.

Moving on to America in the late forties and early fifties we had another form of witch-hunt, this avidly pursued by such staunch Republican stalwarts Joseph McCarty and Richard M. Nixon. Fear fed the flames and although there was no torture per se, the accused would see their lives ruined unless they were to cooperate and name names. If course, since many of these people were not guilty of being involved the only recourse the had if they wanted to save their own skins was make up some names--their pool boy, or barber, or the old school teacher you didn't like. It didn't matter, because as with the inquisition, if you were accused, you were guilty and as names were named, the number accused grew exponentially.

This brings us to the beginning of the 21st century, some five hundred years after the composition of one of the most terrible documents ever written, the torture manual known as the Malleus Maleficarum. We are again in a time were those in power are using fear and superstition to manipulate and control the population. Again we are in a time where those who make accusations, as with the "prickers" of old England, are paid generous bounties for their accusations. Again, there is an establishment making huge profits on the entire enterprise, and again there is the use of torture and the absence of fundamental protections under the law.

In his article in the Los Angeles Times, "Who's really locked up Guatanamo?" Tom Malinowski relates the story found in Pentagon documents, of the case of Mohammed Al-Qahtani, the alleged 20th 9/11 hijacker. Qahtani, after weeks of being "tormented" by sleep deprivation, isolation and sexual humiliation, accused 30 fellow prisoners of being Osama bin Laden's bodyguards. His inquisitors, or more properly their bosses, so anxious to have proof of some tie- in to bin Laden found truth less than relevant. What matters is the appearance of success. Again, as with the witches of the inquisition, those in Guatanamo are held outside the protection of law deemed by their accusers not to have any right to such protection by a semantic ploy dreamed up by the government. Again, there is the formidable build-up of fear to justify such these reprehensible acts, and, again, confessions are being forced by the use of torture and deprivation. What is startling is this is not happening in some fifteenth century dictatorship, but is in a country that considers itself the most enlightened democracy on the planet! What is unconscionable is that not only are these acts happening with the knowledge of our government and the American people, but the use of torture, kidnapping, imprisonment in foreign lands, and brutal death that have occurred there is actually defended by the President of the United States.

Wise men have long known that power corrupts, and our founding fathers understood this better than most. To protect this country and its people, they devised a system of government designed with checks and balances to impede any one branch of government from usurping power from the other branches. They gave us a bicameral legislature, an executive branch, and an independent judiciary, each with responsibilities, authority, and constitutional mandates, in the hope that this would deter the usurpation of power by any one branch or individual. They knew first hand the tyranny of kings. But in the last six years this wonderful system seems to be breaking down. The executive branch, in the person of George W. Bush, has seen fit to usurp powers from the other branches under the guise of a wartime status, even though war has never been declared. But Mr. Bush, in being allowed the use of force has seen fit to avail himself of this prominence. The legislature has succumbed to the imbalance of one party rule and has become nothing more than a rubber stamp for the executive. The judiciary, under the combined weight of the Republican controlled House and Senate has been filled with crones and Loyalists.

It is never been in the interest of this country and its citizens to have an all-powerful executive. Why the legislative branch would so neglect its duties laying the groundwork for this imbalance of power is incredible, but that is what is happening.

There is no doubt that terrorism is a huge problem and one we must face. There is even some possibility that some of the people held at Guatanamo and other secret prisons around the world were actually involved with attacks on the United States. But when judgment is rendered is secret, when laws that are the cornerstone of our democracy are held to be out of reach, and when questioning the judgment of the executive is hailed as treason and collusion with the enemy, then the very fabric of American democracy is being attacked. Simply put, when we set aside the rights of those we fear, when we stifle open debate, and when we attack those who would question the actions of authority, it is we citizens who stand to loose the most. You cannot take the protection and laws of this country away from those we distrust without loosing the protection of law away for ourselves. . These prisons are now limited to those we would call terrorists but for how long? How long before "terrorist sympathisers" become those who dare question what is becoming a virtual monarchy and become themselves the subject of torture and imprisonment? There are those within the Republican party, within the right-wing media, who would cheer such a move and defend it with the utmost vigor.

If the Republican "majority" is afraid of doing the honest job of government and if they are afraid of open debate and of an unfettered press, then it is time we get rid of these slackers and restore the rule of a true democratic republic. It is time we restore the government our founding fathers so wisely set forth. It is time to rise above the lies and fear mongering, the propaganda and deceit. It is time to cast out those who believe that might makes right and to clear the houses of government of those who, for personal gain, seek to tear apart this great democracy. This lopsided rule is dangerous. If we are to restore the rule of law, the candor, and the decency of America then we must restore its balance. It is too bad we will have to wait till November to do so.


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