And it’s arguably one of the most progressive decisions the president has ever made
Of course, no one has yet officially confirmed whether the above is absolutely true: that is, that Bowe Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban because he deserted his post, and the deal struck by the Obama administration for his release violated the law. But even if it is true, it doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s even more encouraging.
After nearly a century of proud exceptionalism, the presidential administrations of the twenty-first century have firmly rejected the custom of holding American liberty above the freedom of all others. This equalization is hardly egalitarian in spirit, instead a denigration of US citizens’ rights nearly to those enjoyed by national enemies. Mere suspicion of terrorism, let alone any act of real criminality, has been justification enough for extrajudicial execution of Americans which the president doesn’t even try to deny. From the NSA to the NDAA, the loss of basic freedom is increasingly seen as collateral damage, a necessary sacrifice made for the sake of international security.
That the hostility of this attitude no longer includes Americans on the government’s side in the Bushian “Us vs. them” mode of national security has, in addition to a growing pile of revelations provided by Edward Snowden, allowed for Orwellian comparisons that seem less and less hyperbolic. Yet, despite this vigorous backpedaling from the US’s own Bill of Rights, the objective reality seems to be this: The Obama administration deemed it a fair move to release five dangerous, confirmed terrorists in return for the health and safety of one of its own citizens. It weighed the individual rights of one American’s life against the security risk of five terrorists and tipped the scale in favor of Bergdahl.
It goes without saying that there are political reasons for this move. The reclamation of US POWs is traditionally considered a significant final page in the closing chapter of foreign wars with unpopular outcomes. The prisoner transfer allows for a bit of closure in the Middle East as the Obama administration attempts to draw down what are now thoroughly unpopular wars which have raged for over a decade. It’s a necessary step to maintain campaign promises made one and a half terms ago.
The matter goes beyond mere political implications, however. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is championing this move before congress as vehemently as NSA director Keith Alexander defended illegal wiretapping. However, instead of arguing supreme license for the sake of executive power to enforce national security, he argues for the sake of an ordinary American’s life, and not one who, say, oversaw the Benghazi affair, or created a website for Obamacare. The Obama administration is defending its choice, whether legal or not, to reinstate the liberty of powerless American, whether they are guilty or not. This is a profound step forward after years of practically running away from the assurance of liberty.
Let’s pause this optimistic train of thought, before we get carried away. Let’s presume for a moment that Obama’s critics are correct,and say that the administration violated congressional authority in order to rescue an American soldier who attempted to desert in the face of the very enemy that captured him.
First of all, in regard to legality, there are two things to be taken into account: the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Bush and Cheney’s entire campaign to marginalize civil liberties, a crusade Obama voraciously continued, rested upon a nefariously generous interpretation of the spirit of the law in order to subvert its letter. However, this interpretation was made to strip away individual rights considered sacrosanct since the inception of the country on a scale that was never before possible. While Obama has used this vague, pseudo-illegal rationale to enforce everything from Prism to Obamacare, never before has he outright violated the law for the sake of an American’s individual human rights. The entire purpose of laws are, arguably, to protect and defend life. It cannot be proven that the five terrorists released will pose a significant and direct threat to the United States, to the degree that they will result in the death of an American. However, it is certain that Bergdahl is safer, and considerably more empowered to live, be free, and pursue happiness than he was as a prisoner of the Taliban.
Second, what if Bergdhal did desert? What if he, in a way, brought his unfortunate circumstances upon himself while committing a capital offense (according to military justice) in the process? This is Obama’s truly encouraging deviation. Even if the outcome is the same as that of him being executed by the Taliban, Bergdhal’s release is a recognition and affirmation of the superiority of American justice, even under a military court, over any extrajudicial punishment. If Bergdhal is to suffer any consequences for his actions, Obama’s choice implies a significant affirmation. Bergdhal is entitled to the presumption that he is innocent until proven guilty, and is not to be deemed otherwise until after a legal process has been carried out, one designed explicitly to not only protect society from individuals, but also to protect individuals from society.
Could this be viewed as a full reversal after a slew of authoritarian policies made since 9/11? Hardly: real threats to civil rights continue to exist, and it will take significant reform before the looming specter of an Orwellian future can reside safely in the realm of pure fiction again. Regardless, a step in the right direction is a step in the right direction. Whether this is indicative of real progress in Obama’s declared shift away from abusing drone strikes and civil rights remains to be seen.