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Sunday's Best Ink: May 7, 2006

How Bush Breaks the Law

President Bush signed a military spending bill in December that included a hard-fought amendment banning the cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of foreign prisoners. Then he put a statement in the Federal Register asserting his right to ignore the ban when necessary, in his judgment, to protect Americans from terrorism. In March, Bush signed a renewal of search and surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act and said at a public ceremony that civil liberties would be protected by a series of new amendments. Then he quietly inserted another statement in the Federal Register that virtually nullified one of those amendments, a requirement that the administration report to Congress on the FBI's use of its powers under the Patriot Act to seize library, bookstore and business records.

Civics textbooks say presidents have two choices when Congress passes a bill that's not completely to their liking: They can sign it into law, or they can veto it and let Congress try to override them. Bush, far more than any of his predecessors, is resorting to a third option: signing a bill while reserving the right to disregard any part of it that he considers an infringement on his executive authority or constitutional powers. In more than five years in office, the president has never vetoed a bill. But while approving new laws, he has routinely issued signing statements interpreting the legislation in ways that amount to partial vetoes of provisions to which he objects. White House spokesman Blair Jones insisted that Bush is not trying to undermine the lawmaking authority of Congress, and noted that many past presidents have issued statements on the meaning of bills they sign. Presidential scholars, in fact, trace signing statements back to the early 19th century. But for much of the nation's history, they have been little more than bureaucratic memos instructing subordinates on the implementation of new laws. Bush has transformed them into declarations of executive supremacy. Read the rest...

The Hijacking of 9/11

DON'T feel guilty if you, like most Americans, have not run or even walked to see "United 93." The movie that has been almost unanimously acclaimed as a rite of patriotism second only to singing the national anthem in English is clinical to the point of absurdity: it reduces the doomed and brave Americans on board to nameless stick figures with less personality than the passengers in "Airport." Rather than deepening our knowledge of them or their heroism, the movie caps an hour of air-controller nail-biting with a tasteful re-enactment of the grisly end. But it's not a total waste. The debate that preceded the film's arrival actually does tell us something about the war on terror. The two irrelevant questions that were asked over and over — Does "United 93" exploit the tragedy? Was it made too soon? — reveal just how adrift we are from reality as we head toward the fifth anniversary of the attacks.

The answer to the first question is yes, of course "United 93" exploits 9/11. It's a Hollywood entertainment marketed to make a profit, with a smoking World Trade Center on its poster as a gratuitous selling tool and a trailer cunningly deployed to drum up pre-premiere controversy (a k a publicity) by ambushing Manhattan audiences. The project's unappetizing commercialism is not mitigated by Universal Pictures' donation of 10 percent of the opening weekend's so-so proceeds to a memorial at the site of the crash in Shanksville, Pa. Roughly 50 times that sum is needed to build the memorial (and its cost is peanuts next to the planned $1 billion extravaganza in New York). Read the rest...

 

The War on Sex

The English writer Daniel Defoe is best remembered today for creating the ultimate escapist fantasy, "Robinson Crusoe," but in 1727 he sent the British public into a scandalous fit with the publication of a nonfiction work called "Conjugal Lewdness: or, Matrimonial Whoredom." After apparently being asked to tone down the title for a subsequent edition, Defoe came up with a new one — "A Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed" — that only put a finer point on things. The book wasn't a tease, however. It was a moralizing lecture. After the wanton years that followed the restoration of the monarchy, a time when both theaters and brothels multiplied, social conservatism rooted itself in the English bosom. Self-appointed Christian morality police roamed the land, bent on restricting not only homosexuality and prostitution but also what went on between husbands and wives. It was this latter subject that Defoe chose to address. The sex act and sexual desire should not be separated from reproduction, he and others warned, else "a man may, in effect, make a whore of his own wife." To highlight one type of then-current wickedness, Defoe gives a scene in which a young woman who is about to marry asks a friend for some "recipes." "Why, you little Devil, you would not take Physick to kill the child?" the friend asks as she catches her drift. "No," the young woman answers, "but there may be Things to prevent Conception; an't there?" The friend is scandalized and argues that the two amount to the same thing, but the bride to be dismisses her: "I cannot understand your Niceties; I would not be with Child, that's all; there's no harm in that, I hope." One prime objective of England's Christian warriors in the 1720's was to stamp out what Defoe called "the diabolical practice of attempting to prevent childbearing by physical preparations." Read the rest...

 

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