“I am deeply concerned by reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen,” President Barack Obama said in a written statement in 2011 when regimes attempted to suppress the so-called Arab Spring. “The United States condemns the use of violence by governments against peaceful protesters in those countries and wherever else it may occur. . . . Wherever they are, people have certain universal rights including the right to peaceful assembly. The United States urges the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests, and to respect the rights of their people.” That is how the U.S. government used to respond when a tyrant used excessive force to muzzle free expression and protest.
This was a routine practice of presidents of both parties. In 2004, the State Department put out a statement: “President [George W.] Bush condemns the Castro government’s intensified repression of Cuba’s growing pro-democracy and human rights activists. Over the past days, the Cuban government has jailed over 75 of these activists throughout the country. . . . As our senior diplomat in Havana, James Cason, has commented, ‘Sadly the Cuban government is afraid, afraid of freedom of conscience, afraid of freedom of expression, afraid of human rights.”
We can imagine what a normal U.S. administration would say about an administration that acted as President Trump has done. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of violence to suppress peaceful demonstrators exercising their rights of free speech and assembly in protesting the egregious abuse of law enforcement in the killing of George Floyd. The U.S. administration must respect the universal rights of free expression and respect the rights of its people to be free from police brutality. The use of tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful demonstrators was a cowardly act of a government afraid of its people.”
The United States might have called in the offending government’s ambassador for a dressing down and either canceled or downgraded upcoming meetings or exchanges. If the human rights offenses were serious enough, it might have used the Magnitsky Act to sanction individuals responsible for gross violation of human rights. (That would allow freezing of human rights abusers’ foreign bank accounts and properties - one way of cutting off some of Trump’s unconstitutional foreign emoluments!)
Sadly, rather than a beacon of democracy and defender of universal human rights, the United States under Trump has become a miscreant deserving of rebuke and even sanction. And should we feel the need to rebuke a strongman in another country (e.g., Turkey, China, Russia, Hungary) one can only imagine the guffaws that would ensue. This is how a country loses its moral standing and influence in the world. This is how it gains the reputation of being a feckless hypocrite.
If former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is elected, he will have his work cut out for him to reestablish our credibility around the world. He can start with relieving the command of military officials who participated in abuse of Americans’ civil liberties, passing legislation curtailing use the Insurrection Act, broadening the right of Americans to seek redress against federal officials who violate their constitutional claims (Bivens claims) and limiting the immunity that officials enjoy in many circumstances. These — plus comprehensive criminal justice reform — will be essential, not merely to address the abuses once more laid bare, but also to reestablish America’s international reputation.
Sixty years ago, President John F. Kennedy worried that Jim Crow abuses would give the Soviet Union a cudgel in the Cold War. The Soviet Union is gone, but our problem persists. Once more, we risk the loss of America’s reputation and stature and our ability to bring despots to heel because of the systematic abuse of our people. That’s what happens when we elect a wannabe dictator.
William J. Barber II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: Trump’s use of the Bible was obscene. He should try reading the words inside it.
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