Tuesday, May 26, 2009

There is such a thing as a middle ground

Business Times - 26 May 2009


There is such a thing as a middle ground

By LEON HADAR
WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

IF YOU'VE been following American 24/7 television and radio talk shows or reading the op-ed columns in the country's newspapers (or the few that haven't been closed down yet), you've probably concluded that the people here are deeply divided over policies and legislation regarding national security and social-cultural issues.

You would think that half the population - the so-called Conservatives and Right-Wingers - think that the government has the right to torture suspected terrorists, that abortion should be criminalised and that gay couples shouldn't be permitted to get married; and that the other half - the so-called Liberals and Left-Wingers - believe that suspected members of Al Qaeda should be treated just like other criminals, that society shouldn't be in the business of trying to prevent abortion, and that the US should legalise gay marriages ASAP.

Indeed, members of the powerful interest groups in Washington and their representatives in Washington - joined by Conservative and Liberal pundits - tend to create the impression that America is now in the middle of a bloody Culture War over core national, cultural and religious values, and in which the citizens of this country are being forced to take sides.

It's Us versus Them. You're either 'supporting torture' or 'following the law'. You're either accepting the 'murder' of unborn children or are willing to violate women's 'basic rights'. You're either promoting the homosexual lifestyle or you just don't want to see two human beings who love each other living happily.

After all, according to this Good versus Evil perspective, only wimps would try to gravitate to the middle ground when it comes to these and other dilemmas that touch upon our sense of identity and faith. Indeed, this is exactly what former vice-president Dick Cheney proposed in his recent address in Washington during which he defended water-boarding and other Bush administration interrogation practices (wall-slamming, cold cells, sleep deprivation up to 180 hours, the approved invasions of the prisoner's space including the 'facial hold') in dealing with suspected terrorists.

'If liberals are unhappy about some decisions, and conservatives are unhappy about other decisions, then it may seem to them that the president is on the path of sensible compromise,' Mr Cheney said. 'But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half measures keep you half exposed.'

Hence in Mr Cheney's world, President Barack Obama's decision to close the US military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, where terrorist suspects have been held - made in an executive order issued on his second full day in office - and his harsh criticism of the Bush administration's authorisation of the use of brutal interrogation techniques, puts Mr Obama and his supporters squarely on the side of unpatriotic Americans who are willing to embrace 'compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance'.

A similar attempt to demonise President Obama was made by Catholic activists who opposed the decision of the heads of Notre Dame University, America's pre-eminent Roman Catholic university, to confer an honorary degree upon a president whose position on abortion is in conflict with Catholic teaching.

And then there is the moral indignation expressed by members of America's Christian Right with the decision of several states, including Connecticut, Iowa, Maine and Vermont, to legalise same-sex marriage.

But the fact is that when it comes to closing Guantanamo and outlawing torture, legalising abortion and supporting gay rights, Mr Obama's views seem to be in line with the majority of the American people who recognise that the dilemmas which these issues pose cannot be resolved through 'either/or' decisions, but instead require painful and occasionally unsatisfactory choices. There is a middle ground.

As Mr Obama pointed out in his remarks, delivered in front of a display of US founding documents at the National Archives in Washington, the challenge facing Americans as they fight terrorism is to find the right balance between the need to protect US national security and the commitment to the US constitution and civil rights.

'I know some have argued that brutal methods like water-boarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more. As Commander-in-Chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation,' Mr Obama said. 'They did not advance our war and counter-terrorism efforts, they undermined them - and that is why I ended them once and for all.'

But Mr Obama also angered many liberal activists by suggesting that he was likely to seek to hold some of the Guantanamo prisoners without formal charge or trial, which could amount to a 'preventive detention regime' and by admitting that the process of transferring the detainees to US prisons could require political and legal compromises.

And during his commencement address in Notre Dame University, Mr Obama made it clear that he recognised that both sides on the debate on abortion were committed to reasoned moral values.

'Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction,' he said. 'But surely, we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.'

Moreover, Mr Obama called for a search for common ground on one of the most divisive issues in American politics. 'When we do that - when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do - that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground,' he said. He urged supporters and opponents of abortion rights to 'work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term'.

Mr Obama has made it clear that as a Christian, he would not condone marriage between gays, a view that seems to be shared by most American Christians. But like other mainstream politicians and thinkers, he also believes that relationships between gays should be protected in the form of civil unions and that the issue needed to be settled through the legislatures of the different states.

Indeed, the fact that the legislature of Iowa - considered to be one of the most conservative states in the nation - decided to legalise gay marriage reflects the way that American moral values are changing.

Hence, while Mr Obama's position on gay marriage and his view that Americans can continue fighting terrorism without violating civil rights and that they should try to find some common ground on abortion are not favoured by the lobbyists and ideologues in Washington, they seem to be more in line with the views of Middle America whose members seek an ideological middle ground - and not a battle ground.


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