Since the index began in 2006, the country has been steadily and gradually falling in the ranking. In the latest edition, it received 8.05 points, down from 8.22 seven years ago. Considering that 8.00 is the lower boundary of the category, the deterioration of democracy in America is remarkable.
Looking for an explanation, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to claim that the descent began on the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
In the wake of the World Trade Center’s destruction, some wise minds warned Americans of what was coming. Even though the fundamentalists scored a victory with the attacks, the true success of the enemies of freedom and democracy would come from the reaction of US authorities themselves.
The United States’ “war on terror” ended up undermining the nation’s own values and principles.
Dangers of a ‘Patriotic’ Press
Despite all the horror on that day, the true tragedy for the American people came with the weakening of checks and balances on state power, citizen oversight of rulers, and the constitutional right to due process.
Another victim of September 11 was the otherwise formidable US press, until then heralded as the prime example of rigorous, professional, and independent journalism. Colleges across the world portrayed the American media as the model of freedom of speech to follow.
Many court cases initiated by government agencies trying to silence criticism or keep wrongdoings under wraps had already undermined the principles upon which the free US press stood.
After the terrorist attacks, however, a wave of misguided patriotism took over mainstream US journalists. They abandoned their independence and critical thinking and became mere spokesmen for the government in a detrimental move for democracy.
If democracies are founded on the principle that sovereignty resides in the people, then there is no justification to not keep them informed in a transparent and independent way. A frightened and misinformed citizenry are easy prey for manipulation.
During that time, I used to read the New York Times online on a daily basis. From a distance, both geographical and emotional, it was possible to perceive some signs that those who were in the United States could not.
Americans have forgotten what Benjamin Franklin once said: “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
It was surprising to see a daily green, orange, or red alert to warn the population about the possibility of a new terrorist attack. We realized that the US government was keeping people in a permanent state of collective psychosis, which made it easy for the authorities to convince them to give up their rights, liberties, and constitutional guarantees. That is the true story of the unfortunate “Patriot Act”.
Americans soon forgot what Benjamin Franklin once said: “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
In other words, one cannot trade liberty for security, because liberty is the best safeguard of security. If we lose freedom, our safety simultaneously diminishes to the same degree.
Both the government and the media are to blame for the unfortunate situation. In most cases, journalists were convinced that they were doing the right thing to protect the nation. However, the US government pressured those who had doubts about the new national security doctrine so that they would fall in line.
Those who dared to tell Americans the truth were subjected to brutal, coward, and vile punishments. Plamegate was perhaps the most evident example.
Between 2001 and 2003, Valerie Elise Plame was a CIA undercover agent in Iraq and Iran, the most politically sensitive countries in the Middle East. She was married to the US diplomat Joseph Wilson, an expert on weapons of mass destruction.
Around that time, President George W. Bush wanted to invade Iraq, claiming that atomic bombs were being built there. The CIA had found out that Niger was selling uranium to then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Bush claimed.
Wilson had been the one tasked with traveling to Niger to verify this claim. He found that this was false and filed a report for the intelligence agency.
[adrotate group=”7″]The Bush administration ignored Wilson’s discovery and kept making the case for war with Iraq to the American people. So on July 2003, the diplomat decided to pen an article in the New York Times exposing the truth.
Eight days later, the Washington Post revealed Plame’s identity, putting her life at risk and leaving her relatives and an entire network of informants in Iraq that collaborated with US officials in danger.
Democracy in America
Democracy does not lead to paradise on earth. There are problems, but there are also solutions. Injustices can be reported and criminals can be punished. The best democracies have developed mechanisms of self-correction.
In the United States, those mechanisms are the judiciary and the different civil society groups that Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher and politician, learned to admire during his 19th century visit.
In the Plamegate affair, a federal judge sentenced Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a high-ranking Bush administration official, to prison for leaking the information about Plame’s identity. However, the ruling felt more like Libby was a scapegoat and that he voluntarily exposed himself to save the higher-ups.
This theory gained more support when President Bush inexplicably commuted his prison sentence.
It is worth noting how independent organizations gave the weak a platform to speak up. First, they helped Valerie Plame’s family publish a book titled Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House. They then produced a movie, Fair Game, which was showcased all over the world.
The United States has proved to be a nation with a great sense of self-criticism and reaction. I just hope that those traits are rooted deep enough for Americans to realize where they are heading.
Hopefully, they will reconsider and return to those principles that once made the United States a model for the rest of the world.