Why Is Nobody Listening to Jimmy Carter's Searing Critique of America?

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The former president accuses his post-9/11 successors of breaking the law and trampling on human rights. That should be a bigger deal.

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If you told the average American that there was a very powerful politician who, after leaving office, tried to speak out when his conscience was bothered by the actions of his fellow political insiders; if you told them that he abandoned partisanship, calling out even members of his own political tribe; if you told them that he said what he thought to be true even when it was uncomfortable, even when it lost him friends, even when it was seen as a betrayal by other powerful people, who shunned him; if you told Americans all that, you would think they'd express admiration for the mystery man.

Yet few celebrate Jimmy Carter.

He criticizes America. People don't like that.

Here's his latest critique, published in The New York Times:

The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights. Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation's violation of human rights has extended. This development began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues.

I haven't agreed with everything Carter has said in his post-presidency. But he's right about this. America is behaving immorally. It is doing things it once condemned. Both parties are complicit. The American people don't care, though they'd be outraged if another country behaved this way.

Carter goes on:

Recent legislation has made legal the president's right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or "associated forces," a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the declaration.

In addition to American citizens' being targeted for assassination or indefinite detention, recent laws have canceled the restraints in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to allow unprecedented violations of our rights to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining of our electronic communications.

Shouldn't it grab our attention when a past president takes to the biggest print platform in the nation to warn, You're investing too much power in the presidency? Yet Bill Clinton attracted more notice when he defended private equity firms. To me, that suggests our sense of newsworthiness is warped.

There's a lot more to Carter's column, including this noteworthy passage (emphasis added):

The detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, now houses 169 prisoners. About half have been cleared for release, yet have little prospect of ever obtaining their freedom. American authorities have revealed that, in order to obtain confessions, some of the few being tried (only in military courts) have been tortured by waterboarding more than 100 times or intimidated with semiautomatic weapons, power drills or threats to sexually assault their mothers. Astoundingly, these facts cannot be used as a defense by the accused, because the government claims they occurred under the cover of "national security." Most of the other prisoners have no prospect of ever being charged or tried either.

If there is a more extreme example of a prominent politician breaking with his fellow elites I
don't know what it is. But he is saying things most people don't want to hear, so a past president accusing other presidents of violating the law and trampling on human rights is all but ignored.

Michelle Obama picked the wrong moment to start being proud of her country.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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