Checks and Balances
One of the great achievements of the past few hundred years has been the establishment of widely agreed standards for how we treat each other individually, collectively, and during times of conflict.
St. Bartholomew, from the Martyr’s Mirror
For most of history, however, those in power could do pretty much what they pleased, and human life and dignity were given little or no value, compared to today. Tyrants, by definition, are not accountable. Much like Cersei and the other tyrants in HBO’s Game of Thrones.
The question of the definition of torture became highly politicized during the administration of President George W. Bush. Abuses by U.S. soldiers of captured Iraqi’s in the Abu Ghraib prison drew widespread condemnation (including by President Bush). And more pointedly, the use of waterboarding on a few detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility became a flashpoint for an American debate on the definition of torture, which continues today.
Watch: Obama on Waterboarding
Watch: Trump – Return Use of Waterboarding
In 2006, President George W. Bush banned torture including waterboarding, and in 2009, President Obama issued a similar ban. President Trump has done nothing yet to modify that ban.
In the course of this debate, the status of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility became a proxy for the overall question of the treatment of captives in the war on terror. Closing Guantanamo was a top, symbolic, priority for President Obama, and one of his first acts was to sign an order calling for it to be closed. Nevertheless, it remains open today, more than 8 years later!
While Certell’s Common Sense American Government does not enter into the debate about waterboarding, we find that the process and difficulty of closing Guantanamo provides an interesting case study in how checks and balances work in our system of government. We produced this video to promote discussion of how inefficient our form of government is, and whether we should see this inefficiency as a good thing.
Do: Answer the following questions:
- What are the three branches of government, and how do they provide a “check” on each other?
- Why did the Founders design an inefficient form of government? What were they afraid of?
- The case of closing Guantanamo is interesting, because it specifically addresses the problem of people wanting to do something in theory (close Guantanamo), but not in practice (accept to relocate terrorists into American prisons). How does the “slowing down” of our system allow people to reflect and change their mind about the theory, when they find unacceptable the practice?
- There have been past instances in which Congress has found itself unable to do things it recognized as important in theory, but hard in practice. Sometimes, it has decided to pass along the responsibility to someone else, so politicians wouldn’t have to make “hard” decisions that might lose votes. The process of closing military bases around the country after the end of the Cold War comes to mind. When, if ever, should Congress be allowed to pass the buck in this way? Does this weaken our checks and balances?
Fort Benjamin Harrison, and Fort Benjamin Harrison State Park, Indianapolis, Indiana
5. Can you think of examples of when you gave up your rights and let someone else decide, because you didn’t want to make and be accountable for a hard decision? Were you right to do so?