Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Shameful Comparisons

By David G. Young

Guatemala City, November 26, 2001 --  

A lone soldier guards the entrance to the National Palace here in this former capital of repression. Built by Guatemala's World War II-era dictator, the imposing building's purpose has changed to hold a museum to the 1996 peace accords.

This treaty ended the conflict between the guerrilla forces of the Mayan majority and the army of the European-blooded elite that had kept them down for centuries. The Mayan people, not considered citizens of Guatemala, were persecuted and tossed aside to further the economic and security needs of the elite citizens. Though ample problems remain, the fact that Guatemalans are now discussing them rather than killing over them is a welcome sign.

Further proof of changing times can be found in the capitol of Guatemala's former colonial ruler. Once the center of an unbelievably brutal movement to wipe out indigenous American culture in favor of strict Catholicism, Spain has become a heroic leader in a universal justice movement to prosecute human rights abuses. Its decision last year not to hear a court case by Rigoberta Menchu, an exiled Mayan leader who accuses a former Guatemalan president of genocide, was made on the grounds that the courts of Guatemala are now capable of hearing the case themselves.

That the Spanish government considers Guatemalan justice so improved is striking enough. More shocking is that Spain shows significantly less confidence in the United States. Because President Bush has declared non-citizens may be tried in secret military courts, Spain wisely will no longer extradite terrorist suspects to face trial in America. With a single act, President Bush has placed America -- home of the Statue of Liberty and the Bill of Rights -- in the company of the world's most repressive regimes -- yesterday's Chile, Yugoslavia, and Guatemala.

Unlike the National Palace here in Guatemala City, armed soldiers wearing camouflage uniforms now surround America's capital. Unlike the Mayans here, non-citizens in America are no longer given the same right to fair trial as the elite citizenry. While these horrific changes are promised to be temporary and limited, it is shameful that President Bush has invited comparison with the likes of Guatemala.

Not three months ago, America was one of the few very freest countries on earth. Today, it is not. Even now most Americans probably find the idea of a repressive old Guatemala-like government beyond comprehension for the future of the United States. But there is exactly such a risk. Consider that the Roman Republic -- the most liberal and powerful country in its day -- quickly turned into a dictatorial empire with less provocation.

Since the attacks on New York and Washington, civil libertarians have often warned that if America gives up its freedoms to fight terrorism, then the terrorists will win. Sadly, this understates the real risk. America's government does not have to become like the Taliban for the Americans to lose. The adoption of much smaller and more insidious security measures that erode America's liberties will cost the United States its moral authority, and hence its position of strength to fight opponents of liberty.

America would then degenerate into a rich and mammoth-sized Guatemala: A repressive state with a dubious reputation for abusing people within its borders to enhance the security of the elite.