"Ed Meese is a pig."
More than twenty years ago that pithy little phrase made its way onto buttons and t-shirts. A bicycle messenger in DC happened to be wearing such a shirt when he made a delivery to the Justice Department. He was promptly arrested. Such was the nature of the First Ammendment under Attorney General Edwin Meese.
You remember Ed Meese right? The pudgy, not-the-brightest-bulb-in-the-chandelier that Reagan made Attorney General? Long before Alberto Gonzalez stained the Justice Dept. Ed Meese served as a Reagan's friend and ally during the Iran-Contra scandal and subjected Justice Department employees to ideological litmus tests.
Meese's legacy has been much in evidence these past few weeks as the Obama Administration has released the torture memos. These memos have removed whatever doubt might have remained about the brutalities committed by the Bush Barbarians. We tortured. We did it repeatedly. We invented legal excuses to justify those act that makes the reasoning of the Spanish Inquisition look positively profound.
Perhaps Meese's most famous utterance (or maybe it's just the one I remember most bitterly) was his pronouncement that anyone arrested by the police is almost surely guilty. He had little patience for the notion that one is innocent until proven guilty. That was just liberal nonsense. The ethos embodied by Meese drove Americans into a get-tough-on-crime frenzy. Three strikes and you're out. Lock 'em up and throw away the key. After a generation of Meesian-style justice, the United States now leads the world in incarcerations.
Senator Jim Webb, for one, thinks it's time we re-examined our entire penal system. And increasing numbers of states are finding that they simply can't afford to pay for what many have called "the prison-industrial complex."
Those who still defend torture have essentially invoked Meese's principle. If you've been arrested and thrown into Guantanimo or some black site somewhere you are probably guilty of something. Or will be guilty of something in the future. So we can torture you. Phil Musser, for one, recently insisted that he walked through Guantanimo and could just tell these were guilty people.
The scandal of torture has specific roots in the Bush administration's key players and in their response to 9/11. But those roots grew in a cultural soil tilled by Ed Meese: the comtempt for due process, the impatience with things like habeus corpus, the presumption of guilt before innocence, the substitution of politics for the law.
For a generation now, the Meesian "you can't ever be tough enough on crime" position has been hugely successful politically. I suspect that as we now confront the fact that we tortured people, defenders of torture - like virtually all House republicans - will move from definitional squabbles and term-parsing (what we did wasn't really torture, it was something else) to embracing torture as perfectly justified, just like throwing people in jail for life for minor drug possession. After all, you can't be too tough on terrorists. Even if you torture them.