Column: Real threat to democracy not found in Freeborn County

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 3, 2002

I’m not surprised by the reaction of certain people to the Freeborn County Commissioners’ decision about how to finance courthouse renovation. Those being most vocal about it made their opposition to the whole project clear from the beginning; the real divide here isn’t between those who disagree about funding, but between those who think it’s time to do something about the courthouse and those who don’t.

Obviously they have a right to be disappointed, but as one who has been on the losing side on many issues, sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders and move on to other things.

However, as I read about and listened to their complaints, I was particularly offended by one of their accusations, that the process our commissioners’ used is undemocratic, that the people haven’t been involved. I even saw the word &uot;dictators&uot; used in a letter to the editor.

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People who toss around accusations like that don’t know what they are talking about. Many of my aunts, uncles and cousins lived in a real dictatorship &045; the German Democratic Republic &045; so I think I can claim some familiarity with &uot;dictatorships&uot; and a lack of democracy. Citizens in a dictatorship don’t get to debate any public policy, and most decisions are made in secret.

But residents of this county have had plenty of opportunity to talk to commissioners over the past ten years, as ideas and options for the courthouse were being discussed. There have been many letters to the editor and elections have been held, with candidates answering questions about the courthouse project. Try as I might, I can see no dark and sinister betrayal of democratic principles in this decision.

On the other hand, far away in Washington, I do see something that more closely resembles the way things were for my relatives in East Germany. President Bush is claiming sole authority to make some very important decisions about how to respond to terrorism, and much of the decision-making is happening behind a wall of secrecy.

The result is American citizens held in prison, with no access to legal counsel, no knowledge of the charges against them, and no clear idea of who their accusers are. President Bush says only he can decide when they can claim their constitutional rights. What happened to democracy?

Journalist Daniel Schorr says it best: &uot;If the administration can decide on its own who has rights and who does not, who can have a lawyer and who cannot, who is an enemy and who is not, and further proclaim that its decision is not subject to judicial review, then that endangers the very liberties that President Bush says he is trying to defend against the terrorists.&uot;

And then there’s the looming war with Iraq, which we will apparently start fighting without Congress first declaring war. It amazes me that some Americans can so quickly use words like undemocratic or dictatorship when it comes to how they are taxed, but are mostly silent when it comes to sending thousands of Americans into battle on the other side of our planet.

In the past, when I’ve argued that our government is acting more and more unilaterally I always meant international relations, like our attempts to undermine the International Court of Justice or to tear up treaties that we decided we didn’t like anymore. Here in America, I thought, we had a constitution to protect individuals from government tyranny and a balance of powers to keep any one part of government from making major decisions without input and direction from other parts.

Boy, was I ever nave.

And so, while President Bush, all by himself, decides whether our sons and daughters will head off to kill and be killed in Iraq, residents living here think that decisions about what kind of bonding to use for a building project is undemocratic. The commissioners, they say, are acting like dictators. But maybe it’s time those critics started paying attention to what’s going on outside of Freeborn County, where democracy is being threatened in much more serious ways. In the end, it may mean a lot more to all of us than the hundred or so dollars each year involved in paying off the bills for the courthouse.

David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.