There is one thing, and only one thing, that I'm grateful to George W. Bush for: my new sense of political engagement.
For most of my adult life, I have not been especially politically inclined. I thought politics was boring and that it didn't really affect me, and that nothing was as certain or as enduring as the pretty-much-okay status quo. I thought that American freedom was just a fact of life. I thought civil rights were a part of the scenery and as enduring as Mount McKinley. I never thought about the "Rule of Law" and thought the Constitution was an important historical document.
It wasn't until the 2000 election that I began really paying attention to the political arena. I was appalled at how the electoral college and the Supreme Court handed the presidency to the candidate who lost the election, at how the Florida recount was subverted. I felt an enormous sense of betrayal and a longing to live in a democracy where the will of the people was honored and respected.
On September 11, 2001, I was in a bookstore when I heard people talking the way they do when a great horror is unfolding. I decided I didn't want to hear about it from a stranger, so I dropped everything and went home to watch the news. All the way home, I kept saying to myself, over and over again: "Not while that guy is in office, not while that guy is in office." I didn't know yet what had happened, but I knew that Dubya would make whatever it was much worse. Talk about a prescient moment.
I had read enough to be firm in the belief that Dubya and the neocons would exploit the situation to accrue more power, to advance their antigovernment ideology, to twist the very foundations of the republic. I can't imagine a more horrific response to that national tragedy than the one we have witnessed these past seven years.
Under this president we were deceived into a preemptive war that many knew would turn into an unwinnable quagmire. We've seen the abandonment of habeas corpus, the introduction of torture and extraordinary rendition, unprecedented government secrecy, unwarranted surveillance of American citizens, the undermining of our government's checks and balances, and a "unitary president" who clearly considered himself to be above the law. The list goes on and on. The disasters that have befallen us during Dubya's term in office—9/11, Katrina, the collapse of the economy—are nothing compared to the disaster that his reign has been.
Thanks to Dubya, I now know the importance of the Rule of Law. I know that tyrants count on people not paying attention. I know what the founders of this country knew: that tryanny is always a threat and must always be guarded against.
Thanks to Dubya, I know that the Constitution is a precious gift, not only to the people of the United States but to the people of the world, and that it must be defended by all people who want future generations and people around the world to enjoy the rights and freedoms I used to take for granted.
Dubya taught me that what the ACLU says is true: freedom can't protect itself. U.S. citizens who love truth, justice, freedom, and peace have an obligation to pay attention, to engage, and to actively defend the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Rule of Law.
Thanks to Dubya, I've learned that we can't afford to just leave this up to the people who like politics.
My hopefulness about the incoming administration is tempered by my understanding of how horribly our government has been mangled in the last eight years.
I know that the office of the presidency now holds far more power than the wise founders of this country ever intended. I know that power like that is too much for any one human being to safely wield, regardless of how good or noble that person's intentions.
I still fear for the life and well-being of my beleaguered country. We're a long, long way from restoring the republic that I so foolishly thought would endure without my ever having to exert any effort to defend it.
I feel a lot like we're picking through the rubble of the last eight years, that the great virtues extolled and established and written into the Constitution by our revolutionary founders have suffered terribly from a sustained all-out assault. We're covered in dust and debris, wounded and disoriented, with only a vague sense of who we are and who we are meant to be.
I will celebrate this week along with everyone else. This is a great moment in our history. But it will take way more than one person, one inauguration, however historic, to put this country right. It will take the clear-eyed, fierce determination of all those who love freedom and justice to come to the aid of their country.