As America's former anti-terrorism chief Richard Clarke records, when George Bush was reminded of the constraints of international law on the evening of September 11 2001, the president of the United States yelled: "I don't care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass."
Kicking ass, as it turns out, meant not just the invasion of Iraq but also Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and, it now emerges, probably other secret prison facilities where people were held, and tortured, in a lawless limbo. Vice-president Cheney is reportedly fighting hard to exempt the CIA from a law, proposed by the conservative Republican and former prisoner of war John McCain, that would ban all American forces and agencies from using torture. At home, the USA Patriot Act allows routine invasions of privacy and curtailments of civil liberties that would never have passed before September 11. The words of America, the Beautiful - "Confirm thy soul in self-control/Thy liberty in law" -seem to have been forgotten in the "global war on terror"; or, as Bush put it, in kicking ass.
Unfortunately, this country, which was a beacon of liberty before the US was even invented - if you doubt this, read Voltaire's letters about his time in England, published in 1734 - has followed suit. After the entirely justified invasion of Afghanistan, we gave a patina of international legitimacy to the unjustified invasion of Iraq. There our own armed forces seem to have been reduced, in circumstances of extreme duress, to some practices of which we can hardly be proud. At home, we have seen successive tightenings of the anti-terrorism legislation - or, to put it another way, successive erosions of the Human Rights Act, and of other, older individual freedoms secured by common law, such as habeas corpus. This culminated in the proposal that terrorist suspects should be held for 90 days without charge. Legislation to outlaw the "glorification" of terrorism and a misguided attempt to protect Muslims by criminalising an ill-defined "incitement to religious hatred" both threaten free speech. And so we find ourselves in the surreal position of depending on unelected lords, and the Conservatives, for the defence of our liberties.
We can only hope that Bush's current plummet in popularity is terminal, and that we get a completely different type of leader -- a Republican or Democrat prepared to "rendezvous with reality", in Chris Patten's beautiful turn of phrase -- as the next US president.