April 21, 2004

Are we really "at war?"

Here's a few questions I wish more of my political opponents would ask me:

"What would it take for you to support the Patriot Act?" "How threatened would the country have to be before you'd start trusting Bush to set things right without aggressive oversight?"

These questions would seem to pin me to the wall. Surely there must be some conceivable scenario in which I would acknowledge that our government needed to be freed up to fight the enemies of our nation as it sees fit.

There is, indeed, such a scenario. A whole lot of them, actually. But we're a long, long way from any of them.

The problem with the arguments made by folks like Eugene Volokh (which are otherwise quite good) is that they take it for granted that we're somehow "at war." Sure, George W. Bush has said so. But that's obviously not going to be enough. Proponents of restricting civil liberties have yet to overcome their first burden, which is to explain how September 11, 2001 "changed everything." They assert it without argument, as if it were obvious. I don't think it is.

The first problem for those who claim that we're at war is that their definition of war doesn't allow for the possibility of peace. If we're at war now, then we've always been at war, and we always will be. This is true for more than just the tired (but still impeccably correct) reason that we can't really tell when a war on a concept begins and ends. If we're at war with "terrorism" then when did this war start? Surely it didn't start with September 11. Did it start with the bombing of the Cole? The Oklahoma City bombing? The bombing of the Atlanta Olympics? The bombing in Chicago's Haymarket Square?

September 11 was tragic, but it wasn't fundamentally different from what had come before. It was a successful terrorist attack. But it didn't tell us anything different from what we'd known already. There are fanatics out there in the Middle East (and in Oklahoma and Montana) who hate our government and are trying to kill Americans to advance their cause. There always have been terrorists somewhere, and they've always been able to launch successful attacks.

The success of the 9-11 terrorists was rare, but it wasn't enough to convert the previously existing state of peacetime into a state of wartime. Or, if it was, the advocates of curtailing our civil liberties have not explained how. Was it the number of deaths? The fact that it was seen by everyone on TV?

The second problem for those who say we're at war is that they haven't adequately explained why this war seems so different from other wars. "Wartime" has historically meant a time where personal sacrifice was necessary. WWII required rationing and the employment of women. The Civil War meant brother fighting brother. The Revolutionary War meant the quartering of soldiers. War, in other words, has historically meant the mobilization of society. The more modern the war, the more it required a total commitment to fight. In this most modern war, the only thing we've ever been asked to sacrifice is our civil liberties. (Leaving aside the sacrifice of lives in our invasion of Iraq, which opens up a whole new can of worms when we ask whether this was part of the same war that supposedly justifies the Patriot Act.)

Paradoxically, the paucity of the government's call for sacrifices makes the isolated sacrifices they do request seem suspect. Why sacrifice our civil liberties, and only our civil liberties?

It's not as if the Bush administration doesn't acknowledge the differences between this supposed war and all other wars we've known. They act as if simply repeating the statement that "this war is different" will somehow explain how it is different. But repetition isn't a good enough explanation.

Could it be that a better explanation is that we're not at war at all? That the government simply wants to recalibrate the balance between civil liberties and the power of law enforcement in favor of more law enforcement? And that it's throwing around the word "wartime" as a convenient, but false, reason for what they're doing?

I'll tell you what it would take for me to support the Patriot Act, and to trust the Bush administration with a blank check. A real war. A sustained attack by an enemy powerful enough to conquer us, and deprive us of the political system which truly preserves our freedom and allows us to pursue satisfying and productive lives. If, for example, the Saudi Arabian or Chinese governments attacked us.

Another way I might be persuaded to support the Patriot Act would be if any of its supporters could argue persuasively that it was necessary, not merely to make us safer, but to preserve our freedoms in the long run. Civil liberties aren't free. The price for civil liberties is the greater risk of crime, and for the occasionally successful terrorist attack. But it's a price worth paying, in my opinion. I don't envy all those "safe" people living in Singapore.

The most effective response to the risk of hijacked planes, it seems to me, was always a locked door to the pilot's cabin that stayed locked during the flight. Giving the government the ability to search my library records without informing me seems much less effective.

Posted by Carey at April 21, 2004 10:21 PM

If we give up our civil liberties, who are we? If we eviscerate the very foundation of our country what have we accomplished?

Mere "safety" is a poor reason to disallow people access to their lawyers and to deny the very freedoms our country was established to protect.

I've served my country during wartime (ok "police action" time); I didn't like that war either.


Posted by: Denise at April 22, 2004 11:38 AM

Alive, possibly. Give up what you believe in and live.

No thanks.

Posted by: Denise at April 22, 2004 07:19 PM