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Friday, June 07, 2013

Terrorism is Not the Greatest Threat to Liberty

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Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. -James Madison, fourth US president, known as "Father of the Constitution" for drafting the that document and authoring the Bill of Rights.
When the Bush administration declared a "Global War on Terror," Madison's words should've echoed from every corner of Washington and from every voice in the media. If there was ever a case of Madison's "continual warfare," the GWoT was it. Other Presidents had declared wars on concepts -- a war on crime, war on poverty, war on drugs, etc. -- and those wars did not go (or have not gone) well. When the goal is the complete eradication of a problem, failure becomes extremely easy. The goal should always be to mitigate the problem to as close to nonexistence as reality will allow. This is not the definition of war.

Of course, these other "wars" launched by other presidents were mostly metaphorical. They weren't actually launching a war, but announcing an increased focus on a problem and an increased effort to eliminate it. Bush's War on Terror was quite different. He meant it as a literal war. "Americans are asking, how will we fight and win this war?" Bush explained to a joint session of congress. "We will direct every resource at our command, every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war, to the disruption and to the defeat of the global terror network."

This wasn't "war" as a rhetorical device, this was actual, people-are-going-to-die war.

And Madison's warning has proven true through every stage of this thing. The forces of liberty don't torture, they don't build concentration camps. The debt and deficits created by this War on Terror have been tremendous and bog us down to this day. To make things worse, Bush decided to cut taxes during a time of increased wartime spending -- an unprecedented and tremendously irresponsible act of fiscal malpractice.


And, of course, there were the attacks on liberty at home. Warrantless wiretaps, intercepted emails, data mining. Our personal freedom, our autonomy and privacy, have been eroded in our quick decline into a surveillance state. As much as the war hawks liked to talk about freedom and liberty, they were their biggest enemies, doing far more damage to the American way of life with police state tactics and fear-mongering than any terrorist ever did.

And, of course, we now know that this surveillance society mindset continues on to this day.

The Guardian: The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.

The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called PRISM, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.

The Guardian has verified the authenticity of the document, a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation – classified as top secret with no distribution to foreign allies – which was apparently used to train intelligence operatives on the capabilities of the program. The document claims "collection directly from the servers" of major US service providers.
"They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type," one NSA insider told the Washington Post.

When it comes to overreach in the name of security, Democrats tend to be no better than Republicans -- sometimes worse. Somewhere along the line, Democrats have developed a political insecurity about security, probably driven by Republicans unending drumbeat for war. Democrats feel the need to prove that they can be every bit as bloodthirsty and oppressive as Republicans and this is the result. For the same reason, President Clinton averaged on cruise missile launch a day during a largely peacetime presidency -- often with tragic consequences. The obvious present-day parallel is Pres. Obama's drone program. When it comes to choices between freedom and safety, you can't trust Democrats either.

Freedom is messy. And this is because freedom is toward the chaotic scale of the spectrum. Strict law-and-order societies are totalitarian and a state with absolute complete freedom would be anarchy in it's most literal form. As a result, you can't have freedom and complete safety. Want total safety from all terrorism and crime? Lock everyone in America into a separate prison cell. You need to find a balance between the two -- as the saying goes, your freedom to throw a punch ends at the tip of my nose. And the idea that America needs to be kept safe at any cost is detrimental to freedom. Free people don't torture. free people don't imprison without trial, free people don't have their phones tapped and their online activities monitored. Freedom requires a measure of courage, because it entials a measure of risk. The War on Terror has cost us a lot of liberty and the pay off has been dubious.

After the revelation of the PRISM program, we have two choices as I see them: we can continue on trading liberty for security, knowing this is an erosion of freedom that's growing steadily worse over time. Or we can decide that the price is too great. That James Madison was right and that the greatest threat to liberty isn't isn't foreign aggressors, but constant war.


[photo via Wikimedia Commons]

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