Archive for Monday, November 26, 2001

Blank check for war a terrible idea

November 26, 2001


In the aftermath of the horrors of Sept. 11 and in our wish for justice for the perpetrators, we seem to have forgotten another kind of violence that is ready to befall America: the self-inflicted violence of an open-ended and essentially secret global war conducted by the U.S. government against an amorphous enemy, "Terrorism."

It would be the ultimate tragedy if our rational desire for justice was transmogrified into a blank check. The violence that such a thing would inflict on American society would not be of the metaphorical variety. It would be real, and the costs would be incalculable.

Secrecy and open-endedness undermine what the founding generation called "free government." If, as the theory goes, government in a constitutional republic (erroneously called "democracy") is the servant not the master of the people, the people ought to know what it's up to.

The Founders wanted stringent controls on the government's ability to make war and conduct foreign policy in part because they understood that such policies would perforce be conducted in plausible secrecy. (Under the Constitution the president is the commander in chief, but only Congress can declare war and control the purse.)

Secrecy in domestic policy is ludicrous. If a critic of Social Security charged that it will be insolvent in 15 years, no president could get away with replying: "I possess information showing that to be a false and irresponsible allegation. But that information is classified and it would jeopardize national security were I to divulge it."

But those words are spoken all the time in foreign affairs. And hardly anyone objects.

The Founders therefore, recognized the eternal validity of this argument: Foreign policy requires secrecy. Secrecy undermines limited government. Therefore, the foreign policy-making of a limited government should be strictly limited. No wonder Washington and Jefferson counseled against alliances.

As President Bush says, a war against nebulous terrorism, spread around more than 60 countries, will be fought in many ways. Besides the cruise missiles and bombs let loose from safe distances, there will be secret special operations we may never hear about. Whom will they be launched against? Terrorists, of course. On the basis of what evidence? That's classified. Trust us. (Remember the pharmaceutical factory Bill Clinton bombed.)

The financial infrastructure of the terrorist organizations will be disrupted, in part by gaining access to banking information. On the basis of what evidence? That's classified. Trust us.

The homes of people living in the United States will be searched without their knowledge. On the basis of what evidence? That's classified. Trust us.

People's telephones will be tapped and their e-mail read. On the basis of what evidence? That's classified. Trust us.

Noncitizens will be detained without charge. On the basis of what evidence? That's classified. Trust us.

Trust us. It has a warm, cozy sound to it until you remind yourself who is saying it. At a time when many are wondering what makes someone a "good American," let us keep in mind that there is something distinctly un-American about trusting the government.

When the Federalists outlawed criticism of the government with the Sedition Act in 1798, Vice President Thomas Jefferson wrote the Kentucky Resolutions, in which he said, "Confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism free government is founded in jealousy (that is, distrust); it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power."

It should be obvious that this war on terrorism, as defined by the Bush administration, would dissolve the chains required "to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power."

But, it will be said, we were viciously assaulted on Sept. 11 and that may not be the last of it. Something must be done. That's true. But there is no more dangerous time than when one feels one must do something anything because "something must be done."

We rights absolutists are sometimes criticized for embracing the motto "Let justice be done though the heavens fall." Now it is those who would erode our rights who embrace that motto.

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