From the Autumn, 2013 issue of Jewish Currents
WHEN THOSE HIJACKED JETS rammed into the World Trade Center twelve years ago, it was more than glass and steel that collapsed — it was our country’s fundamental sense of security. Ever since, the American public has largely accepted a devil’s bargain, the suspension of our civil liberties for the restoration of our safety. The contract reads something like this:
Don’t want terrorists blowing up shopping malls in New York? Equip the police with millions in federal aid and major CIA assistance to spy on thousands of Muslim Americans “where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity” (as the AP’s Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman revealed in a 2011 series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles and their recent book, Enemies Within). To hell with the Constitution’s protection of privacy and due process; if thousands of innocent people have to see their lives disrupted to deter a few real-life terrorists, the Constitution can stand aside.
But terrorists may also hail from Kyrgyzstan or Chechnya (the Tsarnaev brothers), or England (Richard Reid), or Lockport, New York (Timothy McVeigh), or some dark corner of the Internet — so we’d best also authorize the National Security Agency to track the phone calls, e-mails, and burps of everybody in the whole wide world. Nothing to fear if you’re not an activist, er, um, terrorist...
IT WAS OUR COUNTRY'S FIRST COURT-APPOINTED PRESIDENT, George W. Bush, who did democracy the most damage after 9/11 by declaring his “war on terror,” which had the entire world as its battlefield and no clear goals or rules. Bush ignored the international street protests of millions to show off his policy of “preemptive war” in Iraq. He also used torture, unlimited detention, mass spying and round-ups, and other unconstitutional atrocities in the name of protecting us.
By contrast, our current constitutional lawyer of a president, Barack Obama, has rhetorically, at least, sought to restore a sense of constitutional restraint while winding down the “war on terror.” At the National Defense University on May 23rd, he suggested handling terrorism as a law enforcement rather than a military issue, again called for the closure of Guantánamo, and promised to rein in drone warfare. Despite his zealous pursuit of Edward Snowden, Obama called for strengthening the rights of journalists and their critical role in a democracy through a media shield law. He declared his intention “to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force... to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing” — and as we wrote this editorial in mid-September, he had switched gears to seek Congressional approval for the unpopular military action he was seeking in Syria, before putting it on hold altogether.
Some of his actions, however, raise doubts about Obama’s sincerity and/or efficacy. Three months after his speech, for example, only two of the eighty-six Guantanamo prisoners cleared for release had been released (transferred to Algeria). August brought an increase in U.S. drone attacks in Yemen. Obama’s Justice Department has prosecuted seven “leakers” for violating the Espionage Act — more than twice the number prosecuted since the paranoid years of World War I.
Whatever the president’s intentions are, moreover, surveillance cameras are by now ubiquitous in major cities. Cell phones keep our whereabouts monitored. Telecommunications companies are even seeking to place monitoring devices in cable boxes so they can feed us advertising tailored to our habits (see Marc Jampole's June 2013 post on corporate surveillance). Our privacy and civil liberties are fast becoming obsolete. Al Qaeda has had its way with us.
“THE LIMITATIONS IMPOSED BY DEMOCRATIC POLITICAL PRACTICES make it difficult to conduct our foreign affairs in the national interest,” complained Dean Acheson, who was the U.S. Secretary of State back in 1949, three years after our magazine launched. Acheson should have added: And that’s how it ought to be. As a key architect of the Cold War, NATO, the Marshall Plan, the World Bank, and the Korean War, Acheson only rarely, in fact, found his vision of the “national interest” obstructed, yet his frustration deserves our celebration. Democracy means the mediation of struggles for influence and power through the interposition of both rules and rights. In the name of preserving those rules and rights, the “national interest,” and sometimes even “national security,” may be endangered.
So be it. If we are to remain “the land of the free,” we also must function as “the home of the brave” and endure some risks. Let those risks prompt us to seek humane, transformative solutions to fanaticism and global disharmony rather than relying on drone strikes and spy cameras. Let us risk diplomacy and nonviolent conflict resolution; let us risk democratic elections in countries in which we’ve formerly sustained dictators; let us risk joining the International Criminal Court and heeding international law; let us risk levying an international corporate tax for economic development; let us risk building the United Nations into a muscular presence in the world...
One slim ray of hope emerges from a July poll by Pew Research, which found that for “the first time... since the question was first asked in 2004,” more Americans (47 percent) “have expressed concern over civil liberties than protection from terrorism” (35 percent). The same poll, however, reveals Democrats to be more tolerant than Republicans of the NSA’s spying. Beware: Such loyalty to the status quo might soon mean the election of even more libertarian Republicans — who constitute not only the Social Darwinists but the “peaceniks” of our time.