December 15, 2004 · Geof Stone
How many of you think we live in perilous times? I agree (with those of you who think we do). For the rest of you, think again. We live with the ever-present threat of another terrorist attack. On 9/11, you were shocked. If another such event were to occur five minutes from now, you would be horrified, but not shocked. The expectation now rests just under your level of consciousness.
Moreover, we are engaged in an ever-more disturbing war in Iraq. Last night, I watched the movie Fog of War (the Robert McNamara documentary). The similarities in the depth of American foreign policy misunderstandings between the Vietnam War in 1966 and the Iraq War in 2004 are stiking, and unnerving. There is much to fret about. I want to make it worse. I want to give you something else to worry over. You should be losing sleep about the security of your civil liberties.
The United States has a long and consistent pattern of unduly restricting civil liberties in time of war. Time after time, we have panicked in the face of war fever. We have lashed out at those we fear and allowed ourselves to be manipulated by opportunistic and exploitative politicians. We did this in 1798, when we enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, during the Civil War when Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, during World War I when the nation brutally suppressed all criticism of the war and the draft, during World War II when we interned 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent, during the Cold War when we humiliated, abused and silenced tens of thousands of individuals for their political beliefs and associations, and during the Vietnam War when the government engaged in an aggressive program of surveillance, infiltration, and surreptitious harassment designed to “exposre, disrupt, and neutralize” antiwar dissent.
We have made some progress over the past two centuries. We are less likely to do some of these things today than we were in 1798, 1863, 1917, 1942, 1950, or 1968. That is a cause for celebration. But that progress is fragile. The forces unleashed in wartime are extremely powerful, and the fear, anxiety, anger, and vulnerability that war entails can quickly translate into persecution and oppression. Certainly, we have seen warning signs of this in some of the actions of the Bush administration since 9/11. Imagine what might happen if we were now to suffer a succession of six 9/11-like attacks over the next six weeks.
Can we learn the lessons of history? Can we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past? Given the pressures and fears of war, can we discipline ourselves both as individuals and as a nation to respect civil liberties even in a time of war? And is it even sensible to talk seriously about civil liberties in wartime? What do you think?