December 17, 2002

Pacifist, Passive or Realistic?

Interesting. I got more nasty comments about last week's piece about the un-American way the government has wanted to treat accused terrorists like Jose Padillla or whatever it is that he wants to call himself. I started to do a collective response, but it grew, so here's more than you might want to digest on the subject.

I must confess, however, that I have no real answer to the person who wrote: "If a police state is what it takes to make us safe, I have no problem with that. Alan Bock and other liberals can kiss my Republican white ass." I'll pass on the latter and spend a few more minutes regretting how the government schools have worked so hard to create and reinforce such attitudes. It's hard to deal with so many fallacies at once.

Can anyone really believe that creating a police state would make the people of the United States safer from various perils, foreign and domestic? Did it work for Nazi Germany? Did it work for Soviet Russia or communist Ethiopia? Can anyone with any real-life experience of the way governments operate actually believe that government with more power would confine themselves to going after undeniably bad guys and leave the good people like you and me alone? If so, they are fine candidates to be good little subjects who learn to love Big Brother.

NO ANSWERS

Before dealing with some of the issues surrounding how the U.S. government is trying to subvert its own best traditions and bolster the already too-hefty power of the Imperial Presidency, I need to discuss another accusation. "What are Mr. Bock's answers to combat terrorism? How does he plan on protecting American citizens against enemies that do not play by any rules, or do not even consider the Geneva Convention?"

Well, of course I can't expect everyone who reads one column to have read everything I've written over the course of 20-plus years in daily journalism, several years of weekly columns for Antiwar.com and a few years writing weekly for WorldNetDaily. But I still get a little impatient (forgive me, I know it's a shortcoming) with the notion that I haven't dealt with the issues or offered any suggestions, so I just have no right criticizing the way the government is handling the problems.

Just in the archives for this site you might find a 10/3/01 piece called Anti-Terrorism for the Long Haul, followed by a 10/10/01 piece called Building a Peace Movement in Wartime, which calls on war critics to emphasize that they – well maybe I can speak only for myself – are patriots who want America to live up to her highest and best ideals. I might also suggest looking at my pieces from this site dated 5/14/02, 5/21/02, and 7/2/02. You might look at the Orange County Register site, especially a piece from September dealing with diagnosing the problem.

Now my suggestions for dealing with terrorism might be a little different. I've written that the first thing we should do is to end drug prohibition, because the drug laws create the opportunities to make the kinds of huge profits that terrorists find attractive to finance their nefarious activities. I believe we ought to rethink our policy of intervening in squabbles all over the world and keeping military installations in dozens of countries long after the hostilities that led to the first decision have ended – just what national interest is served by keeping a base on Okinawa, for example?

I also think the United States should get out of the "nation-building" business. Aside from a few people in the policy elites who are often woefully ignorant of the histories and customs of the countries they are so eager to "build," most Americans have little interest in running other countries. I think that's a healthy attitude. Trying to manipulate other countries into building institutions that resemble the ideals of UN bureaucrats rather than the kinds of institutions that made the United States the envy of the world is a formula for creating resentment and even hatred of the United States.

I believe part of the reason the government failed to protect us from the 9/11 terrorist acts is that it has grown so huge and unwieldy that its various branches can't communicate with one another and have no incentive to get any better at it.

There are more than 40 agencies with intelligence-related functions, and all are jealous of their own turf. Shoving them into a new department and labeling it "homeland security" is likely to make the problem worse, not better, because they'll slide into the new meta-bureaucracy unreformed, with the same kinds of jealousies and turf-protection incentives they have now – and no prospect of even a pretense of reform. We would be better protected if we eliminated departments, fired some of the schlumps who are responsible for the failures, cleaned house, and consolidated the intelligence agencies into maybe two, with about a tenth of the bureaucrats now busily making work for each other and keeping secrets from each other.

DISAGREE ON SUBSTANCE

Now you are certainly free to disagree with these positions, and others that I have explored at greater length than I have here. Some of these positions are admittedly controversial and require a different way of thinking about freedom and the world we live in than is taught in most American schools to appreciate. Honest people can disagree honestly about whether they would actually work in the mean old world out there, or whether they represent worthy ideals.

But if you want to disagree, disagree on substance and be ready to explain why your ideas are better. Cheap shots suggesting that those of us who criticize the way our government has approached these problems have not thought seriously about them or offered any alternatives simply won't wash.

Even worse is the suggestion, conveyed in several e-mails, that those of us who maintain a critical stance toward our government must not have been around on 9/11 or have failed to understand the implications of these horrible attacks. That's an emotional argument rather than an intellectual one. Perhaps it's even an anti-intellectual argument.

To suggest that the fact of attacks by terrorists on our soil should cause us simply to go along with whatever the government wants to do – to suspend our critical thinking and get on board the unity bus led by George Dubya – strikes me as not only anti-intellectual, but deeply subversive of the best aspects and aspirations of the American experiment. Our founders tried very hard to bequeath upon us a free society with the flexibility to adapt to new situations and dangers. To advocate, when something bad happens, that we simply shut up and go along with whatever the government decides to do is to betray their historic efforts – at least in my opinion.

MAINTAINING IDEALS AND PROCEDURES

One letter-writer suggested that "if you care one lick about this country then you should want this person [Padilla] taken away to where he can no longer be a threat." It is precisely because I care deeply about this country that I hesitate and criticize.

Jose Padilla may well be a serious threat, although most of the stories that followed his capture suggest that he was more a comic figure at the point at which he was apprehended. The problem with the way the government wants to handle him, however, is that there is almost no way for an independent observer to discover or make a judgment about how serious a threat he posed.

Remember, the government position is that the president has the right to declare Padilla and others, unilaterally, without any review or oversight, to be "enemy combatants" or "illegal combatants." This declaration is said to be enough to put him in confinement for an indeterminate period of time, without access to relatives or even to an attorney, and without any specific charges being proferred against him. So long as he is held incommunicado, it is virtually impossible to determine whether he is a serious threat or not. We have to take the president's word for it.

Now I have been known to be critical of the American judicial system in the past, and no doubt I will be in the future. But whatever its faults and shortcomings, it is a system designed (and evolved) to determine precisely those kinds of questions. The procedures described as "due process," which roughly require that somebody be charged with a crime and have access to an attorney in a trial open to the press and public can certainly be abused. But they are important safeguards for all of us.

The idea that the president, with a simple declaration, can cause somebody to be imprisoned indefinitely without formal charges being filed really should be anathema to freedom-loving Americans. That's the kind of thing Stalin did. And the nature of government power is such that if they get away with it when dealing with people most of us don't like or whom we fear is that similar procedures will eventually be used against others. We live in a country, after all, in which laws ostensibly designed to ensnare known criminal racketeers are being used against anti-abortion protestors.

The notion that only such indefinite detentions can work against terrorists or would-be terrorists is also rather invidious. We used normal criminal procedures against those who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. Maybe we got the right guys, maybe we missed a few, but some of those bombers are serving life sentences. To suggest that filing charges against Jose Padilla and beginning a normal criminal case against him would cause his immediate release and leave the nation immediately vulnerable to his dastardly designs is simply not very intelligent or accurate.

The argument that Jose Padilla and other accused terrorists are getting better treatment, even if it isn't in line with our traditions and ideals, than they would get in Iraq or some other dictatorship, strikes me as irrelevant. The assertions may well be true, of course. There are plenty of governments around the world that are much worse than ours. Does that mean we should follow them on the path to total or totally corrupt government? Does the fact that a worse abuse occurs overseas make an abuse in this country less reprehensible?

This is the country I live in and love. I hope my sympathies are broad enough to deplore outrages by other governments. But I am an American, inspired by the ideals of the founders and deeply desirous of seeing this country live up to and perhaps even surpass those ideals. I believe deeply that people thrive best in an atmosphere of individual freedom and respect for the rights of all. This is the country that has come closest to making those ideals a reality. Thus it seems to me that I – I can't speak for you – have a special obligation to speak up when its rulers depart from those healthy ideals.

OTHER ISSUES

One more thing. Several writers called me a "liberal." Depending on the definition, maybe I am one, but I'm hardly a modern American liberal as the term is broadly understood these days. I'm not a "lefty" who developed a sudden interest in the Constitution. My interest is of long standing. Specifically, for one writer, I have written editorials deploring the installation of cameras at every intersection to bolster government revenue with traffic tickets. I am about as close to a Second Amendment fundamentalist as there is in these times, believing as I do that the right is designed to be a check on tyrannical government rather than a benefit for hunters. I have howled incessantly at "Fourth Amendment violations in the form of drug abatement laws that illegally seize property," believing to the contrary that they are a license to steal under color of law, which is immoral no matter how "legal" it is.

In short, I am a patriot and a constitutionalist. My main concern about war – well, at least one main concern – is that it provides justification for our constitution to be undermined and subverted by people in power seeking more power. I don't necessarily think such people are evil or guided by a long-term master plan to wipe out American freedoms. Many seriously believe that trading a little liberty for security is the best way or the only way to handle the challenges that face us. I believe they are wrong. I believe even more strongly that we need to consider all sides of such issues before acquiescing in short cuts or apparently pragmatic approaches that might not be practical at all.

I believe America is still the best place to conduct a civil debate over such issues, but if we don't get into the debate we are in danger of losing at least some of the freedoms that make this country such an attractive place.

– Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the new book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column appears every Tuesday on Antiwar.com.

Archived Columns by Alan Bock

Pacifist, Passive or Realistic?
12/17/02

A Slight Detour on the Road to a Police State
12/10/02

The Whitewash Commission
12/3/02

Deck Chairs on the Ship of State
11/26/02

Living in an Inspection Bubble
11/12/02

Turkey's Election: Complications and Blowback?
11/5/02

Destroying the Hostages to Save Them?
10/29/02

Bending Posse Comitatus Brings Bad Results
10/22/02

Pipsqueak Adversaries
10/15/02

War For Frivolous Reasons
10/8/02

A Hunger For War Criticism?
10/1/02

Will War Wreck the Economy?
9/24/02

Don't Take the UN Too Seriously
9/17/02

Preventive or Preemptive War?
9/10/02

Weak Arguments for Attack
9/3/02

Bush Cutting Legal Corners: A Wartime Pattern
8/27/02

Choosing Up Sides
8/20/02

Invasion Complications
8/13/02

U.S. Government Behaving Badly
8/6/02

Homeland Security Horrors
7/23/02

Mixed Signals on Iraq?
7/16/02

Iraqi Warmonger Complications
7/9/02

Assessing the War
7/2/02

Bush: Planning int he Whirlwind
6/25/02

Colombia: Mapping a Quagmire
6/18/02

Roots of Discord
6/14/02

The Empire Strikes First
6/11/02

Underlying Problems in South Asia
6/4/02

Creating A New Axis
5/28/02

The Real Failures
5/21/02

US Wades Into More Imperial Outposts
5/14/02

Convening Futility
5/7/02

Financing Venezuelan Mischief
4/30/02

Chalmers Johnson: Changed Cold Warrior
4/24/02

Meeting Robert Fisk
4/17/02

Arrogance of Empire
4/10/02

Middle East Bloodshed: The US Role
4/3/02

The Terrorists Are Winning
3/27/02

Mideast: The Iraqi Connection
3/20/02

Colombia Vote Presages More Instability
3/13/02

The War Comes Home 3/6/02

Consorting With the Axis of Evil 2/27/02

CIA: Avoiding Reform 2/20/02

The Empire Plans Strikes 2/13/02

Military Pork by the Barrel 2/6/02

State of the Union at War 1/31/02

Guantanamo and Geneva: The Missing Questions 1/30/02

Nation-Building or... 1/23/02

Naming the Beast 1/16/02

Strange Versions of Democracy 1/9/02

Making Artificial Distinctions 1/3/02

The Empire Ruminates 12/28/01

Tracking the War 12/19/01

The Road Not Noticed 12/13/01

New Dangers in the Middle East 12/5/01

Afghan Women and the Northern Alliance 11/28/01

Long and Winding Road Toward Peace 11/21/01

Defending Peacetime 11/7/01

Nagging Questions About the War 10/31/01

Collateral Damage 10/24/01

Wartime Resignation or Endorsement – 10/17/01

Building A Peace Movement In Wartime 10/10/01

Flying the Guarded Skies 10/3/01

Anti-Terrorism for the Long Haul 9/26/01 Impressions Amid the Winds of War 9/19/01

The Price of Empire 9/12/01

War on X When the Metaphor Becomes Too Real 9/5/01

Sticking with an Andean Disaster 8/29/01

Middle East Status is Quo 8/22/01

A Macedonian Fantasy – 8/15/01

FBI Taking Wrong International Path 8/8/01

Defining Terms Unilaterally 8/1/01

European Overtures 7/25/01

Further into the Colombian Morass 7/18/01

Taiwan Changes More Important Than US Policy – 7/11/01

More Confusion Than Closure at The Hague 7/4/01

Testing Government Reliability 6/27/01

Making the Subgrand Tour 6/20/01

The State's Dark Underside 6/13/01

Reassuring Nobody – 6/6/01

Multiplying Balkan Confusion 5/30/01

Powell on Mideast: Seduced or Cynical – 5/23/01

International Aspects of Drug Wars Undercovered 5/16/01

China: Getting Chillier 5/2/01

Previous Columns

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