Behind the Headlines
by Justin Raimondo

November 7, 2001

Alan Dershowitz and the rise of totalitarian liberalism

Anthrax I could put up with, an "emergency alert" every 24 hours now seems like normal everyday life, but there is one aspect of the new era that is utterly intolerable: Alan Dershowitz in wartime. The man who was once so vaingloriously solicitous of our "civil rights," a self-described "civil libertarian," is now proposing a national identification card which, he claims with characteristic hypocrisy, will actually "enhance civil liberties." Yeah, right, and O. J. Simpson is an innocent man.


For utter gall, Dershowitz's October 13 op-ed piece in the New York Times should really receive some sort of award: even its title is the ultimate in disingenuousness: "Why Fear a National ID Card?" Gee, Alan, I don't know: maybe it's because the question "Can I see your papers, comrade?" has a distinctively un-American ring to it.


Although claiming to be "skeptical" of any tradeoff between liberty and security, Dershowitz proposes a national ID card implanted with a chip recording the holder's fingerprints. He likens this to existing systems where commuters with such a card use it to pay bridge tolls. A scanner identifies the driver, who is billed, and a record of his movements is kept on computer. Dershowitz gets around the rather sinister implications of such an Orwellian device instituted nationwide by saying it should be "voluntary." Oh yeah, it's "voluntary" all right – except that non-volunteers will be subjected to airport strip-searches, and other forms of "heightened" surveillance. In practice, having such a card would be about as "voluntary" as it was behind the Iron Curtain – and just as useful to the secret police.


Oh, but I'm committing the great sin of "moral equivalence" in comparing the good ol' USA to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – for shame! I make no apologies, and mince no words: because that is where we are headed, with totalitarian liberals like Dershowitz leading the charge. If fascism ever comes to power in this country, it will not be a dictatorship of the Right but of the Center-Left: its advocates will speak in the language of modern liberalism, whose favorite phrase is "security."


Dershowitz avers that both private and public [i.e. government] entities routinely issue photo ID cards, so why not this? After all, "it would reduce the likelihood that someone could, intentionally or not, get lost in the cracks of multiple bureaucracies." In the brave new world Dershowitz and his fellow illiberal liberals are building for us, no one but no one will ever get lost in the cracks. We'll all be watched and analyzed like a germs under a microscope, and if anyone should get out of line, why those "multiple bureaucracies" have multiple ways of striking back.


Dershowitz agues that "we already require photo ID's for many activities, including flying, driving, drinking and check-cashing. And fingerprints differ from photographs only in that they are harder to fake." So why not an ID for merely existing? Look, there is nothing untoward about private institutions, such as banks, requiring a photo identification. Exactly how this is analogous to the government tracking the movements of every individual – or, at least, having that ability – is a bit of a mystery. And here's another: so how come this alleged "civil libertarian" sees no danger in the federal government maintaining a vast national database with all sorts of personal information stored in it? Wartime "liberalism" is inevitably totalitarian in its essential character, for that is when the yen for "efficiency" overcomes whatever vestiges of true (classical) liberalism remain.


As a renown expositor of specious arguments obnoxiously and often brilliantly argued, Dershowitz breaks new ground in separating the right to privacy from the "right to anonymity." To the average simpleton, like you or me, these two rights are synonymous. But not to the all-too-clever lawyer, who twists language to get around the clear intent of the law and the Constitution. "I don't believe we can afford to recognize such a right [to anonymity] in this age of terrorism," declares Dershowitz, because, "No such right is hinted at in the Constitution." So anonymous speech is not protected by the First Amendment – which is, for all intents and purposes, abolished. So much for the right to be anonymous on the Internet: here Dershowitz falls into line with the egregiously named "Patriot Act," which allows the government to read our e-mail and track our Internet use. And it's all okay, because, as Dershowitz says,

"Though the Supreme Court has identified a right to privacy, privacy and anonymity are not the same. American taxpayers, voters and drivers long ago gave up any right of anonymity without loss of our right to engage in lawful conduct within zones of privacy. Rights are a function of experience, and our recent experiences teach that it is far too easy to be anonymous – even to create a false identity – in this large and decentralized country."


Dershowitz has not the slightest understanding of how to fight the war on terrorism, otherwise he would understand that it is precisely Al Qaeda's radically decentralized structure that makes it such a formidable enemy. (Conversely, our centralism makes us an easy target). With his foolish faith in the virtual omniscience of governmental authorities, the totalitarian liberal misses the point and whole lesson of 9/11, which was nothing less than a demonstration of the characteristic weakness of any large and centralized authority, such as an empire.


If American taxpayers long ago gave up their right to go about the ordinary business of living unobserved by government, then what kind of safety did it buy us? We have the right to look back, in horror, at 9/11 and ask: What kind of tradeoff between liberty and security was that?


The liberal faith in modernity, technology, and the all-knowing all-wise collective consciousness of our glorious government is here displayed in all its childlike naivetι. Oh, but of course no one will be able to duplicate this miraculous card, not when the geniuses who inhabit our "multiple bureaucracies" set themselves to the task. And naturally no one will ever think to misuse information gleaned by our unleashed intelligence agencies to collect dirt on their political opponents, or to target and disrupt legal and legitimate opposition to the war. Conservatives who rush to endorse any and all measures to "combat terrorism" today had better realize that tomorrow these very same police state methods could be used against them. If the image of President Hillary Clinton unleashing her political police on the "vast right-wing conspiracy" doesn't make them think twice, then they will deserve what they get in the end.


With Dershowitz's recent conversion to the openly totalitarian wing of "liberalism," I am not at all surprised to see that he is now speculating on the merits of torture. In a recent speech, he called for "a national debate about the circumstances in which torture is permissible and who should have the power to decide when to use it." Oh, I get it: the lawyers, in cahoots with the judges, will argue about the merits of the rack versus an old-fashioned flogging. Perhaps they could even consult the Islamic Law in this regard, which prescribes all sorts of medieval tortures – the severing of limbs, stoning, being dropped off a mountain peak – as punishment for a variety crimes. As Dershowitz says in arguing for a national ID card, "rights are a function of experience" – and away we go, all the way down to the very bottom of the slippery slope, where we will wrestle with Bin Laden in the muck.


"When you look long into an abyss," said Nietzsche, "the abyss also looks into you." The results of this encounter will either strengthen our republican form of government, or else destroy it. If ever there was a time for testing, a time for Americans to defend their heritage and the victory of 1776, then surely it is now. They hate us because we're free, or so the politically correct assure us – but what if we aren't free? Gloating in their victory, will they stop hating us? At that point, however, the question wouldn't be worth contemplating – if it ever was.


In wartime, values are inverted, and language is perverted. A particularly grotesque example is the evolution of patriotism as a political-ideological concept. The prewar image of the patriot rising up against the King – against unjust authority – symbolized the spirit of the American Revolution, the authentic patriotism which animated the Founders. The founders of the American state were libertarians who realized that they were creating, in a central government, the deadly enemy of all they had fought for. That is why they wrote into the Constitution an elaborate system of checks and balances, so that centralization – the god of the modern liberal – could never occur. The "Patriot Act" – which paves the way for Dershowitz's "mark of the Beast" computer chip-card – and the impulse that give birth to this monstrous legislation represent the polar opposite of this view. The faux-patriotism of the warmongers and the totalitarian liberals assumes the form of the original concept while stripping out the content. For what Americans are patriotic about is liberty, not government: it is our constitutional system, and not the "multiple bureaucracies" that deform it, that Americans fought for and died to preserve.


The Age of Irony dead? Not by a long shot! Even as we fight to preserve "the American way of life," the process of fighting to preserve it tends to undermine and even destroy it. Is it possible to perish from an overdose of irony? If so, then our old Republic is in mortal danger.

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