Friday, June 14, 2002
RE: Department of Homeland Security
I suppose that my real frustration is with how transparent a play this is by Bush et. al. Honestly, if some effort was being made to explain how this gargantuan entity is going to be wrangled into operational order, I like to think I would be listening with an open mind. Certainly there are organizational strategies that would make this sound more palatable. For example, if Bush were to advocate a transition in several stages, with the development of the command infrastructure complete before the departments are fully attached, some gradual phasing out of autonomy for the newly governed entities, hell, anything approximating a real explanation of how this is going to work. As it stands now, the plan sounds like 22 huge trucks all driving hell-for-leather towards the same spot, with no discussion about what happens when they reach it besides a disastrously chaotic wreck. So far, all that has been said (or, to be accurate, all that I have heard) is a cursory paragraph or two about "efficiency", five or so paragraphs about how bad the current system is, and an enormous flood of verbiage about our "obligation" to "protect freedom," as if not executing this plan was an assault upon that freedom.
Which brings me to what is perhaps an obvious phenomenon, but has been agonizing to watch -- the transformation of the word "freedom" into a shibboleth. "Freedom" is a word that, while often misused, or dragooned into dubious service, has retained some real meaning in American life, because we experience its meaning daily, in the thousands of self-determinations we make every day that would not be our decisions to make in other countries, or in other times. Now, however, the meaning of the word is being aggressively transformed to include a new definitional element - security.
The raw fact, unpleasant as it may be, is that we did not lose any freedom on September 11th. Terrorists do not threaten, or hate, or even care unduly about freedom. They are not enemies of freedom, they are not involved in a struggle that involves freedom at all. The threat terrorists pose is to our security, a distinct concept that does not depend on freedom for its meaning. Certainly, if we are afraid, we will restrict our movements, or not travel by traditional methods, but this is a short-term effect which can and will be internalized here as it has been elsewhere. There is no force on our borders seeking to invade and rule us, no secret plot to overthrow the elected. Americans only stand to lose as much freedom as they cede to their government.
Certainly terrorists wish to raise the cost of our freedom to act unilaterally overseas. This may be considered a true threat to freedom, as it involves a limitation of power. Power is an essential definitional element of freedom. However, this is not the type of freedom currently being demagogued from the big chair. What is at stake, say Bush, Lieberman, and the indistinguishable rest of 'em, is personal, political, moral, participatory American freedom in the best fourth-of-July tradition. According to them, the terrorists want to outlaw apple pie. They want to kill all the frecklefaced kids chasing fly balls in right field on a June afternoon.
Now that I reach this point in the argument, I realize that this brand of freedom has been a lie all along, and the fact that it's lifting up its skirts for another political expediency should come as no surprise. This time, however, there are steel gears moving in the background, authority being consolidated, internal security forces being assembled and profoundly empowered, citizens being jailed by the army, courts consenting, dissent being quashed.
I'm not an utter paranoid; I don’t think this is an intentional robbery of our freedom, or of the meaning of freedom. The fact is that this is how it happens. A hundred decisions get made for a hundred really great reasons. It's not like someone is going to introduce the "Repressive Totalitarian Government Act of 2002" on the floor of the Congress anytime soon. That law comes later, after all of the incremental steps. The problem is the cost-benefit calculus. The good -- maybe we'll stop another attack -- is at least a quantifiable goal (regardless of what you think of our chances). The bad is unknown. The downsides of any of these proposed policies -- disabling courts, or empowering cops to perform warrantless searches or putting the CIA and the FBI under one directorate, or whatever -- are ominous, but vague and difficult to specify. Therefore they are discounted or derided as paranoia. As J. Ashcroft so succinctly put it when he warned the US Congress not to dissent from his vision of Constitutional jurisprudence: "[T]o those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil."