Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Fear and the Impulse to Security

Former Vice-President Al Gore made a point in his speech yesterday that I think deserves emphasis.

He pointed out how the Bush Administration is using fear to manipulate the American public into giving Bush unprecedented (and unconstitutional) powers. They has convinced a large percentage of Americans that, "If you want to be safe, you must abandon the Constitution and grant us extraordinary powers."

I dislike conspiracy theories. Instead of saying that the administration has a secret plan to use fear to destroy the Constitution, I suspect that they are simply afraid themselves. Fear drives them to panic, and in their panic they have abandoned the Constitution. Their fear radiates out and infects the rest of the population, particularly their supporters, who feel duty bound to defend this Administration no matter what it may do.

Both President Bush and Vice-President Cheney sought all measure of deferments and other options to avoid combat in Vietnam. They have a history of preferring personal safety to the defense of principle.

In contrast, past generations of Americans faced far greater dangers, yet left our personal freedoms substantially intact. These were people who had a habit of taking great risks in defense of cherished principles.

Revolutionary War

Our founding fathers lived with a well-organized enemy occupying American soil. Failure to defeat this enemy would likely mean death. Yet, the Bush Administration wants us to believe that the present generation has much more to fear than those who founded this country.

Those founding fathers did not respond to this danger by saying that limited government was a bad idea. They responded by saying that limited government is worth fighting and dying for. Towards this end, they were willing to pledge “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

The Civil War

Lincoln was President at a time when much of America faced significant threats. American cities were put under siege (Vicksburg) or put to the torch (Atlanta). Washington DC sat literally on the front lines of this conflict -- between Maryland (a reluctant Union state) and Virginia (a Confederate state). They lived with the constant threat of enemy attack. Yet, the Bush Administration wants us to believe that we live at a time of unprecedented danger.

Though the Civil War produced its constitutional excesses, a major concern, as Lincoln expressed in his Gettysberg Address, was whether a government, “…conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal . . . can long endure.” They fought to preserve those freedoms, not to destroy them in the name of security.

World War II

The people who remember World War II are leaving us now. Those that are still alive can tell of days when fascism seemed unstoppable. Hitler rolled over France in less than two months, had England under siege, and had rolled up to the gates of Moscow. Japan, in a little more than 100 days, had taken Malaya, Fortress Singapore, the Philippines, and was threatening Australia. There were air-raid drills and blackout restrictions on both coasts. Yet, we are told that things are more frightening today than at any time in the American history.

The Cold War

During the Cold War, Americans lived with the knowledge that death and disease, in any American city (or downwind of an American city) was only fifteen minutes away. That is how long it would take for a Soviet missile to strike. Most Americans had no place to run, and little hope of long-term survival. Yet, we are now being told that this generation faces a superlative threat that requires that we abandon the principles of liberty that had been our heritage.

It was during this threat that the government established the FISA court - the court whose responsibility is to oversee government spying on American citizens. With the possibility of the destruction of the whole country at stake, the politicians of this era thought it was still vital to protect our basic liberties.


This post aims to compare and contrast two types of people.

First, there are over 200 years of Americans who faced danger, yet stood with a firm determination to establish and to maintain the principles of liberty and justice on which this country was built.

Second, there is the current generation which has no habit of standing up for principle at great personal risk, who seem quite willing to abandon the principles on which this country was founded and run into the deceptively comforting arms of tyranny.

If more of the first type of American cannot be found in the current generation, then we are at risk of deserting and leaving undefended what 200 years of Americans before us, faced with far more serious dangers than we have yet seen, were able to defend.

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