President Bush, in defending the Military Commissions Act he signed into law this week, said something profound– something that basically sums up the entire position he has been using to justify all of the horrid things the government has pursued for the past five years:
This is a ridiculous argument. It is government excesses, and overreaction to a situation, that cause more problems than they solve. We can never truly be completely safe, and even if we give up all of our rights, we will find there are still ways we can be hurt. The ever-present threat of the Terrorists is one that will never disappear.
Dr. Joseph Elias, a professor of history, wrote in the New York Times:
- The Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which allowed the federal government to close newspapers and deport foreigners during the “quasi-war” with France
- The denial of habeas corpus during the Civil War, which permitted the pre-emptive arrest of suspected Southern sympathizers
- The Red Scare of 1919, which emboldened the attorney general to round up leftist critics in the wake of the Russian Revolution
- The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which was justified on the grounds that their ancestry made them potential threats to national security
- The McCarthy scare of the early 1950’s, which used cold war anxieties to pursue a witch hunt against putative Communists in government, universities and the film industry.
In retrospect, none of these domestic responses to perceived national security threats looks justifiable. Every history textbook I know describes them as lamentable, excessive, even embarrassing.
But it defies reason and experience to make September 11 the defining influence on our foreign and domestic policy. History suggests that we have faced greater challenges and triumphed, and that overreaction is a greater danger than complacency.
Yet the Terrorists are still “out there”, and I’m sure the current administration– with help from Congress, no matter who wins the impending elections– will do everything they can to pursue their inattainable and truly ridiculous goal.