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:

Over the past few months the debate over this bill has been heated, and the questions raised can seem complex. Yet, with the distance of history, the questions will be narrowed and few: Did this generation of Americans take the threat seriously, and did we do what it takes to defeat that threat? Every member of Congress who voted for this bill has helped our nation rise to the task that history has given us.

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:

What does history tell us about our earlier responses to traumatic events? My list of precedents for the Patriot Act and government wiretapping of American citizens would include:

  • 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.