When George Bush presided over the passage of the Patriot Act, Americans were treated to a number of assertions about the necessity of preparedness. Such an act, in time of emergency we were told, was essential to protect against hostiles ever vigilant in the prosecution of mayhem, and history was to be our guide.
Conservative pundits and personalities the media over subsequently touched only lightly, if ever, on issues of liberty, constitutionality, and limited government. The great body of the conservative chorus sings of the lessons of history. Among the most sacrosanct are those supposedly drawn from World War II.
Early invocations against the global manifestation of evil saw in every third world despot an aspiring Hitler. A world thus filled with enemies required the mobilization of forces both domestic and international. As a result, America got a massive act of thousands of pages the implications of which no one really understood and which has been continuously amended and renewed.
Lo and behold how surprised the Right was when the Administration of another political party assumed the helm and began to avail itself of these newly concentrated powers and simply raised the question of right-wing extremism. The problem, though, was not with the act itself apparently, but only with its application. How sad. And perhaps even worse, is the degree to which derision and denigration are regularly heaped on those who dare raise questions of constitutionality or principle.
Now the current chief executive has signed yet another renewal of a policy that long preceded the Patriot Act, but which concentrated power every bit as much: The National Defense Resources Preparedness order—originally signed in 1950. In times of emergency, this order affirms the authority to seize all necessary resources within the nation. At least when this order was originally put forward, people had not yet considered the possibility of extending the definition of emergency so far as we do today.
In light of the War on Terror, a conflict without foreseeable end and for which there can be no clear demarcation of boundaries, this policy has about it all the characteristics, not of emergency, but of normal operating procedure. And is the Right protesting? No. Where is the conservative commentariat? The frog rests comfortably in its pot …
I suspect one reason for such complacency is the mantra: “The Lessons of World War II.”
Fearful that we will be ”once more” caught off guard, we assert anything defense related as entirely reasonable. After all, is not the great exception to limited government, defense? Is not security the necessary, if not the fundamental duty, of government? But if you are worried that we might have gone too far, remember World War II! Remember Neville Chamberlain! Never ever give them an inch.
But there are other lessons too.
In my last post I suggested that we may have extended ourselves a bit too much onto the world stage. Surely one lesson of World War II worthy of consideration, is not to engage in multiple fronts at a time! Well, you might say, that applies only to the bad guys. America is different. We fought the badies on multiple fronts then, and we can do so now. But unless you want to assert that we can spend with abandon on both domestic and foreign programs without end, that seems naive in the extreme—not to say unhistorical
But if that doesn’t convince you, another lesson might be to constrain what we call an emergency. Let us not forget the great weakness of the Weimar Constitution: Article 48 was the section that allowed the president of the German government to suspend all fundamental rights in time of danger. I suggest people look it up and compare the wording of our emergency measures with the words of this provision.
Oh, but you say, this is America—nasty things can’t happen here. We are different. OK, but then, is this an historical argument, or the assertion of divine favor? I would suggest we, as Americans, are who we are because of the protections we once defended in law. If we aren’t defending them anymore, do we remain the same people?
Indeed, let us think deeply on the lessons of World War II, but then let us also ask, are we paying attention to the right ones?