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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The idiotic and revealing Civil War analogy

If one wants to stay abreast of the lowly depths to which blindly loyal Bush worshipers are sinking in order to defend their leader, it is always worthwhile to pay a visit to the Powerline Blog, a virtual Bush-glorifying museum which always features up-to-date exhibits of the most intellectually dishonest pro-Bush talking points.

Currently on display over there is an unbelievably vapid attempt – this one by Scott Johnson, who playfully refers to himself as Big "Trunk" -- to justify George Bush’s lawless expansion of executive power by equating it to Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and other emergency measures taken to save the Union during the Civil War. Invoking the nation-threatening crises faced by Abraham Lincoln to justify George Bush’s current law-breaking is breathtaking in both its dishonesty and stupidity.

During Lincoln’s Presidency, the entire nation was engulfed in an internal, all-out war. Half of the country was fully devoted to the destruction of the other half. The existence of the nation was very much in doubt. Americans were dying violent deaths every day at a staggering rate. One million American were wounded and a half-million Americans died (a total which represented 5% of the total population), making it the deadliest war America has ever faced, by far, including all wars through the present. On multiple occasions, more than 25,000 Americans – and sometimes as many as 50,000 – were killed in battles lasting no more than three days. The scope of carnage, killing, and chaos – all within the country, on American soil – is difficult to comprehend.

Making matters worse -- much worse -- the country was only 70 years old at the time. And even before the Civil War began, America was teetering precariously from these unresolved internal conflicts. The country then was a shadow of what it is today, with a tiny faction of the strength, stability and cohesion which, 140 years later, characterize the United States.

Does it really even require any debate to see that we are many universes away from the existential, all-consuming crisis that a still-young America faced during its Civil War? Could our situation today be any more different from what it was then?

The United States today is a nation that has not had a single attack for four years. In the last ten years, it had a grand total of one attack on its soil – an attack which took place on a single day and killed roughly the same number of Americans as suicide kills every month (somehow it's perfectly acceptable to make comparisons like this to show how safe Iraq is and what a great, un-deadly war it's been, but it's horrible to use exactly the same rationale to put the threat posed by terrorism into some perspective).

The attention of Americans these days is primarily devoted to "news stories" involving pretty young girls who get abducted by teenage boys, salacious trials of pop stars, and the latest local fire. Americans spend a lot more time and energy analyzing plot mysteries on Desperate Housewives than they do discussing counter-terrorism measures. We just experienced what Amazon.com is suggesting is a record period of Christmas buying of luxury items, computer toys, and other sundry forms of light entertainment and distraction. If this is a nation at "war," it certainly is making the best of it.

To compare our current situation in America to the existence-threatening crisis of the Civil War -- and to even insinuate that the extraordinary liberty-revoking measures employed by Abraham Lincoln to save the union can be used to justify similarly extreme measures now -- is a form of delusion and/or propaganda so severe that it is difficult to describe it as anything other than deranged.

The Bush Administration has created a climate and a set of political mores pursuant to which we are all supposed to uncritically accept and robotically recite the decree that "we are at war," which, in turn, justifies all of the excesses and infringements of liberty which become more acceptable when "we are at war." The punishment for failing to blindly accept this war decree is to be branded an Al Qaeda-loving subversive who wants to coddle terrorists and give them therapy instead of helping win the glorious war we are waging.

Constitutionally, we are not at war, because Congress has not declared any such war as required by Art. I, Section 8. Nor, by any other measure, are we at war in the way we were at "war" during the Civil War, or World War I or II. We have no defined enemy, no standard for "winning," no exit goal, no battlefields. What we have is an endless conflict, against a group of individuals motivated by religious and political convictions which guarantee its hostilities towards us, but not a war.

And if that is merely a semantic distinction, if one insists that it is appropriate to call our conflict against groups like Al Qaeda a "war," this "war" could not be any more unlike what America faced during its Civil War. The word "war" has become an all-purpose political tool, to the point where it is virtually impoverished of meaning. "War" is something we wage on cancer, on poverty, on drugs, and now on "terror." "Wars" now come in the "cold" variety, the traditional form against other countries, as in Iraq, and in vague, interminable conflicts with ill-defined enemies which are capable of highly limited strikes once every few years.

But whatever else one can say about our conflict with terrorists – even if one insists on calling it a "war" -- it is nothing even remotely like the Civil War, when the existence of the nation was in doubt and the whole country engulfed by killing and anarchy. That Bush defenders now invoke the incomparably severe crisis of the Civil War -- and hail the dangerous revocations of liberty which that crisis necessitated -- gives a pretty clear idea as to how extreme their fear-driven perspective is and how radical their "pro-security" aspirations have become.

UPDATE: For a superbly analytical and well-informed discussion of the Lincoln/Bush comparison, see these posts -- here and here -- by Maha, along with her comments (and those from a couple others) in the Comments section to this post.

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