November 2, 2003

9/11, Liberty, and the American Way

Alt. title: On Big Brother, terrorism, Little Bush's New Domestic Order and the nature of liberty.

A grandiose title, I know. I just wanted to attempt to gel several threads of musings I've been having on the whole terrorism vs. civil rights vs. law vs. enforcement vs. surveillance - I don't want to call it a `debate' because it's been too damn one-sided; I suppose `debacle' will do.

This is a rant written for my other home, Everything2, some time ago. I've been revisiting it in my head a lot.

9/11 brought with it a number of fairly horrific consequences, some of which were swiftly foreseen, some of which were not. Many of them have been extremely troubling to me on several levels; the one I'd like to focus on here is the relationship between American citizens and their governments. Note the plural: I specifically include here Federal, State/Commonwealth, county, city/town and any other intervening levels I have missed (boroughs?).

To be American is to be free from a great deal of the stress that most peoples of the world endure in their day-to-day dealings with their governments. Part of this is by design; part of this is by tradition. The `by design' part doesn't, to me, appear to be working as intended. Originally, interactions with the government were to be managed by simple minimization; government wasn't to intrude on the citizen except in areas and times of need, hopefully great need. The country was founded, after all, on the notion that people as individuals and groups had the right and ability to remove themselves from the purview of a government they didn't like. The original design, Locke-ian as it was, was informed overwhelmingly by the then-current secession and the desire to avoid not the ability of the people of the U.S. from doing it again on a smaller scale, but to minimize the reasons they would have for doing so.

Of course, the Civil War (or the Late Great Unpleasantness, or the War of Northern Aggression, depending in which of its combatants you were schooled) put paid to a great many notions of the philosophical grounding of the U.S. governmental system, and acknowledged to a large degree the Realpolitik nature of the entire game. For the first time in practice, the `United States Government' acted as an entity separate from the will of the member States, arrogating to itself the ability to determine the legitimacy of State choices (i.e., the choice to secede). Since the defeat of the CSA (which, make no mistake, I personally consider a Good Thing if for no other reason than my Black/Jewish heritage) the ability and `right' of the Fed to act on its own agenda and initiative separate from those of the states themselves has never really been seriously questioned. The requirement for a year-to-year financing of the military, enacted by the Founding Fathers as a hedge against a standing army, suffered when it became clear that the United States was indeed going to fight foreign wars (something the original design actively discouraged), requiring forces to exist on a constant basis. The maintenance of those forces became less of a political stumbling block with the advent and subsequent maintenance of the personal income tax during and following the First World War.

We are protected from our Federal military by two remaining provisions: one, the 'Well regulated militia'1 or the state Guard units, and two, posse comitatus which makes it illegal to deploy the U.S. Armed Forces inside the United States for combat against its citizens, arrest, search, seizure, etc. etc. As we have seen since 9/11, both of these provisions suddenly look a lot less certain than they did a decade or so ago.

Guard units, since the Vietnam War, have been increasingly integrated into the Federal military structure. At this point, they are considered a vital and necessary element of the U.S. Armed Forces TOE2. Following the disasters of Vietnam, in which the armed forces suffered the consequences of being forced to fight a war with little or no public support (rampant drug use, inane personnel policies, rigged drafts, poor morale, information gaps and more) the then-Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Creighton Abrams, deliberately set about revamping the armed forces specifically to make it difficult if not iimpossible to fight a major war without utilizing the Reserve forces, thus forcing the American polity (they hoped) to decide whether any such war was really in their interest.3 The primary means of forcing this choice was to move as much of the Combat Support tasking as possible from regular to reserve units. Thus, while the President certainly can deploy the military by Executive fiat, those forces can't (theoretically) continue to operate in the field for much longer than a month or so at any kind of `combat' tempo without the mobilization of their matching Combat Service Support units - i.e. the reservists/Guard units.

While this has, in fact, made it commendably difficult for Presidents to fight `private' wars, it has also had the secondary effect of binding the Guard/reserve units more and more tightly into the integrated (Federal) military command structure. These units identify themselves more and more as `U.S. Military' and less as `Tennessee National Guard' (for example) than ever before. Even if the units do, in fact, retain state-based identity, their very weapon systems, supply, support and transportation are supplied by the central Armed Forces. They simply could not, by any stretch of the imagination, stand up to the main Armed Forces of the U.S. for the simple reason that in the case of the Guard, their weapons and equipment are supplied by the Army; in the case of the Reserve, most of the ready Reserve units are Combat Service Support and not warfighters.

So, returning from a long digression, 9/11 came about after a long-standing existing shift of power, the power to exercise military force (either in a positive or negative `veto' sense), from the people of the U.S. to the Federal Government of the U.S. Even when citizens are performing their duties by carefully examining the actions of their government, the very nature of conflict in modern America (especially after the Cold War) means that those citizens are routinely and continuously denied the information that they need to make informed choices. As an example, can you tell me how many civilian casualties the U.S. has caused in Afghanistan since 9/11? I don't think the number is out of proportion with our response, but the point is, we don't know it. We have watched our military move from denying attacks occurred to admitting their occurrence but defending their targeting to finally beginning inquiry into events on the ground. All of this points to the mammoth information gap that splits the U.S. polity from the Federal government's decision-making. This is dangerous for democracy and the American process; while, indeed, much information can quite rightly be set aside in the name of `operational security' the reflexive Cold War response of burying information by default and forever, at least until it is forcibly exhumed, means that as an American citizen, I do not know what my Government and my military is doing.

I'm fairly sure, in this case, that even if I did know, I would still be wholeheartedly supportive. The problem is that due to the institutionalized paranoia of the government, added to the desire to remove itself from political control, I don't know what we're doing.

This is unacceptable.

This lack of knowledge about the government's activities segues nicely into my next musing. As I and others have commented in the past, there is a very great danger (which, sadly, appears to be coming to fruition) that the U.S. Government or persons therein will utilize this tragedy to further erode its citizens' rights to privacy, anonymity and indeed general freedoms. A more frightening complication is that at present (at least) the vast majority of the American populace seems to think that this is just fine, as long as it keeps them `safe.' What, precisely, `safe' means is a fairly hotly-debated question among the small group that actually cares.

Well, one might say, why are you concerned? It appears that, contrary to your first argument, the people are actually getting what they want! Perhaps. On the other hand, `what they want' is not necessarily what they're getting. They want to be safe, and they want the government to provide that safety. The information gap I discussed, however, means that a vanishingly small number of people actually have an idea as to the price that they are paying for said `safety.' The remainder, a large majority, are content with the platitudes of "The government is working in your best interests." I find this amusing, as many of these are the same people that bitch so loudly come Tax day!

The Fed (here meaning the federal law enforcement system, not the bank) is attempting to acquire as many tools as possible for its job. On the one hand, this is laudable; it means (perhaps) that the people who make up the system are aware of the magnitude of the task they have before them. On the other hand, it might also be viewed as a sharp jump in a depressingly constant gathering, over the years, of more and more means of access and/or intervention in everyday life and society by said law enforcement arm(s).

Americans have really been too secure for too long for this to work any other way. The degree of personal safety from organized or disorganized violence in the U.S. has been such that in general the citizenry has been spared the necessity of carrying weapons or relying on non-governmental enforcement methods. Note that this doesn't mean people don't carry guns; it just means that it has been possible and reasonable, as a U.S. resident, to carry out one's daily life without the need for personal weaponry. Naturally, some choose to carry such protection anyway; likewise, there are certain occupations (law enforcement, security, courier for large sums, bodyguard, others) where weaponry is accepted and, indeed, expected. However, the Social Contract is doing quite well in the U.S. compared to most parts of the world.

By this, I mean the assumption made by each citizen that in return for their surrender of the right to violence to the state, the state will protect them and prevent the need for them to use violence to protect themselves. Does this always work? No, of course not. However, it works well enough that the great majority of Americans still feel that in the course of their lives they have no need to carry weapons or attain martial proficiency in order to make it through the day. The odds of them suffering harm or privation are low enough to make the risk worthwhile.

This state of affairs rests on a pyramid of trust; the citizen trusts the police to respond, trusts the courts to punish and incarcerate, and trusts the state (in some cases) to execute capital punishment, and so on. Law enforcement is primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime as opposed to the prevention of citizens from taking the law into their own hands. This does, of course, happen; but much more rarely than in the past. Consider, for example, the Western Expansion; many Federal Marshals were employed not so much to capture or kill criminals, but to prevent local law enforcement from running roughshod over the stated rules of the game. This wasn't always true; in many cases, Marshals performed their (ostensibly) prime function of pursuing criminals across state lines. In some cases, though, the local law enforcement (sheriff, etc.) was enough of a problem that the presence of a Marshal was required in order to maintain the expected, trusted behavior of the government vis-a-vis maintaining order.

This is relevant because in those days, many more folks than today in the U.S. chose to carry weapons, and be proficient in their use. While gunplay wasn't nearly as prevalent (nor as effective) as seen in Western films, the weapons were there and were there for use in situations where the Government was unable to adequately maintain its veil of protection. In other terms, the citizens of the Western U.S. found that they weren't yet able to completely relinquish the right to violence to the government. Tacit admission of this, on the government's part, can be found in the tradition of `deputizing' civilians, or forming posses led by lawmen for the purpose of enforcing the law - the civilians' participation was required due in part to the `thinness' of government at that place in those times.

Fast forward. Today, part of the problem of combating terrorism is that in our society the simple willingness to carry high-power weapons and use them, coupled with the lack of concern over one's `criminal record' or future punishment make those who have these attributes formidable challenges to protect society from. Examples are numerous; the Los Angeles bank robbers with body armor and high-powered weaponry, for one. The hijackers of 9/11 were able to capitalize strictly on the will to live of those aboard the aircraft they hijacked; once they had decided they themselves did not need to live, there were little means available to prevent them from completing their plans (although, forewarned of their intentions, the passengers of Flight 93 apparently did just that - showing that once all parties were aware of the nature of the endgame, that death was the planned result, numbers did prevail).

The Government is less able today to rely on societal norms or even situational conditions to keep potential wrongdoers in line. When it is a fairly safe bet that most of the citizens around you aren't armed, and that probably all of them would rather let you go about your plan and wait for the government to help them if it means a better short-term chance of survival, then the demands on law enforcement to predict events and behavior and prevent through interdiction (rather than deterrence) are much, much greater. To do this, i.e. to stop crimes before they happen (which in the case of 9/11 is what you'd have to do) is not normally what police departments or even federal law enforcement normally does. In past times, they have been responsible for ensuring the capture and punishment of those responsible, as well as the safety of any bystanders involved; the latter was important enough that deferring the capture of the actors was acceptable if it meant saving lives.

Now, of course, you can't wait until after. You have to try to find people like the al-Qaeda hijackers before they actually board the plane; before they can park the Ryder truck, etc. You have to find them when they may not, in fact, be presently committing or have yet committed overt crimes. Here, then, is the crux of the problem - in order to stop events such as this, we have `raised the bar' for our law enforcement system so high that the only chance in hell that those responsible for it have of carrying out the wishes of the polity (for `safety') is to throw out progressively larger bits of the freedoms so cherished by our forebears as protected from those very arms of government.

What, then, to do?

That's the question. That's the thing to ask and ponder. It's not necessarily that the U.S. government is venal; a large portion of the drive towards `Big Brother' can be traced directly to the enormity of the task pushed upon it by those same citizens who just `want to be safe.' So it's not even a given that the way to preserve liberty is to fight the government - in this case, the government may actually be following the will of the people. We have to fight not only the patronizing, condescending and superior attitudes of scumbags like Ashcroft and Little Bush (Hooray for Iraq for that moniker); we have to fight the unknowing press of our fellow citizens as they provide the impetus and excuse for these same seizures of our rights.

Which is why this might get ugly. Traditionally, Governments don't give up prerogatives they've seized. Look at the income tax.

As Benjamin Franklin has been(mis)quoted and paraphrased, "Those who desire security over liberty deserve neither security nor liberty."4 Just because the masses want to remain asleep doesn't mean they should be allowed to do so. The government actually, in a strange twist, needs the help of all us skeptics and self-appointed watchdogs - without our help, it simply cannot possibly avoid making the changes that have already started and still satisfy the citizenry. We need to come up with better ideas. It's not Somebody Else's Problem - it's yours, and mine, and your friends and neighbors' as well.

What are we facing? Stories abound. A federally-run database of all airline passenger information, including marital status, living arrangements, address and religion of passengers? Does anyone see a problem here? Or the linking of the Dept. of Motor Vehicles of each state to create a national ID card, without having to actually get the notion past voters? This, too, is underway. I don't know why you went and got a license, but I assure you, I didn't do it in order to join a national databank. I understood at the time that the data would be available to law enforcement and others; however, I wasn't told and didn't assume that the data would be available to a central authority even if I wasn't the subject of an investigation.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

- - -

1. From Amendment II to the Constitution of the United States of America: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Recent interpretation (sources, anyone?) has taken the WRM to include all males of military age, whether or not they are enrolled.

2. TOE stands for "Table of Organization and Equipment," which is shorthand for 'the structure and composition of a military unit or organization."

3. The reader is encouraged to check out the history; one example can be found at the Air Force Association:

4. The quote is from "Historical Review of Pennsylvania," written by Mr. Franklin in 1759, and reads: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Posted by jbz at November 2, 2003 12:31 AM
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