‘Emergencies’ have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded — and once they are suspended it is not difficult for anyone who has assumed such emergency powers to see to it that the emergency will persist.
~ F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 3, p 124
The recent order of the Commander-in-Chief authorizing military tribunals, bereft of the principles of law and the rules of evidence, for citizens of the 200 or so countries of the globe not named “the United States of America,” brings a fundamental issue to the forefront of public debate.
The issue is not, for example, whether the NFL will follow suit, and allow the home team to set the rules of play; the Cleveland Browns shall continue to enjoy the protection of the NFL rule book when playing in Pittsburgh.
The issue is not whether we are facing a time of troubles, but how we may best handle such troubles.
Or is it? What is the crisis which we face? Will it ever be the case that the risk of terrorism has been vanquished forever? Although it has been announced as a goal, it seems impossible to say the least. Even in Nazi Germany, with its Gestapo and its explicit total state, plotters nearly managed to kill Adolf Hitler with a bomb. If such was possible given all the restrictions on liberty in Nazi Germany, how can America claim to ever eliminate the risks of terrorism while not destroying liberty? The question must be asked (and, of course, I just asked it).
Americans, myself included, want to see punishment handed out to those responsible (and still living) for the murders of September 11. But the punishment must be handed out in such a way that it will not encourage yet more terrorism. It would seem that the best way to do this is to behave with justice in all things. A just foreign policy and just domestic policies (i.e., no support for foreign wars, and no Star Chamber for non-Americans) would enable the United States to show itself to the international community as an indisputable good guy, interested not in power but in legitimate self-defense and peaceful commerce.
Is this suggestion “blaming America first?” Of course not. In fact, the label properly describes those on the other side of the debate over the war. Once upon a time (about 60 years ago), there was an American organization called America First. Its members, including Charles Lindbergh, had the nerve to wish for peace, rather than to send their sons and husbands to die in foreign wars which did not threaten the United States.
The members of America First were the conservatives of their day. (As an aside, it is more than odd that today’s so-called conservatives ridicule the beliefs held by the America Firsters. One would think that conservatism implied a certain carry-over from the past. Anyway.)
After Pearl Harbor, the members of America First were ridiculed and abused. They had dared to believe in neutrality on the basis of firm principles, rather than meddling in search of short-term gains. The Japanese military attack on the U.S. Navy, however, was a different matter. It was no longer a foreign war, but a war on the United States. And so America First vanished with the winds of time.
It is no surprise, then, to see the reaction of those who itch for war today: blame America First. Blame those who advocate peace. Blame the “isolationists.” The name “isolationist” is itself an insult, as it is a loaded term for those who advocate peace and neutrality on firm intellectual grounds, namely, free market economics, sound history, and sound philosophy.
Query to the warmongers: what to say about the following line from a patriot of spotless reputation, Benjamin Franklin:
I hope that Mankind will at length, as they call themselves reasonable creatures, have Reason and Sense enough to settle their differences without cutting Throats; for, in my opinion, there never was a good War, or a bad Peace.
One supposes that the cynics will reply that Franklin wrote this after the Revolution, and thus after the war had been won and freedom achieved. Such a response misses the point. Given all that was achieved, and given the wisdom of Franklin’s experience (he lived through not only the Revolution, but Indian wars as well), he was very clear in his views of war and peace.
By the way, not so long ago, when the United States faced down China in an incident over an American reconnaissance flight, those who now call for war bristled at the suggestion that they were warmongers. Time has told the tale. Another question: is China off the hook where the neo-cons are concerned, or are these armchair generals afraid of a two-front war? (For the record, a war with China would be one of the stupidest actions that the United States could undertake).
There never was a good war, or a bad peace. So says Benjamin Franklin, a very good American.
Americans living today would do well to listen to him.
Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
© 2001 David Dieteman