American citizens who have doubts — any doubts — about the war have been subjected to an amazing barrage of hate and threats in recent days. But if you believe the polls that show 90 percent-plus support for this war, it seems oddly disproportionate to whip up hysteria against a handful of doubters.
Rather than defend the anti-war position itself, I want to make a different argument. If you believe in freedom at all, you should hope that there are at least some doubters and protesters, regardless of the merit of their case. Even if you think this war is a great and necessary thing to teach the terrorists a lesson in American resolve, the preservation of liberty at home is also an important value.
The existence of an opposition movement is evidence that some restraints on government still exist. The government, which is always looking for reasons to increase its power, needs to know that there will always be an opposition.
The view that wartime requires complete unanimity of public opinion is not an American one — it is a position more characteristic of Islamic or other totalitarian states, where differences of opinion are regarded as a threat to public order, and where the leadership demands 100 percent approval from the people. These are also states where the head of government requires that he be treated like a deity, that there be no questioning of his edicts, that he govern with unquestioned power.
This is the very definition of despotism. Unpopular government is dangerous enough, popular government far more so. When public officials believe that there are no limits to their power, no doubters about their pronouncements, no cynics who question their motives, they are capable of gross abuses. This is true both in wartime and peacetime. The most beloved governments are most prone to become the most abusive.
If you think that such despotism is not possible in the United States, you have not understood the American founding. Thomas Jefferson taught that American liberty depends on citizen willingness to be skeptical toward the claims of the central government. “Confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism,” he wrote in his draft of the Kentucky Resolves. “Free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence. It is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power.”
“In questions of power,” he concluded, “let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
Wartime means that government is unleashing weapons of mass destruction against other human beings and their property. It is the most terrifying of all the powers of government. The war power, which means the power over life and death, can create in those who use it a feeling of omnipotence, the belief that they have absolute power, which gives rise to absolute corruption, as Lord Acton observed. This is true whether the war actions are popular or not.
Now, add to that reality an additional element: The population that supports the war power with its taxes is consumed in nationalistic fervor — to the point that nobody believes that government is capable of making a bad choice or of abusing its power. That is a sure prescription for abuse, and not only in wartime — the government enjoys this uncritical attitude, and will demand it in peacetime as well. Typically, in these cases, the abuse of peoples’ rights is not decried but celebrated.
We have seen this happen in American history. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Jay Winik reminds us that wartime abuse of presidential power has a long history. Lincoln imprisoned anti-war activists, including newspaper editors, judges and attorneys, and otherwise suspended all civil liberties. Wilson made it a crime to voice dissent on any aspect of the war, including the way it was financed. The jails were overrun with independent-minded people. Franklin Roosevelt did the same, and even set up internment camps for American citizens of Japanese descent.
Incredibly, even ominously, Winik writes about this in defense of the emergency powers that wartime provides. This is why we need to trade liberty for security, he says, and he implies that the Bush administration needs to go much further to meet the (low) standards set by his predecessors.
Winik’s ultimate defense, however, involves a claim that is just plain wrong: “despite these previous and numerous extreme measures,” writes Winik, “there was little long-term or corrosive effect on society after the security threat had subsided. When the crisis ended, normalcy returned, and so too did civil liberties, invariably stronger than before.”
It’s true that the despotism subsided after the wars ended, if only because government has a difficult time trying to maintain the level of public support it enjoys during wartime once peace has arrived. But does government really return to normalcy?
In fact, what changes is our definition of normalcy. In no case after a war did the government return to its prewar size. The postwar government is always bigger, more intrusive, more draconian, more expensive, than the prewar government. It feels smaller because the government is no longer arresting dissidents. But our standard of what constitutes freedom and despotism changes during wartime. Nothing has been as corrosive of American liberty as war.
Wartime tyranny also creates an historical precedent for future violations of liberty. Every president who desires more power cites his predecessors who enjoyed similar power, just as the bloody legacies of FDR, Wilson and Lincoln are being invoked on behalf of Bush today (witness Winik’s own article).
Jefferson said in his first inaugural address: “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” That’s why, if you hate the anti-war movement and want to see it suppressed, you are no friend to liberty, even in peacetime.