Whenever George Bush gives us that Alfred E. Neuman smirk and begins prattling about "freedom," I know that some member of his administration is about to announce the formation of another link in our chain of subjugation to the state. Like the heads of warring states who fill the media with words of their dedication to "peace" — all the while looking for bigger clubs with which to smash their enemies — "freedom," in the mouths of politicians, has a reverse meaning from the normal import of the word. Just as any piece of legislation that bears the word "fair" in its title conveys notice of an expanded governmental power over our lives, the meaning of freedom is always corrupted when uttered by politicians. Like the cynically cruel words "work shall make you free" over the gates at Nazi concentration camps, we must be ever vigilant in how government officials use language.
Americans are slowly beginning to discover the nature of the police state that the political establishment has been putting together in recent decades. In case you are foolish enough to believe that the "Department of Homeland Security" was but a response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, be advised that proposals for such an agency had been considered long before last September; that legislation for such a body was introduced at least as early as March 2001, and was being discussed at various symposia and "think tanks" at the time. You should also make yourself aware of the fact that the US government had plans in place, prior to 9/11, for an invasion of Afghanistan — to begin in October 2001 — reportedly for the purpose of removing from power Afghan officials who were not being cooperative in the creation of an oil pipeline across their landscape.
Since 9/11, we have witnessed such wholesale intrusions into our lives as the "Patriot Act," as well as the current holding of so-called combatants in isolated military camps pending secretly conducted military trials (if, indeed, the government should ever decide to hold such trials). More recently, we have heard proposals to have the US military begin policing American citizens, as well as a warning — from a member of the US Civil Rights Commission — that Arab-American citizens might be rounded up and sent to concentration camps in the event of future terrorist attacks. I suspect that most Americans — even many who, in prior years, posed as defenders of liberty — will rationalize such proposals as "practical necessities" in these days of international terrorism. It will likely discomfort such minds to be told that those constructing the current police state are only following blueprints designed by statist architects from the past.
I recall a bumper-sticker from twenty years ago that read: "There will never be concentration camps in America: they’ll be called something else!" Those of us who warned of the truth of this proposition were scorned for our "conspiracy theories" and "paranoid delusions." Such disparaging remarks are usually made by those wishing to discourage factual inquiry into their political schemes. In this context at least, we can define as "paranoid" one who understands the nature of political systems.
It requires no great genius or years of scholarly study to understand how the future is implicit in the present. In July, 1987, the Miami Herald, along with some other newspapers, ran news stories about secret plans, in the Reagan White House, to suspend the Constitution, establish martial law, turn over the functioning of the US government to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and have military commanders running state and local governments, in the event of a national crisis. One of the architects of this plan was the conservative godling, Lt. Col. Oliver North. There were even rumors, in some circles, that government concentration camps were being readied for such a possibility.
While news of such a plan failed to arouse the attention of most legislators, there was one — Congressman Jack Brooks of Texas — who, during the Iran-Contra hearings then being conducted, sought to question North about such reports. Brooks was quickly cut off by the Committee chairman, Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye. In the New York Times report of July 14, 1987, Inouye told Brooks: "that question touches upon a highly sensitive and classified area," to which Brooks responded: "I read in Miami papers and several others that there had been a plan developed, by that same agency [NSC], a contingency plan in the event of emergency, that would suspend the American Constitution." Inouye concluded: "May I most respectfully request that that matter not be touched upon, at this stage. If we wish to get into this, I’m certain arrangements can be made for an executive session." In other words, Sen. Inouye was determined to live up to the pronunciation of his name: "in no way" are we going to let the public know what we have planned for them!
Those who denounce these actions have already been warned by the likes of White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer to "watch what they say," while Attorney General Ashcroft criticized those "who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty." For added measure, Ashcroft offered up the scarecrow that such critics "only aid terrorists." When one couples this remark with President Bush’s earlier statement that "if you’re not with us you’re against us," the fear that dissenters might be treated as "terrorist supporters" becomes realistic.
I have neither heard nor read any significant questioning of the suggestion that internment camps might once again be established in America — as they were for Japanese-Americans during World War II — or that the US military might have the kind of presence in our daily lives that one sees in the banana-republics to the south. We like to pretend that we have learned much from history that can help us avoid problems experienced by our ancestors. I am more inclined to the view that our social systems, like the business cycle, have recurrent themes. How else do we explain the fact that civilizations seem to follow the same general patterns of growth and decline, with widespread militarism a common feature preceding the ultimate collapse?
Perhaps most of us have grown weary of the burden of constant awareness and responsibility that attend a condition of liberty, and are content to allow the state to do as it will with us. The "inquiring minds" of modern America seem more intent on exploring the scandals and sexual peccadilloes of celebrities than paying attention to the lessons that history, alone, can provide. As the 19th century historian, Jacob Burckhardt put it: "The barbarian and the creature of exclusively modern civilization both live without history."
In the television mini-series, Holocaust, there was a telling scene in which two elderly men — who had been among the main characters in the series — were being taken to the gas chambers. One asked the other: "they are marching us off to kill us, and we still obey them. Why?" My immediate response was: "because if we don’t obey them, we will be in serious trouble!" Have we become so pathetic, that brutish louts can threaten our lives and liberties to degrees limited only by the range of their imaginations? Did we learn nothing from Pastor Niemoller about the need to come to one another’s defense if such values are threatened?
One of the posthumous victories realized by Adolf Hitler after the Nuremburg trials was that most Americans came to think of police-state brutalities and other tyrannical practices solely in terms of oppression against minority groups. If white police officers brutalize a black suspect, the defenders of liberty are rightfully mobilized for weeks of protest. But if white police officers beat up a white suspect, only token criticisms are heard. A white regime in South Africa that tyrannized blacks was vigorously condemned, while black-run tyrannies in many parts of Africa receive little attention. If race, ethnicity, or other minority group classifications are not implicated in abusive state action, most of us fail to object. Should concentration camps come into being in America, the only hurdle that such a system would likely face in the minds of most Americans would be to make certain that such abusive confinements were not based upon race, religion, ethnicity, or gender.
We have thus left to our children the sorry spectacle of a view of history that condemns a Hitler for his vicious wrongs against Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and communists, but leaves, relatively unscathed, the far more butcherous records of Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, and others. I would not even hazard a guess as to the number of books, motion pictures, and television programs depicting the horrors of Nazism. I am equally hard-pressed to identify more than a handful of such creations describing communist tyrannies. Hitler seems to have come in for greater criticism than Stalin because he tyrannized minority groups. Stalin, because he was an equal-opportunity tyrant who brutalized all without distinction, escapes the condemnation of most.
I have long held to the view that the institutionalized power of the state is incompatible with a condition of liberty, and must be opposed no matter who any given target might be. In what surely must seem a heresy in our modern Panglossian world, I regard neither Jews nor Palestinians, World Trade Center workers nor Afghan civilians, as having any superior claim to the inviolability of their respective lives or property. Liberty, if it is to exist at all, must be indivisible. It is grounded in a mutual respect for one another’s claim to immunity from state coercion.
To subdivide liberty — wherein some are rounded up by the state while others enjoy immunity — is to destroy it, and to erect in its place a system grounded in state-defined privilege. This was the weakness of early America, in which "liberty" was extolled at the same time the federal government was eagerly protecting slavery and despoiling and slaughtering Indian tribes. Such contradictions created an entropy that has never fully worked its way out of the system.
Political systems flourish by separating us from one another; by creating inter-group conflicts they tell us they, alone, can resolve. Only you and I can end such divisions by becoming aware that, though we are varied in our attributes and interests, what we have in common is a need to come to the defense of one another’s individual liberties. We need to understand — as we slowly sink into the quicksand of the Bush/Ashcroft despotism — that if the state can round up Arab-Americans and send them to concentration camps, they can round up any of us; if the US Army can be positioned to fire at Afghan and Iraqi civilians, its deployment in American cities can be just as deadly.
The extent of your liberty and mine can never rise any higher than what you and I insist upon for those we regard as the least among us. If you do not already understand this essential truth, our liberties have already been lost, and we have become little more than tin-cup beggars for special indulgences.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.