Probably one of the most chilling statements ever made by a tyrant was Caligula’s warning: "Remember, I can do anything to anybody."
Few tyrants have ever had such total power. Even in Caligula’s case, he wielded such power for a relatively short time before he was killed. The only tyrants in our time who could have made such a statement were Joe Stalin and his admiring fan, Saddam Hussein. In both cases, they literally could do anything to anybody, provided, of course, they could get their hands on them.
Stalin was by far the greater monster, probably the greatest monster in the 20th century. His victims numbered in the millions. He exerted total control over a vast nation, and he was feared by all who knew him. Just how afraid people were of Stalin is illustrated by his death.
Sometime during the night, Stalin suffered a stroke. He lay on the floor of his bedroom, alive but unable to speak or move, half the night and nearly all of the next day. Personal servants who had been in his employ for years were so scared of him that they dared not even knock on his bedroom door when he failed to appear in the morning. They waited late into the afternoon, and even then did not dare go into the room. They called the secret police instead.
Saddam obviously did not inspire that kind of fear, but plenty of people were afraid of him, and with good reason. I’ve often said that the worst possible job in the world would have been to be Saddam’s public-relations adviser. He had a nasty habit of greeting advice he didn’t like with gunfire or the torture chamber. I was amused by the statement of one of the Iraqis who was allowed to meet with Saddam after his capture. He complained that Saddam showed no remorse. Well, of course, he didn’t. Psychopaths are incapable of remorse. He will go to his grave believing everything he did was the "right thing to do."
We in America need not fear someone assuming absolute power. But we should remember that just as absolute power corrupts absolutely, relative power can corrupt relatively speaking. Anybody with power over someone else can become a tyrant — a schoolteacher, a policeman, a parent, a military drill instructor or a schoolyard bully. To be a tyrant is simply to impose your will on another by force or threat of force without lawful authority.
To borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, the abuse of power is something up with which no American citizen should ever put. We should ever be on our guard that people with authority over others never abuse that authority. It is one of the continuing duties of citizenship. And it’s not easy.
My main objections to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are that both were undertaken without a formal declaration of war by Congress, as the Constitution requires. President Bush didn’t ask for a formal declaration, and Congress gave him a resolution. Both branches of our government disregarded the Constitution. Congress conceded a grant of power to the president that the Constitution does not authorize. This is an abuse of power.
The Constitution is a fragile thing. It can protect our liberties only so long as we the people firmly insist that all elected officials obey it. If we allow parts of it to be disregarded, then we invite the disregard of all of it. As all of the wise men in our nation’s past have warned, the main threat to our liberty will never be a foreign conqueror but our own apathy coupled with the unbridled ambition of our own politicians.
I wish Americans took their Constitution more seriously. It is not a historical document. It is as binding today on every federal official as it was the day it was ratified. Americans should consider violating the Constitution as being the unforgivable public sin and vote against every single person who does it.
There is everything right with saying to a congressional representative, a senator or a president, "You know, I like you, and I agree with a lot of the things you’ve done, but you’ve violated your oath of office, and I can no longer support you." That’s putting the Constitution where it belongs, ahead of public-opinion polls, partisan politics or even personal feelings.
If we don’t take better care of our Constitution, we will find ourselves one day living in a very unfree society, and the result of more than 200 years of blood, sweat and tears by better people will go into the trash can of history. It’s bad enough to lose one’s liberty; it’s even worse to throw it away.
Charley Reese has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on LewRockwell.com. Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner.
© 2003 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.