Role Reversal

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Since 1932 Democrats have been so confident of the inherent virtue of government that they have been willing to trust any amount of power to it. The liberal agenda boiled down to the growth of government power.

Republicans were the naysayers, forever quoting the Founding Fathers’ warnings that government power meant liberty’s demise.

The administration of President George W. Bush has brought a reversal of these positions. Conservative Republicans argue that government can be trusted with any amount of power in the war against terrorism. Habeas corpus, the attorney-client privilege, due process — indeed, the full range of constitutional rights — have been set aside as obstacles to the war on terrorism.

Patriotic citizens have nothing to fear, say the conservatives, as the police state methods will only be employed against terrorists.

Such assurances have always proven false.

We were assured that the war against the Mafia required a new power to freeze a suspect’s assets and that the draconian power would only be used against gangsters. The new power quickly spread everywhere, even into divorce cases.

We were promised that the asset confiscations employed in the war against drugs would only be used on drug lords. When I last looked in 2000 there were 140 federal crimes that permitted asset forfeiture, and the practice had spread into state law. Some states permit asset confiscation for every felony on the books.

The war on terror has brought an even more rapid growth in arbitrary, unaccountable police power, as every airline passenger knows. Lowly airport security personnel can put citizens who object to an intrusive search or have an "attitude" on no-fly lists. A kid with a toy water pistol in his carryon bag can be detained. Citizens can be fined if airport security arbitrarily rules that an item in a carryon bag is "inappropriate." One bride returning from her wedding was fined $150 for having a silver cake server in her bag. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

President Bush’s war on terror has resulted in the greatest growth in police state powers since Adolf Hitler subverted German democracy. Republicans cheer this growth as necessary to our safety. It is the Democrats who are having second thoughts.

Senator Robert Byrd (D-WVa), the Constitution’s greatest — and perhaps only — defender in the US government, early warned that elements in the Bush administration were using deception to manufacture an Iraq crisis. The consequences would be dire, Byrd predicted. The US would cease to be perceived as peacemaker and be seen as warmonger. To facilitate its conduct of war, Byrd warned that the Bush administration would seek to reduce the powers of Congress and the rights of citizens.

In his June 24 speech at Georgetown University Law Center, Vice President Al Gore detailed the extent to which President Bush has unbalanced the balance of powers and destroyed the US Constitution by his claim to executive dictatorship.

President Bush, backed by the Department of Justice (sic) has assumed the power to label any citizen an "unlawful enemy combatant," to arrest and imprison the citizen, hold him in secrecy without the right to see a lawyer and without the necessity of charging him with a crime, and to authorize his torture.

President Bush has asserted the power to invade any nation on earth subject only to his decision.

President Bush has merged his role of president with commander-in-chief in order to claim that he is above the law.

Republicans are pleased with Bush’s role as Caesar, arguing that unconstitutional power is necessary to fight the war against terrorism. Conservative media such as Fox News, National Review, Weekly Standard, and the Wall St Journal editorial page glorify Bush’s exercise of illegitimate powers.

It is Al Gore, not conservative Republicans, who invokes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison. It is Al Gore who says, "We cannot depend upon a debased Department of Justice given over to the hands of zealots," who are determined to create a presidency unconstrained by law or the Constitution, the better to impose their political will.

Are we witnessing an American version of the Reichstag fire in which dictatorial powers are created and civil rights subverted in the name of crisis? Can the Bush administration be held accountable for unprecedented lies and deceptions? Will the newly asserted powers of the executive survive Bush’s administration and permanently unbalance the balance of powers?

The stakes for liberty and political accountability have never been higher than they will be in November.

Dr. Roberts [send him mail] is John M. Olin Fellow at the Institute for Political Economy and Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is a former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury. He is the co-author of The Tyranny of Good Intentions.

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