A Democratic Dictatorship

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Given all the discussion and debate about whether President Bush will order his military forces to attack Iran, now would be a good time to review the state of liberty in America.

No one can deny that we now live in a country in which the ruler has the omnipotent power to send the entire nation into war on his own initiative. To use the president’s words, when it comes to declaring and waging war against another country, he’s the “decider.”

It wasn’t always that way. The Constitution brought into existence a government in which the powers to declare war and wage war were vested in two separate branches of the government. While the president had the power to wage war, he was prohibited from exercising it without a declaration of war from Congress.

The idea behind the Constitution itself was that a free society necessarily entails restrictions on the power of the government, especially its ruler.

Yet we now live in a nation in which the president has the omnipotent power to ignore all constitutional restraints on his power. That might not be the way the president and his legal advisors put it, but that is the practical effect of what they are saying to justify his powers. They effectively claim that the Constitution vests the president — as military commander in chief during the “war on terrorism” — with such extraordinary powers that he is able to ignore restraints on his powers imposed both by the Constitution and by Congress.

No restraints on declaring and waging war against other nations. No restraints on the power to secretly record telephone conversations of the American people. No restraints on the power to kidnap and send people into overseas concentration camps for the purpose of torture and even execution. No restraints on the power to take Americans into custody as “enemy combatants” and punish them — even torture and execute them — without due process of law and jury trials.

If all that isn’t dictatorship, what is?

“But President Bush is a good man. He’s trying to protect us. He’s waging war against the terrorists. He’s not evil like other dictators in history. He was elected. He can be trusted.”

People who say that are missing the point. The suggestion is not that Bush is an evil man. The point is simply that Bush now wields the same omnipotent, dictatorial powers that other dictators in history have wielded. That is not a small transformation in American life when it comes to freedom.

“Well, then, where are the mass round-ups, and where are the concentration camps?”

Again, people who ask that type of question are missing the point. The point is not whether Bush is exercising his omnipotent, dictatorial power to the maximum extent. It’s whether he now possesses omnipotent, dictatorial power, power that can be exercised whenever circumstances dictate it — for example, during another major terrorist attack on American soil, when Americans become overly frightened again.

Unless the American people figure out a way to reverse what has happened to their country — and have the will to do something about it — they will earn the mark of shame reserved for those people in history who voluntarily relinquished their freedom in exchange for the aura of security. Like all others in history who have chosen such a course, they will ultimately learn that they have lost both their freedom and their security.

April 27, 2006

Jacob Hornberger [send him mail] is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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