Living Under the Guillotine's Blade

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Imagine you
see a man on his knees, arms outstretched, with his head resting
on a wooden block. Ten feet above his head, the sharp edge of a
guillotine blade hangs suspended. The blade is held back by a rope
that is visibly frayed and weak. It appears the rope might snap
at any moment, and the blade will descend to plunge through the
man’s neck. Blood will spurt over the platform on which the guillotine
sits, and the man’s head, brutally shorn of the rest of his body,
will thud onto the darkened platform below, onto the wood stained
with the blood from earlier victims. This scene has been enacted
many times before.

One aspect
of the drama playing out before you is exceptionally strange. No
one is forcing the man to remain on his knees, with his head calmly
resting on the block. He could get up and walk off the platform
at any moment. Yet he doesn’t. He appears to be entirely unconcerned
about the fatal danger above him, the blade that hangs there with
infinite patience, silently waiting for its moment. There are others
watching this scene with you. Some of them, like you, shout out
warnings to the man. Still he does not get up. You and the others
have been unable to move the man, or to disable the blade. Only
the man with his head on the block can save himself. He won’t. He
stays on his knees, with his head on the block. With every moment
that passes, the rope holding the blade back weakens. You know,
as the man himself knows, that the rope will break eventually.

Yet he stays
there. Warnings continue to be shouted; he continues to ignore them.
The rope frays still more. Some people in the gathered crowd finally
leave. The tension had become unbearable to them. But you and a
few others remain. Surely, you think, the man will get up eventually,
before the rope breaks. Why would he remain there, when he knows
that will mean his certain death? And still he doesn’t move.

The minutes
pass, and turn into hours. Nothing changes. The man remains in position.
The blade waits. The only unknown is the precise moment when the
blood will begin to flow, the moment when another life will be brutally
destroyed, as so many have been destroyed before.

You feel compelled
to remain, and to watch. You are unable to turn away. Death hangs
in the air.

This is how
we live in America today. The final destruction of liberty, and
of life itself, could begin at any moment. Yet we act like the man
with his head resting on the block. We seem to believe there is
nothing especially unusual in our circumstances, nothing that requires
us to take action. Life goes on as it always did. Like the man under
the blade, we could choose to alter our fate. We will not. We believe,
as perhaps the man under the blade believes, that our situation
isn’t that bad; we’ll be able to get through this, just as we always
have. We forget all those who have gone before us, all those who
have died bloody and painful deaths. But, we may tell ourselves,
we are different from all those others. Their fate will not be ours,
because we are special and unique. We forget that all the earlier
victims thought the same.

Perhaps it
is the case that the man with his head resting on the block isn’t
very intelligent. It is possible he doesn’t understand that the
rope holds the blade back, and that when the rope breaks, the blade
will descend and cut through his flesh. At this moment in history,
it is indisputably the case that Americans generally, and the political
class and most of those who write about politics (including almost
all bloggers), are not very intelligent. They appear to understand
almost nothing about political principles, or how they operate.
Gathering dangers hold no reality for such people. They will understand
the guillotine’s purpose only when the blade first touches their
necks, and the blood finally gushes out. Yes, they will certainly
comprehend the danger then, when all possibilities for action have
been destroyed.

The man in
my story has only one blade suspended above him; we have at least
four blades hanging over us, any one of which could be fatal.

The first
blade, probably the most dangerous one, is the Military Commissions
Act. What is it that people fail to understand about this abomination?
I know that I and others have explained its immense dangers and
its fatal implications numerous times; perhaps we haven’t explained
it very well. But I don’t know how to say it any more plainly
than this
:

There is no question that the Military Commissions Act, given the
language it now contains, grants – in principle – full
dictatorial powers to the executive. As I explained in the earlier
essay, the executive and certain entities it controls can designate
anyone, including any American citizen, as an “unlawful enemy combatant.”
That person can then be imprisoned for the rest of his life, with
no recourse whatsoever. Period.

The
critical point is what, in principle, the grant of power
includes. As noted, the grant is absolute: it includes
everything. As I have pointed out, the determination of
the Bush administration to achieve absolute power has been indisputably
clear since shortly after 9/11. And this is hardly the first time
that I and others have noted that the mechanisms for a complete
dictatorship
have now been put in place
.

With
proper preparation, and with the requisite understanding that
freedom itself was imperiled, the Democrats could have achieved
these aims. All of us would be forever in their debt. Surely liberty
itself is worth such a battle, isn’t it? But the Democrats did
none of these things, so the bill passed. Thus, they share in
the guilt and responsibility. The guilt and responsibility that
accrues to the Democrats is not as great as that of the Republicans,
but it is surely great enough. And when your freedom, and that
of your family and friends, and that of every single one of us,
is destroyed in this manner, how do you even go about measuring
degrees of guilt? How do you say this failure is worse
than that one? The bill passed. They all failed,
Republicans and Democrats alike. In principle, torture was enshrined
and liberty was destroyed.

Some
argue that the Supreme Court will find the act, or at least certain
key provisions, unconstitutional. That, too, is a hope, but I
myself am far from certain that the Court will rule in such a
manner. In any event, we do not know what the ultimate outcome
will be as far as the judicial system is concerned.

So we
are confronted with one stark certainty, opposed by fragile and
uncertain future hopes. We know the Military Commissions Act destroys
liberty at its very foundation. We do not know if this fatal injury
will ever be ameliorated. The Act should have been stalled at
the very least. It was not.

Destroying
the very basis of liberty is not an event that occurs every day.
Mark the date. Historians may well have cause to note it.

The Democrats
have proposed the “Restoring the Constitution Act,” although its passage
hardly appears to be a matter of great urgency to them. If they do
not view the destruction of the foundation of liberty as a genuine
emergency requiring almost instantaneous action, what would
constitute an emergency to them? Beyond this, proposing new legislation
to “fix” the original bill is precisely the wrong way to fight this
battle, as I explained in “America,
Now Without the Revolution
“:
If
we genuinely seek to walk the long road back to a constitutional
republic, the Act must be repealed. It must be wiped from
the books completely. Instead, the Democrats propose to enact another
bill, “correcting” the errors in the first. Inevitably, this will
lead to endless debates, in Congress, in the courts and everywhere
else, about how the two bills should be construed in relation to
each other. These debates and confrontations will go on for years
– and all the while, the Military Commissions Act will remain
the law of the land, a law that destroys the very concept of law
in terms of what it had once meant.

You do
not “fix” evils of this kind. You obliterate them as required.
It is required here. At long last, let the Democrats understand
the nature of this battle, as I discussed it in the
earlier essay
. Let them educate themselves, other members
of Congress, and the American public. Let them attempt to mobilize
Americans to demand that the Act be repealed, on a scale
and in a manner that cannot be ignored. All our political leaders
endlessly praise those who give their lives in defense of liberty,
as they should when it is true. (It is not true in Iraq.) If they
are sincere in that praise to any degree at all, can’t they fight
a legislative battle to restore the basis of liberty? They
are being asked to take up only intellectual arms. For
God’s sake, they can do it sitting down the entire time.

But,
you say, Bush will veto legislation repealing the Military Commissions
Act. I initially note that Bush is equally likely to veto any
attempt to “fix” that Act. But if the Democrats waged the necessary
campaign and enlisted a significant part of the American public
on their side, then let him. He will stand alone, revealed
as the enemy of liberty and civilization that he is.

But here is where
stupidity enters the picture. Just as the man does not grasp the operation
of the guillotine or the fact that, if he does not move, the blade
will kill him, our political class (and most writers and bloggers)
appear not to understand the profound dangers of the Military Commissions
Act because of only one fact: its full powers have not yet been
implemented. In an
earlier essay
, I quoted Jacob Hornberger on this point. Hornberger
deconstructs two common objections to the statement of fact that the
Executive now possesses full dictatorial powers. With regard to the
second objection, he
writes
:
“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.

I went on to note:

I’ve
made this point repeatedly over the last several years, and it is
only a measure of the remarkably primitive quality of our national
conversation that so many Americans seem incapable of grasping it.

To put
the point the other way, which will hopefully penetrate the wall
of resistance erected by so many people: the only reason you aren’t
in a concentration camp right now is because Bush hasn’t decided
to send you to one – yet. But he claims he has the power
to do so – and there are almost no voices of any prominence
to dispute the contention. What is even worse than the loss of
liberty is the fact that most Americans aren’t even aware that
the loss has occurred. If there are any national leaders who understand
these issues and have the courage to fight for our freedom here
at home, they ought to realize that the battle must be waged now.
Given the hysteria that followed 9/11 – and the hysteria
that would certainly follow another terrorist attack in the U.S.
of the same or even greater magnitude – protesting against
round-ups at that point would be entirely futile, and would come
far too late.

Hornberger’s comments
and mine on this issue were written before passage of the Military
Commissions Act. Bush had asserted these dictatorial powers earlier
and utilized them, but only very selectively. The Military Commissions
Act codified those powers, and made dictatorship and torture the law
of the land.

But to watch
the actions of our political class and to read most political writers,
none of this requires urgent action. The guillotine has no reality
for us; it will become solid only when we feel the touch of the
blade. You may be certain of one fact: when powers of this kind
are granted to political leaders, men and women prepared to use
them in full will come along sooner or later, probably sooner in
our case and almost certainly after another major terrorist attack
within our own shores. The round-ups will come, as will the concentration
camps, as will comprehensive censorship. The executions without
trial will come, as well. The torture is already here, and has been
for some time.

The second
blade is related to the first one; it could be fatal on its own,
and it would certainly be fatal in conjunction with the Military
Commissions Act. I will let one of the rare writers who grasps these
dangers consistently, whether they are proposed and supported by
Republicans or Democrats, explain it. In a new article, Jim
Bovard writes
:
The
Defense Authorization Act of 2006, passed on Sept. 30, empowers
President George W. Bush to impose martial law in the event of a
terrorist u201Cincident,u201D if he or other federal officials perceive
a shortfall of “public order,” or even in response to antiwar protests
that get unruly as a result of government provocations.

It only
took a few paragraphs in a $500 billion, 591-page bill to raze
one of the most important limits on federal power. Congress passed
the Insurrection Act in 1807 to severely restrict the president's
ability to deploy the military within the United States. The Posse
Comitatus Act of 1878 tightened these restrictions, imposing a
two-year prison sentence on anyone who used the military within
the U.S. without the express permission of Congress. But there
is a loophole: Posse Comitatus is waived if the president invokes
the Insurrection Act.

Section
1076 of the Defense Authorization Act of 2006 changed the name
of the key provision in the statute book from “Insurrection Act”
to “Enforcement of the Laws to Restore Public Order Act.” The
Insurrection Act of 1807 stated that the president could deploy
troops within the United States only u201Cto suppress, in a State,
any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or
conspiracy.u201D The new law expands the list to include “natural
disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency,
terrorist attack or incident, or other condition” – and such
“condition” is not defined or limited.

These
new pretexts are even more expansive than they appear. FEMA proclaims
the equivalent of a natural disaster when bad snowstorms occur,
and Congress routinely proclaims a natural disaster (and awards
more farm subsidies) when there is a shortfall of rain in states
with upcoming elections. A terrorist “incident” could be something
as stupid as the flashing toys scattered around Boston last fall.

The new
law also empowers the president to commandeer the National Guard
of one state to send to another state for up to 365 days.

The story
of how Section 1076 became law vivifies how expanding government
power is almost always the correct answer in Washington. Some
people have claimed the provision was slipped into the bill in
the middle of the night. In reality, the administration clearly
signaled its intent and almost no one in the media or Congress
tried to stop it.

Section
1076 was supported by both conservatives and liberals. Sen. Carl
Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking Democratic member on the Senate Armed
Services Committee, co-wrote the provision along with committee
chairman Sen. John Warner (R-Va.). Sen. Ted Kennedy openly endorsed
it, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), then-chairman of the House
Armed Services Committee, was an avid proponent.

This
expansion of presidential prerogative illustrates how every federal
failure redounds to the benefit of leviathan. FEMA was greatly
expanded during the Clinton years for crises like the New Orleans
flood. It, along with local and state agencies, floundered. Yet
the federal belly flop on the Gulf Coast somehow anointed the
president to send in troops where he sees fit.

“Martial
law” is a euphemism for military dictatorship. When foreign democracies
are overthrown and a junta establishes martial law, Americans
usually recognize that a fundamental change has occurred. Perhaps
some conservatives believe that the only change when martial law
is declared is that people are no longer read their Miranda rights
when they are locked away. “Martial law” means obey soldiers'
commands or be shot.

Some
will consider concern about Bush or future presidents exploiting
martial law to be alarmist. This is the same reflex many people
have had to each administration proposal or power grab from the
Patriot Act in October 2001 to the president's enemy-combatant
decree in November 2001 to the setting up the Guantanamo prison
in early 2002 to the doctrine of preemptive war. The administration
has perennially denied that its new powers pose any threat even
after the evidence of abuses – illegal wiretapping, torture,
a global network of secret prisons, Iraq in ruins – becomes
overwhelming. If the administration does not hesitate to trample
the First Amendment with “free speech zones,” why expect it to
be diffident about powers that could stifle protests en masse?

Note the crucial
dynamic identified by Bovard, one I have noted on many occasions:
the government is granted massive powers “for our own good,” and to
“protect us.” An emergency arises, and the government abjectly fails
to protect us. The failure is used to argue that the problem is that
the government didn’t have enough power, so it is granted still
more expansive powers. Then the government fails again, at which point
it is given still further powers. This has been the pattern
in the United States since the late nineteenth century, as it has
been the pattern in many other countries in the past. At every step,
almost all politicians and writers cheer as the leviathan state grows,
and as individual liberty is destroyed. The number of times this pattern
can be successfully repeated depends upon how hungry for power the
political class is, and how ignorant (or stupid, if you will) the
public is. Our political class has a boundless hunger for power which
will remain unsatisfied until its power is absolute, and the American
public adamantly refuses to learn a single damned thing. Our road
to Hell is open and unobstructed.

The reaction
to the first two blades on the part of politicians and most political
writers is also the same: there is next to response at all. As Bovard
notes, the president can declare martial law because of “natural
disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency,
terrorist attack or incident, or other condition”
– which
means he can declare martial law whenever he wants. Since
we have a press that primarily acts as a handmaiden to the powerful
and which, with very rare exceptions, transmits government propaganda
to a degree that effectively makes it another branch of government,
who would challenge the president’s assertion of such powers? And
we have seen the public’s ready acceptance of grievous restrictions
of freedom in the hysteria following 9/11, and that acceptance continues
today. When is the last time you heard of anyone seriously protesting
the government’s idiotic search protocols at an airport, or objecting
to any of the much more serious incursions into what had once properly
been regarded as a citizen’s zone of privacy? We have become a nation
of whining, sniveling cowards. When we are sufficiently scared,
and when the government tells us it acts only to “make us safe,”
we will do whatever we are ordered to do. If we ask any questions
at all, it will only be much later, when the liberties we have so
blithely surrendered cannot be recovered.

That the president
can declare martial law whenever he wishes, on a whim or to finally
realize his dreams of absolute power (and I know this may shock
you, but such dreams do not belong only to Republicans), causes
virtually no one to think that action to prevent such a catastrophe
must be taken – and that it must be taken now. Many
Americans don’t even know this blade is there; most of those who
do see it appear not to care at all that it exists. When the troops
appear in your city and on your street, and when some of your neighbors
and friends begin to disappear (remember the first blade), why,
then you might care, when there is nothing whatsoever to be done
about it, lest you too be spirited away in the dead of night.

The third
and fourth blades are forged in the realm of foreign affairs, but
their effects extend to the United States on the domestic front.
Stupidity puts in another appearance here. Most Americans, including
our governing class and our commentators, cannot grasp the operation
of political principles when they are confined here at home. When
connections must be made between events overseas and domestic politics,
our brains are entirely incapable of making the integrations. In
addition, our narcissism is almost perfect: when death and chaos
are visited upon peoples abroad – peoples who are almost without
exception darker than we are (or at least, darker than most of our
leaders are), poor, and largely defenseless – we barely notice.
It’s not as if Americans were being killed; even then, as
the death toll of Americans in Iraq continues to rise, we see no
reason to bring matters to a quick conclusion. As long as it’s over
there, what do we care?

Every prominent
politician, Democrat and Republican, agrees that we have the “right”
to attack Iran if Iran does not conduct itself in accordance with
our demands. The source of this “right” has never been explained,
since it cannot be explained. This is an axiomatic truth
for our governing class, and it applies to every country in the
world that cannot respond to a U.S. attack in a serious, large-scale
manner. Note Hillary
Clinton’s comments
only a couple of days ago about Iran, and
our “right” to take “offensive military action.” I have explained
in some detail why an attack on Iran in the current circumstances
and in the foreseeable future would be a monstrous crime; see “Morality,
Humanity and Civilization: ‘All that remains…are memories
.’”
But keep the possible consequences in mind: many thousands dead,
and millions dead if we were to use even “tactical” nuclear weapons;
spreading chaos across the Middle East and very likely beyond; possible
economic calamity, which could lead to a significant collapse of
the U.S. economy, as well as the economies of many other nations,
and on and on. The consequences would spread around the globe, and
that would be felt for decades to come.

There is still
a further result, beyond the fact that an attack on Iran would make
us the
equivalent of Nazi Germany
and its attack on Poland. I discussed
it in the
second part
of my “Dispatch from Germany” series, where I again
quoted
Jim Bovard
:
Attacking
Iran will put American civilians in the terrorist crosshairs, with
little or no federal Kevlar to protect them. The key question is
not whether terrorists will attack but how the American people will
likely respond and how politicians could exploit the situation.

There
is no reason to expect the American people to be less docile than
they were after 9/11. The percentage of Americans who trusted
the government to do the right thing most of the time doubled
in the week after 9/11. It became fashionable to accuse critics
of Bush administration policies of being traitors or terrorist
sympathizers. …

The Bush
administration has a record of exploiting terrorist attacks to
seize nearly boundless power. After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush
administration effectively temporarily suspended habeas corpus,
railroaded the Patriot Act through Congress, authorized warrantless
domestic wiretaps, and nullified restrictions on torture by the
CIA and U.S. Military. The Bush administration now claims that
the Authorization to Use Military Force resolution passed by Congress
in September 2001 raised the president's power above the Bill
of Rights.

If there
are new terror attacks at home, how much more latent presidential
power will administration lawyers claim to discover within the
penumbra of the Constitution? How broad would the roundup of suspects
be? How many years would it be until Americans learned of how
much power the government had seized? Is there any reason to expect
that a series of attacks would not quickly result in attempts
to proclaim de facto martial law?

If Bush
does bomb Iran, the chain reaction could wreck American democracy.
The Bush administration shows no signs of developing either an
allergy to power or an addiction to truth. The American republic
cannot afford to permit a president to remain above the law and
the Constitution indefinitely. Anything that raises the odds of
a terror attack reduces the odds of reining in the government.

So you see how
the third blade, an attack on Iran, ties into the second blade, the
president’s unlimited ability to impose martial law, which ties into
the first blade, the Executive’s ability to declare anyone an enemy
of the state on any basis or no basis at all, and then to imprison
and torture them for the rest of their lives.

I have suggested
a
number of actions that might be taken
in an attempt to prevent
an attack on Iran. A few people have noted that post, and some have
followed through on some of those suggestions individually. But
no one and no organization in this country is trying to motivate
a sufficient number of people to take action on the scale required.
Given the frequency with which our politicians announce that the
possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran is too great a danger
to “civilization” to be “tolerated,” most of us have to know this
blade is there. We see it, and we don’t care. The blade hangs over
our heads, and over the entire world. We will not move.

If we are
fortunate enough to make it through the remainder of Bush’s term
without a U.S. attack on Iran, it will not be because of anything
anyone has done to prevent it. No one has done anything to prevent
it. It will simply be because we were lucky. But as the remarks
from Hillary Clinton and every other leading Democrat make clear,
the danger will not pass away with Bush’s exit from the national
stage. As long as our governing class and the foreign policy establishment
remain committed to American global hegemony as our foundational
foreign policy goal (see “Dominion
Over the World
“), I consider it certain that the U.S. will attack
Iran at some point, if not during this administration, then probably
during the next one.

The fourth
blade is, of course, the unending occupation of Iraq. As I explained
yesterday, it
will be unending
, even if the number of American troops
is reduced to 50,000 or 70,000 in the next few years. We will be
there for decades into the future; no prominent politician, Democrat
or Republican, opposes that plan, which was the plan from the outset.
As a number of knowledgeable people predicted prior to the Iraq
invasion, Iran has been the primary victor in this imperial disaster.
The episode with the British sailors recently demonstrated, as have
any number of other incidents, that the longer we remain in Iraq,
the greater the likelihood that some incident, real or manufactured,
will lead to open conflict with Iran, and to the attack on Iran
that every leading politician seems to long for. Our ruling elites
are determined to effect “regime change” in Iran in any case, but
a border incident or one of some other kind might hasten the schedule,
and make a U.S. attack easier to “sell” to a gullible American public.

So we see
how the fourth blade connects to the third, and how all the blades
interconnect and multiply the dangers. We have already destroyed
Iraq, and we may yet destroy Iran and much of the Middle East. We
may cause an international economic collapse, or severe economic
dislocation at a minimum. We may see the final end of liberty here
at home, and the installation of a dictatorship via a declaration
of martial law.

And almost
no one speaks of the incomprehensible catastrophes that lie in wait.
Almost no one takes action to prevent even one of them. Our lives
proceed as if nothing at all unusual is transpiring in our world,
either abroad or at home. Occasionally, a few people shout warnings.
They are almost entirely ignored.

The blade
is suspended above us. With every moment that passes, the rope that
holds it back frays and weakens still more.

Death hangs
in the air.

We will not
move.

April
28, 2007

Arthur
Silber’s [send him mail]
blog is Once Upon
a Time
, where he writes about political and cultural issues.
He has also written a number of essays based on the work of psychologist
and author Alice Miller, concerning the implications of her work
with regard to world events today. Descriptions of those articles
will be found at a companion blog, The
Sacred Moment
. Silber worked as an actor in the New York theater
many years ago. Upon relocating to Los Angeles in the late 1970s,
he worked in the film industry for several years. After pursuing
what ultimately proved to be an unsatisfying business career, he
decided to turn to writing full-time, a profession which he happily
pursues today.

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