The Ambiguous Enemy is Us


Most readers of this site will agree that no libertarian worldview can be complete without including these two foundational premises: one, that power corrupts, and two, that government, which always attempts to consolidate power motivated by self-interest and self-preservation, will certainly abuse whatever power it is allowed.

These are laws of nature, as they're derived from observations of human behavior. And government has consistently demonstrated, since the inception of its very idea, that it is replete with human fallibility.

No further justification should be required to oppose the adoption of permanent "emergency" "War on Terror"-inspired enforcement powers, whether it's for domestic spying or for dealing with "unlawful combatants." Any new policy enforcement power justified by and granted to a government will certainly be abused by that same government, just as quickly as public tolerance will allow it.

Of course, as much as we depend on public intolerance of government to impose some obstacle to its progression, we have to concern ourselves with macro-issues like statist propaganda and the root causes of public apathy. This is the particular niche where Libertarianism can shine – awakening others to the non-benevolence of the state is the greatest favor a Libertarian can bestow upon an uncritical and unrepentant neighbor. The hope is that each awakened neighbor will in turn awaken others, raising the level of intolerance of the state to . . . well, intolerable levels for those charged with conducting the state's business.

Intolerance of the state breeds skepticism and more careful observation of its activities. Some would label this oversight. These characteristics, when paired with a prerequisite common sense, are libertarian manna, and should be encouraged and cultivated everywhere that they're encountered. Recent polling data suggests that this level of intolerance has been building, too.

Right on cue, Bush in recent weeks has gone so far as to make the rhetorical suggestion that those who insist on questioning the government about its official version of current events – he says this in spite of endless documented examples of blatant dishonesty – give "aid and comfort" to the enemy. These sorts of comments are of course designed to stifle dissent, to provide some inoculation for the public to protect them against awakening to darker, inherent truths regarding the true nature of government.

Bush's particular brand of all-powerful State has done its dead-level best since 9/11 to cultivate a compliant, tolerant public, but those attempts over the long-term are proving to be unsustainable. There's simply too much overhead – too many scandals, revelations, and disparate foreign policy flare-ups in every direction.

Because Bush can no longer reasonably depend on winning hearts and minds through persuasion, he's forced to take action against activities that threaten the tolerance and uncritical acceptance at home that his neoconservative foreign policy goals require. He must take action against people who spread dissent or watch helplessly as the entire house of cards implodes.

I'm not sure at which point "aid and comfort to the enemy" crosses the boundary into the realm of "material support," either, but I can conclude that according to Bush logic, "material support" and "aid and comfort" are bordering territories.

This is where the legal battle for the hearts and minds is headed. The first steps towards legalizing Bush's attack on dissenters began this week when the Senate approved Bush's anti-terrorism legislation: "Republicans succeeded this week in pushing through a key piece of President Bush’s anti-terror agenda, passing along party lines legislation that would endorse the military program to detain and interrogate terrorists."

Part of the bill includes, of course, provisions that deal specifically with how Bush can legally treat "unlawful combatants." But according to the AP, our only assurance that the unitary executive won't be allowed to arbitrarily declare a U.S. citizen an "enemy combatant" and strip him of his Constitutional right to habeas corpus requirements is an anonymous suggestion by an unnamed proponent of the bill that it "would not apply to U.S. citizens."

The anonymous source is saying, "Hey, you can trust us." And we're all saying, "Why yes, trusting government has always worked to our benefit before."

But one look at the bill itself demonstrates no such practical exclusion for U.S. citizens:

The term `lawful enemy combatant’ means an individual who is–

  1. a member of the regular forces of a State party engaged in hostilities against the United States;
  2. a member of a militia, volunteer corps, or organized resistance movement belonging to a State party engaged in such hostilities, which are under responsible command, wear a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance, carry their arms openly, and abide by the law of war; or
  3. a member of a regular armed force who professes allegiance to a government engaged in such hostilities, but not recognized by the United States.

The term `unlawful enemy combatant’ means an individual engaged in hostilities against the United States who is not a lawful enemy combatant.

If Congress intended to protect U.S. citizens from vulnerability to the designation of "unlawful enemy combatant," they only needed to append the phrase "or a U.S. citizen" to the end of the second definition.

But this is by design. Congress has now completed the groundwork for Bush's ultimate goal: to be able to prove that dissent is the equivalent of "hostility" against the United States – that dissent is disloyalty, or treason.

In effect, Bush is increasingly threatened by a wave of rising intolerance and skepticism, and he wishes for the unconstitutional power to convert his political enemies to enemies of the state. Neoconservative apologists like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly have been promoting this concept for the last several years, so there are already tens of millions of witting victims in their audiences who are on board with this concept.

It's bad enough that our endless "war" is officially undeclared by Congress (unless you fall into the camp who counts the single authorization of force to be a justification-by-technicality for everything that follows), but now we find ourselves surrounded by ubiquitous insistence that this "war" is a permanent condition of our lives, that it will last for generations and span several administrations. Many will persist in that belief until some outside agent disrupts its continuity. This is precisely the scope of the war for the hearts and minds of the citizenry in which we're engaged.

Conversely to the libertarian prerequisite of common sense, what underlies widespread acceptance of the notion of perpetual war is a suspension of disbelief – a willingness to accept the premise that our unitary executive would never purposefully do anything that might harm us. Of course, a traumatic catalyzing event could very easily throw the balance in Bush's favor. That reason alone, the clear line of benefit tracing from such an event straight to Bush and the other imperial neoconservatives, should throw plenty of cold skepticism on any subsequent policy making as it unfolds. But you never know how the public will react, as recent history demonstrates.

The state requires a perpetual enemy to galvanize public opinion. During periods of global war, with legitimate state-sponsored external threats, such as World War II, it's not that difficult to whip up public fervor for a war effort. But those conflicts involve known enemy-states or groups of states, who, once vanquished, afford little justification for maintaining a heightened war footing, or the continued sacrifice of the nation's productive youth in the form of military casualties.

That's precisely what's so audacious about our perpetual war: there is no specific state to vanquish and no specific enemy to defeat. It's a global, undeclared, and permanent war on terrorism, a tactic, so the battlefield is anywhere, theoretically, that tactic is employed – even here at home. The enemy has an ambiguous, shape-shifting identity and is comprised of transitory, politically motivated labels.

By design, there will never be a way to declare definitively that the mission has been accomplished. There could be no more strategically advantageous a position for a state with imperial ambitions to find itself in.

The only question is how long the intolerance itself will hold – before intolerance of the state becomes officially illegal.

September 30, 2006

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