Monday, March 17, 2008

The Dangers Aren't Bigger; It's Us That Got Small

My suggested headline was above, but in the newspaper version, the editor didn’t want to quote Norma Desmond twice (or wasn’t sure if it was better to use the objective or the nominative) and I got the longer headline instead.

The scary thing is that there really are people out there (who email me) who claim to believe that we’re in greater danger than ever, that today’s threat isn’t “a small threat like Nazi Germany or the USSR” (A small threat? Take that, “Greatest Generation”!) and that a million “virgin-seeking suicide bombers [are] anxious to blow me and my family to Hades.” It must be nice to be that important.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 16, 2008

These really aren’t the most dangerous times we’ve ever faced. This absurd war-without-end isn’t the greatest crisis the United States has ever seen. The threat of whatever it’s called this week -- Global Extremism? Islamofascism? Really Scary-Looking Guys With Beards? -- are lesser than we’ve handled before.

The threat isn’t greater; rather, we’re just more fearful than any other time in our history.

You’ve heard of the Greatest Generation? We’re the Scared-est Generation. Every two-bit dictator is the next Hitler, and any swarthy foreigner with a laptop is a terrorist mastermind.

We line up like sheep at the airport to remove our shoes and make sure our shampoo is safe. We fear threats (balsa wood model airplanes!) that wouldn’t propel a comedy skit. The only thing we have to fear is everything.

To paraphrase
Norma Desmond, the dangers haven’t gotten bigger; we’ve just gotten smaller.

It’s not the danger that’s forcing us to abandon our principles and the Constitution. It’s our fear. We see torture working on 24 -- a TV show, people! -- and we convince ourselves that we have to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” to protect ourselves.

Never mind that in the past, we never used torture on fanatical Nazis; there were more effective interrogation techniques that didn’t require Americans to sell our collective souls for safety. Never mind that in the past five years, in each case that’s come to light, torture yielded more bad information (false leads, idle chatter, and stuff we already knew without moral compromise) than good.

Shouldn’t the burden be on the people saying “torture works!” to prove it, before they can sully the rest of us? And shouldn’t it take something more than just bald assertions by the Bush administration, given their track record?

But, hey, we’re so afraid that we’re perfectly willing to let somebody -- so long as we don’t have to watch, so we’ll use contractors instead of enlisted personnel -- torture in our name. After all, they’d never torture anybody like us, only people who look different, whom somebody says are out to kill us. Fine, believe that. Just don’t consider yourself any better than the average Shia militiaman or Sudanese Janjaweed, because those are the rules by which they play, too.

The latest example where the fearmongering just doesn’t stand up to the facts is updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Bush administration claims that without (a) expansion of their power to wiretap without court approval and (b) retroactive immunity for telecoms that “cooperated” with the government, then we’re at mortal risk! Why, FISA could be interpreted to prevent monitoring foreign-to-foreign communications that, in a networked world, somehow travel through US wires or servers!

that too is a lie. The Justice Department’s top national security lawyer confirmed last week that foreign-to-foreign communications aren’t subject to FISA. The only problem is with emails stored on US servers when it’s not known where the recipient is (or will be) located. That’s a relatively easy problem to fix -- but one the Bush administration doesn’t want to fix without retroactive immunity.

Many observers think the immunity issue isn’t a big deal for the telecoms, suspecting that the companies got government indemnification before cooperating. Instead, the administration doesn’t want to disclose what they actually did. Remember Alberto Gonzales’s
mysterious nighttime hospital visit to John Ashcroft to reauthorize the program? Wouldn’t you like to know what the government was doing before we agree to let them keep doing it?

Of course, the red herring here is the idea that we need to give the telecoms immunity because in wartime, we want them to cooperate “patriotically.” Julian Sanchez
has the answer: No, I’d rather corporations obey the law. If the law’s wrong, change it, but don’t “fix” it by having regulated businesses “cooperate” with whomever sits in the White House.

The folks who believe in torture also think it’s worth giving up some of the Constitution to keep them safe. There’s a word for people who value safety so more than freedom -- and that word isn’t “American.”

1 comment:

Danny King said...

Great article. It seems throughout US history politicians and the Supreme Court have used war as an excuse to curtail the rights and liberties of people. I think its interesting how we look at back with digust at W. Wilson's attempts to limit speech in WWI and the internment camps that even the Supreme Court held to be valid in WWII, and yet a very similar thing is happening today.