Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Losing Argument: Nothing like 9/11 has ever happened before; its uniqueness justifies increasing security at the expense of civil liberties

"[On September 11th] night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack." - President George W. Bush, Address to Joint Session of Congress, September 20, 2001

"This has changed the world forever." - John Ashcroft, upon hearing of the 9/11 attacks, according to Deputy Chief of Staff David Israelite (Atlantic Monthly, April 2004).

This argument comes in two parts, and we’ll need to dissect in a similar way:

Part One: NOTHING LIKE 9/11 HAS HAPPENED BEFORE. Setting aside the mass killings of civilians by governments (which apparently don’t count as “terrorism”), history still has its share of massive attacks on defenseless civilian populations. Today, groups of armed militias are slaughtering tens of thousands of civilians in Sudan’s Darfour region. Or take an example from Ancient History: in 88 B.C. Mithridates VI, King of Pontus and rival of the Romans, organized and induced local authorities throughout the province of Asia to rise up on a pre-arranged day against Roman businessmen and merchants. The death toll? 80,000 civilians in one day.

9/11 was unique in terms of the method of attack, but not in terms of the principle. Sadly, civilians have all too often been made a target of violence.

Part Two: 9/11’s UNIQUENESS JUSTIFIES INCREASING SECURITY AT THE EXPENSE OF CIVIL LIBERTIES. You know, it’s not as if the people who wrote that quaint little document we call The Constitution had never thought of war. It’s worth remembering they lived though two of them. The first, a frontier war against French and Native American forces, certainly did involve its share of bloody civilian slaughter. The second was a fight for nothing less than survival. Despite their experience with armed conflict, the founders still designed a country in which governmental authority would be limited even in times of war. They understood what so many of our politicians have forgotten – that massive and arbitrary power concentrated in the hands of a particular group of men, regardless of their intentions, is just as dangerous as any foreign threat.

How did they arrive at this conclusion? Their knowledge of history was a starting point. After Mithridates devastating attack against Roman civilians, the Romans reacted in a way we would find eerily familiar: by giving governmental authorities extraordinary authority to deal with the threat. Lucius Conrelius Sulla, who was to become Rome’s first dictator, was the first sent out to find Mithridates. Pompey the Great, who joined with Julius Caesar in the first triumvirate, was the second. Eventually Mithridates, after a series of defeats, took his own life – 25 years after his slaughter of 80,000.

In the meantime, generals had been greatly empowered by the Roman senate and people. Not surprisingly, they never gave that power back. The wars against Mithridates were a contributing factor to Rome’s slide from constitutional, representative government into dictatorship and autocracy. That’s a lesson the founding fathers knew about, and one we can never afford to forget.