Worried About Big Government? Then You Should Worry About War

The the national security state is the biggest threat to American liberty, but the tea party is blind to the danger -- and so's the Obama leftdtom full.jpg



War is the health of the State.
-- Randolph Bourne

In the United States, there is a collective myopia about war and its effect on the power of the state. Ten years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the most vocal faction in American politics, the tea party, insists that the steady increase in the size and scope of the federal government puts us at risk of tyranny. On those grounds, it opposes President Obama's health care bill, stimulus spending, and financial industry bailouts (all positions I share at least in part). But most tea party partisans are either silent or (more often) uncritically enthusiastic about the War on Terrorism, the policy that has aggregated more power to the state in the last decade than any other.

Since 2001, we've created a new cabinet level super-agency, the Department of Homeland Security. We've waged foreign wars whose ultimate cost will easily reach into the trillions of dollars, all of which will be born by taxpayers. Fourth Amendment protections against government searches without due process have been significantly weakened, as has the expectation of privacy enjoyed by the average citizen. Traveling on an airplane is now deemed just cause for agents of the state to look underneath our clothes and to feel our genitals, making thousands deeply uncomfortable. The president himself now asserts that he possesses the unchecked power to put American citizens on assassination lists if he deems them to be a terrorist.

Given all that, it is remarkable that so many conservatives regard Obamacare as the biggest threat to liberty, that they fret about deficits while staunchly opposing any cuts to defense spending, and that their paranoia about big government and the endemic corruption, inefficiency, and power hungriness that characterizes it somehow never extends to the military or national security state. Equally remarkable are the liberals who are outraged when gays are denied the right to marry (a position I also share), but who are silent as the standard-bearer for the Democratic Party imprisons people indefinitely without due process, spies on an unknowable number of innocent Americans, and normalizes the worst excesses of the Bush years, sometimes by amassing a record that's even worse.

This cross-ideological refusal to confront the actual consequences of war is hardly confined to the way that we grapple with the decade following 9/11. In terms of cost to the treasury and civil liberties lost, the War on Drugs has been even more costly. Yet it still enjoys bipartisan support, despite its utter failure to achieve its ends. Or consider the ways that liberals and conservatives remember the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For the left, he is regarded as a hero, the prototype for what a Democratic president should be, despite the fact that he perpetrated one of the most egregious civil liberties violations in American history. The right, meanwhile, nods along with judgments like the one I just rendered, but they do so imagining that I am talking about the New Deal. You'll never hear a conservative say, "Wasn't FDR's tenure an affront to liberty -- I can't believe he interned all those innocent Japanese Americans."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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