In Defense Of The Decider

A reader writes:

I think a lot of President Bush's attempts to super-empower the presidency have to do with his perception of crisis stemming from 9/11.

I'm not endorsing Bush's policies -- I agree with a lot of your positions about the inherent antidemocratic dangers of his "Decider" presidency. But as a thought exercise, it's worth hypothetically changing the magnitude of 9/11 to test your positions.

What if 9/11 had been a nuclear attack? What if, instead of two towers in New York and one wing of the Pentagon getting destroyed, a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb killed, say, 300,000 people in New York, in under one second? Studies have been made of these type of scenarios showing that the resulting crisis would not only engulf this country, but the entire world would ignite. From just one bomb.

If, for the past six years, we had been reeling from the aftermath of a nuclear attack, would your positions on Bush's policies and his flaunting the Constitution be identical to what they are now? Change the hypothetical scenario again -- make it 5 nukes, have 10 million people dead on 9/11. Or even bigger. In so doing, is there a line -- one that none of us really likes to think about -- where the crisis is so drastic, so desperate, that a Decider presidency that sanctions torture is inevitable? Where do you draw the line? And if you don't draw a line -- if you effectively say that there is no crisis possible that could justify a Decider presidency, are you being realistic?

If we were attacked on an unthinkable scale, I doubt that many people would be eager to watch Congress agonize and cat-fight over a response during a dire emergency. In times of crisis, people look to a strong man -- a decider. Crisis evokes fearful radicalism -- not a strict adherence to the rule of law, so easily countenanced during peaceful times.

I have to be honest with myself about that line. I don't know exactly under what dire circumstances that I might cross it. As it is, I stood with President Bush when he went into Iraq and Afghanistan, against the grain of my liberal background. Even with the comparatively small crisis created by plane attacks on 9/11, I was jarred enough to sanction some aspect of the "decider" presidency. And so did you.

Raising the specter of rogue nuclear attacks has become the fodder of scare-mongers. It's cynical politics and low-minded to appeal to people's instinctive fear of mass annihilation. But that doesn't mean it's not possible, or not in the deck of cards. It just means we can't discuss the elephant in the room.

President Bush perceives what happened on 9/11 as though it really were a nuclear attack. He's attempting to manage a crisis on a much larger scale than it turned out to be. I think that explains nearly all his behavior since then. It's possible, if you or I woke up every morning to an intelligence briefing that lists the numerous credible plots and attempts to bring down the United States, that our perception of the crisis stemming from 9/11 might be inflated as well. We might also have a greater sense of existential crisis.

In the end, I don't know what else to tell you. As I said, I agree with a lot of your positions on this blog. But while reading your very reasoned, rational positions here, there's a little voice in me that says this is a salon debate that could so easily be made moot. So very quickly moot. I think that in President Bush, it's not a little voice -- it's a roaring lion.

I understand - and this is indeed the strongest defense of what he has done. In some ways, an excessive response in the days, even months, after 9/11 was understandable. And many of us gave this president the benefit of the doubt thereafter on exactly these grounds for exactly these reasons. But it has equally become clear that the possibility for an attack on this scale has been over-estimated. And the right response to more information is to adjust accordingly. It was also perfectly possible to seek a consensus on this in the Congress and to bring in the opposition party. It was possible to abandon the torture policy after it had been revealed to be counter-productive and illegal. To continue in this vein - against the violence - and to repeat the hysteria with respect to Iran after the fiasco of Iraq is not, in my judgment, merited by the true nature of the threat we face. It is an idee fixe, perpetuated by a fundamentalist psyche unable to seek evidence outside itself and its own ideology.

An emergency is not, by definition, a permanent state of affairs. If it is, then the American experiment in self-government is over; and the president should cop to it.