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 left
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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."

The waging of World War II is something that most Americans regard as necessary and just. I do. It is nevertheless the case that the war did far more to empower the federal government and change the character of America than did the New Deal. And sure, paying into Social Security and Medicare decreases our liberty -- supporters of the programs can acknowledge that cost along with the many benefits -- but that lost liberty is inconsequential when compared, for example, to the price paid by the many Americans who were forced against their will to fight in Vietnam, a war of choice that didn't have to be waged to protect American security.

Excepting slavery and Jim Crow, all the most oppressive laws and extra-legal measures in American history have been passed in the name of war or national security: the Alien and Sedition Acts, Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeus corpus, the Espionage Act and Woodrow Wilson's other radical World War I era excesses. You'd think that the advent of another war would cause left and right alike to be on guard against excesses. Throughout American history, during just, necessary wars and wars of choice alike, civil liberties have suffered in the most extreme ways.

Yet today's left is almost willfully blind to President Obama's continuance of this trend, even despite its general tendency to be more skeptical of war; and the right, blind to the historical wartime excesses even of its least favorite presidents, is currently invoking the language of liberty and fealty to the constitution without any recognition of what is most likely to undermine it. What else but irrational blindness can explain a tea party movement that says it values liberty and fealty to the constitution, but that thinks less of David Brooks than Dick Cheney and John Yoo?

Ten years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, this blindness is the most notable feature of American life, and the one that represents the gravest danger to our future. After past periods of overzealous attacks on civil liberties, there has always been a backlash. Alas, the tea party is insufficiently enamored with liberty to do the job.

When does the 9/11 generation's backlash begin?

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons