Chris Christie's Attack on the Civil-Liberties Wing of the GOP

The New Jersey governor exploited the 9/11 dead to argue that concerns about the NSA and the national-security state are "esoteric."

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Before today, I expected that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would position himself as a security-state moderate in the 2016 Republican primary, acknowledging that the Rand Paul wing of the party has legitimate concerns, picking a couple fights with the GOP's John Bolton wing, and making it clear to establishment types that he wouldn't radically challenge the status quo. That would be smart politics.

There are a lot of Republicans who think Rand Paul makes some good points, but aren't yet ready to embrace his whole critique of the national-security state. Who else is going after those votes? But now it seems clear that Christie will adopt the neoconservative line on national security, embracing the most radical actions of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Speaking at the Aspen Institute on Thursday, Christie belittled the libertarian wing of his party for its take on NSA spying. "As a former prosecutor who was appointed by President George W. Bush on Sept. 10, 2001, I just want us to be really cautious, because this strain of libertarianism that's going through both parties right now and making big headlines, I think, is a very dangerous thought," he said.

Aaron Blake of the Washington Post offers an account of what came next:

Asked whether he includes Paul -- a fellow potential 2016 presidential candidate -- in his criticism, Christie didn't back down. "You can name any one of them that's engaged in this," he said. "I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation. ... I'm very nervous about the direction this is moving in." Christie acknowledged that there will always be mistakes when it comes to national security and protecting privacy, but said Americans need to stay focused on what's at stake.

He dismissed some of the current privacy/national security debates as "esoteric."

"I think what we as a country have to decide is: Do we have amnesia? Because I don't," he said. "And I remember what we felt like on Sept. 12, 2001."  Christie also praised the national security strategies of both President Obama and George W. Bush. "I want to say that I think both the way President Bush conducted himself and the way President Obama has conducted himself in the main on those types of decisions hasn't been different because they were right and because we haven't had another one of those attacks that cost thousands and thousands of lives," Christie said.

Personally, I'd strongly prefer to leave the widows and orphans of all atrocities out of politics, because it is so unseemly when politicians opportunistically exploit them to compensate for the power their positions lack on the merits. But if a demagogue forced me to argue in front of them?

Here's what I'd say:

I'm truly sorry for your loss. I know the family members of people who died on 9/11 have a wide range of ideas about how America ought to deal with the threat of future terrorism. I won't presume anything about you except that you hate terrorism. So do I. It injures and kills innocents. And it attempts to use successful murders to terrorize even the people who aren't killed. Terrorists frighten societies into compromising their values in ways they never would but for terrorism.

That is a primary terrorist goal.

The core American values of 1776 and 1789 that I've studied and loved since I was a child don't permit us to torture other humans, to use drones to target and kill people whose identities we don't even know, or to spy on the private communications of hundreds of millions of innocents. If it wasn't for Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers we wouldn't permit any of those things.

So I can't help but feel that al-Qaeda succeeded in changing us -- that the terrorists won a small victory. But the victory won't last. Even as America has beefed up security at its airports and harbors, even as its airline passengers stand ready to fight off any attempted hijacking, even as our spy agencies infiltrate al-Qaeda and our FBI preempts plots with good, old-fashioned police work, civil libertarians are fighting to reestablish core Constitutional protections and values.

Those fights can both be won. 

We're fighting to make sure that being safer from terrorism doesn't come at the cost of liberty or justice, and sending a message to all those who'd try to change us by making us afraid: you will fail.

Bush and Obama have betrayed fear through the immoral policies they've adopted.

And Governor Christie has just embraced the counterterrorism strategy of George W. Bush, a man whose fearfulness after 9/11 impaired his capacity for good judgment: due in part to fear of being attacked again, he launched a war against Iraq that killed many more Americans than 9/11. As it turns out, the threat Iraq posed was far less than what he led Americans to believe it was.

Christie has also embraced the strategy of Barack Obama, who would have us believe that staying safe from terrorism requires a surveillance state the country got along without for all its history -- that to stay safe from terrorism, Americans must let him monitor all of our phone calls and more, and that debate about these policies isn't even permissible, they must be kept secret.

Sitting before you, I won't exploit the memory of your loved one by pretending I oppose these policies on their behalf, or on yours. I will only say that no free society can totally eliminate the risk of terrorism, that nearly everyone who died on 9/11 loved America and the liberties it afforded, and that fighting for the full array of liberties that they enjoyed and loved before 9/11 does not in any way dishonor their memory -- it honors the freedom that I love as much as they did.

I'm sorry again for your loss, and I regret that Governor Christie dragged you into this. Without invoking your suffering, his arguments aren't compelling enough to persuade a majority that he's correct.