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Excerpt: How Would a Patriot Act?

In an excerpt from his new book, Greenwald explores how fear-mongering became the most potent political tool in Bush's arsenal.
 
 
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In one sense, it is difficult to understand how the Bush administration has been able to embrace such radical theories of executive power, and to engage in such recognizably un-American conduct -- first in the shadows and now quite openly -- without prompting a far more intense backlash from the country than we have seen

That is because the Bush administration has in its arsenal one very potent weapon -- and one weapon only -- which it has repeatedly used: fear. Ever since September 11, 2001, Americans have been bombarded with warnings, with color-coded "alerts," with talk of mushroom clouds and nefarious plots to blow up bridges and tall buildings, with villains assigned cartoon names such as "dirty bomber," "Dr. Germ," and so on

We have to invade and occupy Iraq because the terrorists will kill us all if we do not. We must allow the president to incarcerate American citizens without due process, employ torture as a state-sanctioned weapon, eavesdrop on our private conversations and even violate the law, because the terrorists are so evil and so dangerous that we cannot have any limits on the power of the president if we want him to protect us from the dangers in the world.

Here is Dick Cheney in early January 2006, proudly defending the administration's illegal eavesdropping program:

"As we get farther away from September 11th, some in Washington are yielding to the temptation to downplay the ongoing threat to our country, and to back away from the business at hand The enemy that struck on 9/11 is weakened and fractured, yet it is still lethal and trying to hit us again "

Cheney never once addresses the fact that the administration had full leeway to eavesdrop on terrorists without breaking the law. He ignores that fact because he is not making a rational argument. He is attempting to play on the fears of Americans to justify their violations of law.

President Bush has also been fueling the fires of fear in almost every speech he has given since September 11, 2001. Here he is on October 6, 2005, attempting to whip up as much fear as possible in order to try to prop up Americans' diminishing support for the country's ongoing occupation of Iraq:

"The militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region, and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia. With greater economic and military and political power, the terrorists would be able to advance their stated agenda: to develop weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to intimidate Europe, to assault the American people, and to blackmail our government into isolation.

Our enemy is utterly committed. As Zarqawi has vowed, "We will either achieve victory over the human race, or we will pass to the eternal life." And the civilized world knows very well that other fanatics in history, from Hitler to Stalin to Pol Pot, consumed whole nations in war and genocide before leaving the stage of history

With the rise of a deadly enemy and the unfolding of a global ideological struggle, our time in history will be remembered for new challenges and unprecedented dangers."

Islamic terrorists are depicted as omnipotent villains with quite attainable dreams of world domination, genocide, and the obliteration of the United StatesFor four years, this is what Americans have heard over and over and over from our government All of our plans for the future, dreams for our children, career aspirations, life goals -- these are all subordinate unless we stand loyally behind George Bush as he takes the extreme and unprecedented measures necessary to protect us from these extreme and unprecedented threats.

It is that deeply irrational, fear-driven view of the world that has been used to convince Americans to acquiesce to the administration's excesses and abuses of power. And it is not difficult to understand why it works.

After all, if it really were the case that terrorism constituted the sort of imminent, civilization-ending threat the administration has spent the last four years drumming into everyone's head, then it might be extremely difficult to gin up much outrage over an eavesdropping program -- warrants or not -- or over a few American citizens being rounded up and put in military prisons without any charges

In fact, it has become unacceptable in polite company to even raise the prospect that the threat of terrorism may be exaggerated. During the 2004 election, John Kerry stumbled in his clumsy way towards challenging this fear-mongering when he was quoted in The New York Times Magazine as saying, "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance." This provoked predictable outrage from the Bush camp that Kerry, along with Bush's other opponents, was not serious about fighting terrorists and was too weak to protect our children from this unparalleled menace

Despite the dire warnings of the Bush administration, people in rural Kansas and Georgia are beginning to realize that on the list of problems and threats that endanger their children, the potential of a terrorist attack does not predominate.

In a rational world, risk is equal to impact multiplied by probability. As the Linguasphere Dictionary puts it: "In professional risk assessment, risk combines the probability of a negative event occurring with how harmful that event would be." But the administration has spent four years urging Americans to ignore that way of thinking

But one can protect against the threat of terrorism with courage, calm and resolve -- the attributes that have always defined our nation as it has confronted other threats. Hysteria and fear-mongering are the opposite of strength.

Most people know individuals in their lives who live in this type of irrational, all-consuming fear -- people who are scared, pathologically risk-averse, always hiding and exerting excess caution lest something go wrong. In its more extreme version, that sort of fear manifests as a life-destroying mental disorder

The Bush administration has been trying to reduce this country to a collective version of that affliction. And it is hard to imagine what a nation fueled by such fear can accomplish.

The administration has managed to get away with the Orwellian idea that fear is the hallmark of courage, and a rational and calm approach is a mark of cowardice. They have been aided in this effort by a frightened national media and political elite that lives in Washington and New York -- two "target-rich" cities -- and that has been so petrified of further attacks that they were easily pushed into a state of passive, uncritical compliance in exchange for promises of protection

Freedom fighters

For a different vision of our nation, we need only look to the founders, who embodied courage and resolve. Most of them were wealthy and educated, and enjoyed the privileges of a gentrified upbringing in the British Empire

But mere comfort and safety were not enough for them. What they lacked were the basic liberties that have now come to define America and that we now take for granted. Under the Bush administration, we have traveled as a nation from the towering heights defined by the courage of Patrick Henry (and other founding fathers) to a fearful basement where we are ready to give up our liberties and grant the government power without limits.

Senator John Cornyn is a Texas Republican and, as such, one of the most loyal defenders of George Bush. On December 20, 2005 -- five days after the New York Times first revealed the president's lawless eavesdropping -- the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill reported on the debates that had arisen in Congress over these issues:

"Senators launched new salvos in the battle over national security and civil liberties yesterday as recent revelations of domestic spying continued to color the chamber's stalemate on an extension of the antiterrorism law known as the PATRIOT Act.

"None of your civil liberties matter much after you're dead," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former judge and close ally of the president who sits on the Judiciary Committee."

Contrast the American ethos as embodied by Patrick Henry and the other founders -- an insistence that our system of government adhere to the rule of law and preserve individual liberty -- with the fear-driven mentality peddled by the president's defenders in order to justify his conduct.

We are told that we must give up our liberties and allow the president the power to break the law, because none of that really matters. Where would America be if, throughout our history, we had succumbed to the paralyzed, weak-willed fear being hawked by the likes of Cornyn and Roberts? We would not have risked our lives to win our freedom from the British monarchy. We would have acquiesced to the evils of slavery and the division of our country rather than risk our lives in the Civil War. After Pearl Harbor, we would have gone to war against Japan but not Nazi Germany

On January 28, 2006, history professor and best-selling author Joseph J. Ellis published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he pointed out one of the most important and under-recognized truths about the way in which we view the threat of terrorism:

"My first question: Where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic.

Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so ."(Emphasis added.)

And the terrorists appear to be joined in that desire by President Bush. His administration continuously -- and irrationally -- depicts terrorism as the overarching threat around which we are constructing our entire foreign policy, changing the basic principles of our government, and fundamentally altering both our behavior in the world and the way we are perceived.

As a result, one rarely hears anyone arguing that the terrorism threat, like any other threat, should be viewed in perspective and subjected to rational risk-benefit assessments

In his op-ed, Professor Ellis makes another critically important point: Even with regard to the genuinely existential threats in our nation's history, we have at times allowed our fears to be exploited. But when we have done so, we have adopted excessive measures which have led to some of the most shameful episodes in our past. Among the examples he cites are the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, "which allowed the federal government to close newspapers and deport foreigners during the 'quasi-war' with France," and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II," which was justified on the grounds that their ancestry made them potential threats to national security."

Life during wartime
Supporters of the president often defend his lawless expansion of executive power by equating it to Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus and other emergency measures taken to save the Union during the Civil War. [But] during Lincoln's presidency, the entire nation was engulfed in an internal, all-out war. Half of the country was fully devoted to the destruction of the other half. The existence of the nation was very much in doubt. Americans were dying violent deaths every day at a staggering rate. One million Americans were wounded and a half million others -- a full 5 percent of the population -- died, making it the deadliest war America has ever faced. …

… The word "war" has become an all-purpose political tool, to the point where it is virtually impoverished of meaning. War is something we wage on cancer, on poverty, on drugs, and now on "terror "

But whatever else one can say about our conflict with terrorists, it is nothing even remotely like the Civil War.

More safe, less free
In March 2006, researchers in the social psychology program at Rutgers University-New Brunswick offered some empirical evidence to demonstrate the critical role fear plays in driving people to support George Bush. Their study (more than 130 registered voters) sought to measure the impact fear had on voting choices in the 2004 election. As the summary issued by Rutgers recounted:

"Their findings demonstrated that registered voters in a psychologically benign state of mind preferred Senator Kerry to President Bush, but Bush was more popular than Kerry after voters received a subtle reminder of death. Citing an Osama bin Laden tape that surfaced a few days before the election, among other factors, the authors state, "The present study adds convergent support to the idea that George W. Bush's victory in the 2004 presidential election was facilitated by Americans' nonconscious concerns about death " The authors believe that people were scared into voting for Bush.

The Bush administration did not, of course, invent the use of fear as a weapon to justify its wrongful conduct and enhance its own power Nor is Al Qaeda the first enemy the United States has had. …

On April 24, 1950, President Harry S. Truman gave a speech to the nation regarding the threat posed by domestic communism -- a threat at least as real as Islamic terrorism. Part of what he said:

"Now I am going to tell you how we are not going to fight communism. We are not going to transform our fine FBI into a Gestapo secret police. That is what some people would like to do. We are not going to try to control what our people read and say and think. We are not going to turn the United States into a right-wing totalitarian country in order to deal with a left-wing totalitarian threat."

And the founders repeatedly warned of the danger, and the likelihood, that governments would attempt to exploit fear of external threats in order to justify abridgments of core liberties. …

The apex of fear-wallowing came during the exceptionally well-staged Republican National Convention of 2004 … Here is Zell Miller, the former Democratic senator from Georgia, explaining how his fears drove him to support George Bush:

"And like you, I ask which leader is it today that has the vision, the willpower, and, yes, the backbone to best protect my family? There is but one man to whom I am willing to entrust their future and that man's name is George W. Bush

We do not have a government where the president can break the law in secret and then tell us not to worry about it because it is being done to "protect" us. We have never had a system of government operate on such paternalistic and blindly loyal sentiments. And we have never before been a nation living in such fear that, in exchange for promises of protection and safety, we are told that we must allow the president to seize those very powers which the Constitution prohibits.

Glenn Greenwald is a constitutional law attorney and chief blogger at Unclaimed Territory .