The New War on Freedom
This past spring marked the anniversaries of three landmark events which paved the way for the further erosion of our personal freedoms we face today.
Nine years ago, the FBI ended a stand-off that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had begun 51 days earlier, resulting in the deaths of 82 Branch Davidians, including 30 women and 25 children-guilty only of being members of a religious commune.
Seven years ago, on the second anniversary of the killings at Waco, 168 men, women, and children were killed in Oklahoma City when the Murrah Federal Building was bombed -- many believed in protest of those horrific events for which no federal employee had ever been held accountable. Timothy McVeigh, convicted and executed for the bombing, made no comment during his trial until his sentencing, when he quoted Supreme Court Justice Brandeis: "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example."
Six years ago, in response to the Oklahoma City bombing (which, if indeed perpetrated by a lone nut armed only with a rental van and fertilizer, begs the question of why sweeping new legislation was necessary), Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, "antiterrorism" legislation which not only gives the attorney general the power to use the armed services against the civilian population, neatly nullifying the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 (which prohibited the use of federal troops for civilian law enforcement), but also selectively suspends habeas corpus, the heart of Anglo-American liberty. As he signed it into law, President Clinton attacked critics of the bill as unpatriotic: "There is nothing patriotic about pretending that you can love your country but despise your government."
This is breathtaking since it includes, at one time or another, most of us. Put another way, was a German in 1939 who said that he detested the Nazi dictatorship unpatriotic?
Thus began the latest chapter in the death struggle between the American republic, whose plainly ineffective defender I am, and the American Global Empire, our old republic's enemy. Since V-J Day 1945 ("Victory over Japan" and the end of World War II), we have been engaged in what the historian Charles A. Beard called "perpetual war for perpetual peace." I have occasionally referred to our "enemy of the month club": each month we are confronted by a new horrendous enemy at whom we must strike before he destroys us. The Federation of American Scientists has catalogued nearly two hundred such military incursions since 1945 initiated by the U.S.
According to the Koran, it was on a Tuesday that Allah created darkness. Last Sept. 11 when suicide pilots were crashing commercial airliners into crowded American buildings, I did not have to look to the calendar to see what day it was: Dark Tuesday was casting its long shadow across Manhattan and along the Potomac River. I was also not surprised that despite the seven or so trillion dollars that we have spent since 1950 on what is euphemistically called "defense," there would have been no advance warning from the FBI or CIA or Defense Intelligence Agency. While the Bushites have been eagerly preparing for the last war but two -- missiles from North Korea, clearly marked with flags, would rain down on Portland, Oregon, only to be intercepted by our missile-shield balloons -- the foxy Osama bin Laden knew that all he needed for his holy war on the infidel were fliers willing to kill themselves along with those random passengers who happened to be aboard hijacked jetliners.
The awesome physical damage Osama and company did to us on Dark Tuesday is as nothing compared to the knockout blow to our vanishing liberties: the Anti-Terrorist Act of 1996 and the recent USA PATRIOT Act (still being written after it was passed, and thus unread by the Congress which passed it), which among other things grants additional special powers to wiretap without judicial order; and to deport lawful permanent residents, visitors, and undocumented immigrants without due process. Even before signing the Anti-Terrorist Act, Clinton revealed his disregard for the Bill of Rights in 1993: "We can't be so fixated on our desire to preserve the rights of ordinary Americans." A year later on MTV: "A lot of people say there's too much personal freedom. When personal freedom's being abused, you have to move to limit it."
According to a Nov. 1995 CNN-Time poll, 55 percent of the people believed that "the federal government has become so powerful that it poses a threat to the rights of ordinary citizens." Three days after Dark Tuesday, 74 percent said they thought, "It would be necessary for Americans to give up some of their personal freedoms." Eighty-six percent favored guards and metal detectors at public buildings and events.
Bush himself, in an address to a joint session of Congress, offered up his interpretation of Osama bin Laden and disciples' motives: "They hate what they see right here in this Chamber." I suspect a million Americans nodded sadly in front of their TV sets. "Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other." If this is indeed the terrorists' motivation, they are succeeding beyond even their dreams, as each day, with each extension of "emergency powers," our Bill of Rights is shredded more and more.
Once alienated, an "unalienable right" is apt to be forever lost, in which case we are no longer even remotely the last best hope of earth but merely a seedy imperial state whose citizens are kept in line by SWAT teams and whose way of death, not life, is universally imitated.
Gore Vidal recently spoke at the program, "Understanding America's Terrorist Crisis," sponsored by The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. (www.independent.org), which publishes The Independent Review.. His new book is Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated.