A Little Temporary Security: Not Worth the Sacrifice

Posted on September 10, 2013

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Michael Grunwald, writing in Time magazine, argues in favor of sacrificing his liberties in favor of a little temporary security.  Count me out.

Tomorrow is the twelfth anniversary of 9/11.  We were in Germany at the time, and two things happened immediately:  1) There was a huge outpouring of support and expressions of sympathy from the local population, marked by flowers, candles and cards left at our gates; and 2) We locked down our bases, drew live ammunition, and instituted such onerous, time-consuming searches of vehicles entering our gates, that I actually quit buying groceries on-post and switched to the German supermarkets.

Germany-9-11_2a

Germany-9-11_1a

One morning, with the line of vehicles inching forward ever so painfully slowly, I noticed a German couple who were trying, with some difficulty, to leave flowers by our front gate; an MP was trying to get them to turn their car around and leave.  It actually turned into a bit of an altercation.  In retrospect, that altercation – the whole situation of goodwill being met with bristling weapons and closed gates – was a microcosm and a foreshadowing of all that was to come.

On 9/11/2001, the world was horrified.  Governments universally expressed outrage, sympathy, or support.   A few governments spoke volumes by remaining silent, true, but not one country expressed any kind of schadenfreude or satisfaction or excuses, not even fundamentalist theocracies like Iran or Saudi Arabia.  They knew that this was dangerous territory.  We – the US – stood at a sort of crux in history, from which many directions were possible – and I think we chose about as badly as we possibly could have, stiff-arming even our allies and instantly adopting a paranoid world view.  That initial outpouring of horror and sympathy was quickly squandered by the way we chose to proceed.

I agree that the war in Afghanistan was necessary; we cannot allow a government to enable attacks upon us from its territory and then shield the perpetrators.  But – this is just my opinion, mind – we skimped on the combat forces there, dragging out combat operations (yes, I know about the difficult terrain), and then became entangled in an interminable, misguided “country-building” quagmire which is still going on to this day, at great cost to us.

The war in Iraq, on the other hand, was completely unnecessary.  Even if Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, that was not the real question.  The real question, when contemplating war, is: Is this a threat to US national security?  And the answer, even in early 2002, was “no.”  No, not even if he did have WMDs.  Saddam was well contained, and containing him for the remainder of his natural life would have been cheaper – and would have left Iraq and its people in far better condition – than launching a decade-long war.

Then there is the home front.  It started early on with frightening changes in our government, justified under the aegis of “keeping us safe”:  the Patriot Act, the Total Information Awareness Database, and the founding of the Department of Homeland Security (an Orwellian title if ever there was one).  The TSA’s cumbersome “security theater” has wrongly demeaned, embarrassed, and offended us with no measurable security benefit.  The magical word “terrorism” sufficed to effectively rid us of habeas corpus, or the reading of our Miranda rights, even to detain us without charges.  Pity the non-citizen, who could be delivered to third-party countries for “interrogation.”  Waterboarding and other techniques, which we bitterly criticized when they were done to us – say, by the Japanese during WWII – were justified in rubbery, twisted government memos.  More recently, we have seen the idea of the Total Information Awareness Database in full flower, as we learned that a secret court had given secret permission to the NSA to secretly record all of our private communications.  Frankly, all of their protestations that they won’t actually look at the content, or that they only single out the bad people from the background patterns, ring a little hollow at this point.  Once a system is in place, abuse is inevitable:  witness the way some NSA employees have been using their databases to spy on their love interests.

But wait!  There’s more!  State and local law enforcement, not to be left out of the “War on Terror” (although this all really goes back to the earlier “War on Drugs”), have armed themselves to the teeth with military-grade weapons; and speaking of abuses, witness the sharp rise in the over-use and inappropriate use of SWAT teams in recent years.  Hey, once you have a shiny new toy, you gotta use it, right?  And if there are no armored bank robbers, militarized drug cartels, or terrorists running around, well… the nonviolent offenders, the innocent patsy, and the residents at the occasional wrong address can have their pets killed, their homes wrecked, and their lives trashed, often without so much as an “oops” or an apology.  Then you have the stories of a twelve-year-old girl getting Tasered over her mother’s parking tickets, or a one-armed, one-legged man in a wheelchair being shot in the head for acting “aggressively,” or the shooting of retiree Kenneth Chamberlain in response to his medical alert accidentally going off. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the police are too often out of control.

But wait!  Let’s throw this in too:  civil forfeiture.  Not only do we have to worry about the IRS seizing our property for unpaid taxes… improperly, in as many as 30% of cases… but now we also have to worry about two-bit, small-time cops in podunk towns like Tenaha, Texas, using civil forfeiture to fatten their budgets (and their wallets) by preying on travelers… mainly the ones who have neither the means nor the will to fight back.  The laws, established as a tool to fight big-time organized crime, usually allow private property to be seized and disposed of even without charges being filed or guilt being proven.  North Carolina is the only state which protects your property rights until you are actually found guilty of a crime allowing asset forfeiture.

The whole picture that emerges of how the US conducts its affairs at home and abroad is a frightening one, and it seems to me that 9/11 is too often held up as an excuse to justify that.  This is why an article like Michael Grunwald’s is of enormous concern:  get enough citizens like him, who are willing to trade their liberty for a little temporary security (as Ben Franklin put it), and America itself is in grave danger.

America is not really a place or borders or an ethnic group; it is not a language or a set of customs or a religion; it isn’t even We The People, per se.  What makes America is the idea of it, which is embodied in the Constitution; the idea that We The People share in our collective psyche.  As someone who repeatedly swore to support and defend the Constitution over a two-decade military career, as someone with education and experience in national security, I am deeply troubled not only by what I see as a steady erosion of our Constitutional rights and our slouching toward the Orwellian Police State, but by blasé, ignorant and even childish attitudes like Grunwald’s.  Lose the idea of America, and America is lost.  You can call it “America,” but it would be something else entirely.

Spinning in his grave, no doubt.

Spinning in his grave, no doubt.

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