The “Threat” and our Liberties

From a couple of notes I received about the "NSA" piece below it appears that there is some misunderstanding abut my constitutional views.  I would have thought that unimportant to anyone but me, but I see there is some concern about it, for which I thank those involved.

I describe myself as a libertarian conservative.  I think the Constitution of the United States works just fine and that it created a systen of government designed to limit power, not to expand it.  The separation of power among the three branches of the federal government and then between the federal government and the states should be seen, I think, as retaining the balance of governmental power in the hands of the states.  We should always remember that the Constitution is the "creature" of the states, not the other way around.  Lastly, I would agree with Jefferson and Madison in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions that creeping expansionism of power on the part of the Federal government should be viewed with suspicion.  Lastly, as Mr. Jefferson rightly asserted, the "people" are sovereign, not the president of the United States.  He is not a king, not an emperor not anything more really than the person who runs the Executive Branch.

War time assertions of greatly expanded presidential power are nothing new.  The sainted 16th president of the US; suspended "habeas corpus," imprisoned thousands without trial, tried civilians before "military commissions" later found by the Supreme court to have been unconstitutional (ex parte Milligan), dissolved legislatures to keep them from voting, created a new state without much authority in law, jailed newspaper editors whose writings he disliked, etc.  Lincoln believed that he was justified in doing these things because the country faced an "existential" threat.  That was the basis of his assumption of unusual and in many cases dubious powers.

Much the same claim is maintained now.  The Bush Administration claims that its actions are justified because the country faces an "existential" threat.  It maintains that the international Jihadi phenomenon threatens the very existence of the United States and on that basis it insists that it has the right to do "whatever it takes" to keep the United States from being destroyed in the coming years.  It maintains that a situation of "total war" prevails and that any amount of suspension of citizen’s rights is justified in the national defense.  It also tells us that this situation may last indefinitely in a kind of "state of siege" condition.

A couple of problems with that view:

1.  It is open ended.  On exactly the same basis, the often tyrannical governments of the Arab World have justified since 1947 the need to suspend "due process" and citizen’s rights because "the nation" must be protected from the Zionist threat.  I thought we were against this kind of thing.

2.  The Jihadis are not an "existential threat" to the United States.  A great many Americans were overcome by fear after 9/11.  People in my profession(s) had assumed that everyone in America knew that the world was not a safe place and that America was not an exception to that really basic fact.  It is clear now that we were wrong in thinking that.  The events in New York City and the capital were catastrophic and tragic in the extreme, but they did not constitute an "existential threat" to the United States and the Jihadis still do not pose such a threat to the existence of the United States of America.  What are they?  They are a few thousand religious fanatics, backed by the money of a handful of really crazy rich people.  They have been driven from their bases by our armed forces, harried across the world and continuously pursued by the security services of a great many countries.  Our own security services have dealt severely with anyone within the USA who looked liked they were actually thinking of doing something violent.  Presumably these fanatics have not abandoned their hope of inflicting grievous harm on the USA if they could manage it.   It is worthwhile to consider the limits of their capabilities in the absolute worst cases.  They could destroy a city.  This is unlikely, but worth taking seriously because the consequences would be so grave.  They could kill everyone on a train.  They could attack everyone at a major event.  These are the kinds of things they could do.  None of those kinds of things constitute an "existential threat" to the United States.  There would be a lot of dead people as a result of such attacks, but the country would survive.  It would go on and on as a beacon of hope in the world, perhaps man’s last, best hope.

"Do you want to be safe, or do you want to be free?"  This question is increasingly asked with some seriousness.  The Jihadis are posited to us as an "existential threat" on an open ended basis.  They are not, except as a justificatin for re-structuring American into a "security state."  There are other "security states."  None of them are really secure but they are very good at controlling their citizens.  It is up to the courts, the Congress and the Sovereign People to decide if they are to be the descendants of those who stood against the King or just more "sheeple" to be herded about.

Are we really going to accept that the instruments of government with which we fought the Nazis and Communists are going to be used to pick apart our lives?  Are we really going to become someone’s "subjects?"

Pat Lang

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25 Responses to The “Threat” and our Liberties

  1. Paul says:

    Thank you Patrick Lang. I, for one, have no intention of becoming sheep. And I’m a moderate liberal.

  2. avedis says:

    “The Jihadis are not an “existential threat”
    “…………They could kill everyone on a train.”…..
    “Do you want to be safe, or do you want to be free?”
    Colonel, you are really zeroed in; right on target. That’s the whole debate in a nutshell.
    The song says “land of the free and the home of the brave”.
    I believe there is much that could still be done – and should be done – that isn’t being done to minimize the odds of one of your more catastrophic terrorist scenarios.
    Post 9/11 I was as hot for payback as any other American (the Marines told me, on about 9/18/01, that even with prior service I was too old; they didn’t want me anymore).
    I was as for a restructured and better homeland security program as any other American.
    However, as time went on I became increasingly embarassed by the willy nilly hyperbolic paranoia exhibited by some of my countrymen and women. That embarassment turned to outrage as I witnessed the Bush admin. play to that paranoia to do things that I believed were manipulative, unwise and unAmerican.
    I am always glad to know that there are men (such as yourself) and women with the experience and the credentials – that share similar patriotic views as some of us out here – who are able to gain access to the media venues.
    Thanks and please keep fighting the good fight.

  3. Rider says:

    Pat, that was great. Well said! Thanks.

  4. Lisa Pease says:

    As an unabashed and unapologetic liberal, it’s amazing to find I share such common sentiments with a libertarian conservative. But I like to think that rationality and a love for freedom cuts across party and ideological boundaries more often than any party leader of any persuasion would dare admit.
    Thanks for the thoughtful post. It’s good to know there are a lot of people awake, watching, trying to protect us in ways that don’t remove our basic rights. Thanks for all you’ve done and all you do.

  5. nanook says:

    Thanks Pat. Well stated.
    Our country was its most fragile and did suffer an existential threat during the aftermath of the Revolutionary war. Yet, our Constitution was enacted and Congress as well as the states ratified amendments that reflect the Bill of Rights.
    What a people have we become that at the height of our world dominance we even have to have this debate? Are we so afraid of a ragtag bunch of suicidal fanatics that we are willing to give up our liberty which is everything this nation stands for. And what a testimony to this current President that he would even argue for such a unilateral abrogation of the fundamental premise of this country.
    Our forebears are turning in their graves! Its time to throw these charlatans out of office. Impeach Bush and Cheney.

  6. Some Guy says:

    Me too, well put Colonel. I am well on the left and the fact that I and many other liberals enjoy your blog is a small indicator of the substantial amount of common ground that exists on issues of national security, particularly the bargain of freedom versus security. The exaggerated, distorted differences between liberals and conservatives that receive airplay and internet attention mask the commonalities. Regardless of political sensibility, a lot of people find extraordinary executive power and supposedly “noble lies” told for our safety unacceptable and dangerous. And well they should. Dubya fancies himself an emergency monarch. Just like all the dictators he claims are enemies of freedom. Claiming one stands for democracy and therefore you can trust them when they suspend key provisions of democracy is a most threadworn excuse for dictotorial overreach.

  7. Rider says:

    Along these same lines, from Miami Herald:
    “After 9/11 Fear Destroys What Bin Laden Could Not”

  8. searp says:

    A very good lawyer looks at the same issue and comes to the same conclusion:

  9. Eric says:

    The anarchist and syndicalist elements over at Barron’s are on fire:

  10. wcw says:

    The reason so many like this post is that a) it is grounded in fact and b) only authoritarians like where this country may be headed.
    There are always authoritarians in politics, and the right wing has no monopoly on the disease. It’s nice for the rest of us occasionally to see this sort of post, even if we’re held together by little else.
    Kudos from the loony left.

  11. W. Patrick Lang says:

    “Syndicalist?” pl

  12. angela says:

    If true this story may explain why the system was overridden. Scanning many thousands, maybe millions of people’s communications for key words may have been difficult to get a warrant for.,0,1480152,full.story?coll=la-home-headlines

  13. Eric says:

    Pravda on the Potomac finally figures things out:

  14. Serving Patriot says:

    Thanks for the eloquent treatise.
    I will use the “do you want to be safe or free?” question often over the next few weeks as the illegal domestic spying case becomes clearer.

  15. Patrick Henry says:

    Pat..I consider this one of the Best Articles you have ever put up..
    The Truth is there are Real “Existental” threats our nation faces minute by minute that everyone, including the media seems to be avoiding..
    Four Years of hearing about Iraq and alQuaeda is getting thats the only thing to talk about..
    If we were doing everything possible to deveope our homeland security ..Disaster..Rapid Response Plans..and followed 9/11 Commission Recommendations….we would be far better off..
    So Far..Katrina and Rita have caused far more damage than anything the Terrorists could do..
    Prepare for all Emergencys..Nationally..Including Severe weather..Storms..earthquakes..Chemical Disasters ..Radiation Leaks..and refinery explosions..and we are Best prepared for any disaster..Terrorist or otherwise..
    We`are a Nation divided..with growing distrust of the Government..
    Under the Right Circumstances..with our Racial and Political divisions..We could decline into Chaos and Ci
    vil War just like during President
    Lincolns Time..
    Thats the LAST thing Our Nation Needs Now..
    I’m all for Unity and Responsible Leadership..not childish Bar-room Brawls..
    im joining the Liberitarian Party too..
    Its better than having to choose the Lesser of TWO Evils..

  16. W. Patrick Lang says:

    I am not a member of the “Libertarian Party.” I am a libertarian conservative. pat

  17. Patrick Henry says:

    Pat..I think the Majority of Americans are Conservative Libertarians..
    Unfortunately Extremists have taken over both of Our Dominate Partys..creating Fractures and Factions much like we see going on in the Middle East ..and like them..the Extremists HERE are diving our Country..
    The Moderate Middle Class is Being Left Out..while we have Policys none of us agree with Forced Upon Us..
    I am a Moderate Democrat..but I agree with Certain policys in Both partys..
    I actually Believed that the “W” who ran for Office might be good for the country.for a Change.based on the Issues he ran on ..
    However well intended he was..His Programmers have changed all that..
    If we had the Best of Both partys..that would be Fine with me..
    We` must stop Partisan Bickering..and find Common ground..
    that requires compromises..right now..I could not Vote for Either Party if they keep up andthier Tribal Extremism ..Mutual Hatred and Warfare..
    Its Ugly..Its Disgusting..
    it leaves Moderate..Middle Class America..Out in the COLD..

  18. J Thomas says:

    Patrick Henry, I think the country would be well-served if every real conservative left the Republicans (or the Democrats) and joined the Libertarians.
    For that matter we’d be better off if pretty much everybody else joined the Greens, I tend to doubt that either of the major parties can be salvaged, though we have to try.

  19. Eric says:

    Here’s a good read, you peasants and rabble.
    It comes from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, not exaxtly a liberal bastion, if I remember correctly:

  20. wtofd says:

    Col, great post. Are you concerned about global guerrillas obtaining nuclear weapons or WMD which could take out not just a city but parts of a region? Boston and Providence, for example? NYC and Philly? I’m not suggesting that they could raze two cities. But could they take out one and ruin the water and air of another? Is this feasible without a state from which to launch an attack?

  21. W. Patrick Lang says:

    -Gas- Dangerous in a confined space.
    -Germs – Very hard to start a serious pandemic/epidemic in a country with real public health services. Also, the bugs are uncooperative and die off at every opportunity. BW is basically an interesting but not very practical idea.
    – Biotoxins – Botulinus, Shellfish, etc. It would take a lot of it to kill a large number of people by …
    -Radiation bomb – A piece of a city (a few square blocks) maybe, depending on the efficacy of decontamination measures.
    -Nuclear weapon – ground delivered. This is the most dangerous and least likely event. This would be very hard to get hold of. by that I mean to procure a weapon. The size weapon that might be bought would have a smallish yield and could carve a hole out of a big city. One to be built would be shipping container sized and the fissible material hard to lay your hands on, but the nuclear weapon threat is still the real serious one.
    The others might kill a few thousand people at the most.
    These are not existential threats for the United States. Someone on another site commented on his/her contiuing surprise at the “hardness” of the military mind. I guess I represent that. At least they did not say “density” of the military mind. PL

  22. wtofd says:

    Thanks for the response. The “hardness” is just honesty. When the neo-cons insist on lying about existential threats it’s imperative to speak factually even if that means imagining scenarios in which Americans die.

  23. Patrick Henry says:

    Pat..Good to see some Humor..I think the “Density”applys more to Politicians..
    The “Hardness” of the Military mind is far more understandable..given the job and Circumstances..and “Real World” Insight..
    my concerns are that we are One Step away from the SheeplePeople Scenario with One More 9/11 Type Event..It doesn’t have to be done by the jihadist.
    Just Blamed on them..something easy to do under the Circumstances..
    Another concern is given the Size of your former Agency..with so many employees..and thier current domestic operation..Does that give a well placed Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanson or any other Potential Mole there the opportunity to now gain Info/Intel they would not otherwise have Accesss Covertly coding thier own KEY words into the “Snooping-Scooping” Vacume cleaner..??/

  24. J Thomas says:

    I say nobody knows how hard it would be to create a real pandemic.
    Part of the problem is that the agents that might work tend to be things that have no military signficance — they are only strategic weapons.
    For military biowarfare the intention is to disable enemy troops but not your own troops. Or possibly destroy enemy crops and herds but not your own. It’s more important that the agents not be too infectious than that they be infectious enough, in the same way that you don’t want to airdrop great big minefields behind the enemy lines, in places you will soon be moving through yourself.
    The things that might plausibly turn into pandemics are hard to test. If you try them out on a large scale and they’re too effective then you get a worldwide pandemic due to your *test*. Better to think of them as something more like a doomsday device, you’ll only use them when you don’t care whether they hit your own people as hard as they hit the enemy. And in that case you use them untested.
    So maybe you keep researching the topic in case something turns up, you don’t want somebody else to find some great breakthrogh when you aren’t even working on it. And you set things up so you can produce stocks of the stuff reasonably quickly in case you decide later you want it. But you don’t test it, and you sure as hell don’t let terrorists have any of it.
    Whether there’s a real threat there or not is hard to be sure; it’s imporant not to test it under circumstances that are too close to real. It isn’t something that anybody would agree to give to terrorists, any more than you’d give terrorists your doomsday device if you have one. And it isn’t real plausible that terrorists could develop their own pandemic, though it’s hard to be absolutely sure.

  25. ikonoklast says:

    As far as “existential threats” go, by comparison:
    42,643 Americans died in traffic accidents in 2003 alone. This figure is over 1400% of the total fatalities of September 11th, which were 3030 combined. The equivalent of one major terrorist attack every month – as a nation, we may be better served with a Global War On Motor Vehicles.
    And our response may be as bad as the threat itself. Will any attention be paid by the media if, sadly, the American deaths in Iraq come to match the deaths from 9-11? As of 1 January 2006 there were 2286 American fatalities in Iraq (2178 military and 108 civilian, per Central Command), so we now stand at 75.4% of that figure. Add in Afghanistan and Coalition losses and it approaches 83%. There apparently is no accurate total for the number of Iraqis killed since the invasion; numbers from The Lancet range from 8000 to 194,000.
    Of course Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11 in the first place …

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