Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need, Courtesy of Bush and Obama
More and more, we're counting on having angels in office and
making ourselves vulnerable to devils.
By Conor Friedersdorf
June 08, 2013
Clearing House -
Let's assume that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, Joe
Biden, their staffers, and every member of Congress for the last
dozen years has always acted with pure motives in the realm of
national security. Say they've used the power they've claimed,
the technology they've developed, and the precedents they've
established exclusively to fight al-Qaeda terrorists intent on
killing us, that they've succeeded in disrupting what would've
been successful attacks, and that Americans are lucky to have
had men and women so moral, prudent, and incorruptible in
Americans believe all of that to be so. Combining the people who
didn't trust Bush and the ones who don't trust Obama adds up to
a sizable part of the citizenry. But even if all the critics
were proved wrong, even if the CIA, NSA, FBI, and every other
branch of the federal government had been improbably filled, top
to bottom, with incorruptible patriots constitutionally
incapable of wrongdoing, this would still be so: The American
people have no idea who the president will be in 2017. Nor
do we know who'll sit on key Senate oversight committees, who
will head the various national-security agencies, or whether the
moral character of the people doing so, individually or in
aggregate, will more closely resemble George Washington, Woodrow
Wilson, FDR, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, John Yoo, or
know is that the people in charge will possess the capacity to
be tyrants -- to use power oppressively and unjustly -- to a
degree that Americans in 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, or 2000
could've scarcely imagined. To an increasing degree, we're
counting on having angels in office and making ourselves
vulnerable to devils. Bush and Obama have built infrastructure
any devil would lust after. Behold the items on an aspiring
tyrant's checklist that they've provided their successors:
if you think Bush and Obama exercised those extraordinary
powers responsibly, what makes you think every president
would? How can anyone fail to see the huge potential for
I am not saying no one would resist a tyrant. Perhaps
Congress would assert itself. Perhaps the people would rise
up. Then again, perhaps it would be too late by the time the
abuses were evident. (America has had horrific abuses of
power in the past under weaker executives who were less
empowered by technology; and numerous other countries
haven't recognized tyrants until it was too late.) Part of
the problem is how much the Bush-Obama paradigm permits the
executive to do in secret. Take that paradigm, add another
successful 9/11-style attack, even after many years of very
little terrorism, and who knows what would happen?
No one does.
That's because we're allowing ourselves to become a nation
of men, not laws. Illegal spying? Torture? Violating the War
Powers Resolution and the convention that mandates
investigating past torture?
No matter. Just intone that your priority is keeping America
safe. Don't like the law? Just get someone in the Office of
Legal Counsel to secretly interpret it in a way that twists
its words and betrays its spirit.
You'll never be held accountable.
This isn't a argument about how tyranny is inevitable. It is
an attempt to grab America by the shoulders, give it a good
shake, and say: Yes, it could happen here, with
enough historical amnesia, carelessness, and bad luck. We're
not special. Our voters won't always pick good men and women
to represent us. Some good women will be corrupted by power,
and some bad men will slip through. Other democracies have
degraded into quasi-authoritarian states; they didn't expect
that to happen until it was too late to stop. We have
safeguards to prevent us from following in their footstep.
Stop casting them off because you fear al-Qaeda. Stop
Stop acting like the president takes an oath to keep us
safe, when his job is to protect and defend the
Constitution. Doing so keeps the American project safe. Past
generations fought monarchies, slaveholders, and Nazis to
win, expand, and protect that project. And we're so
risk-averse -- not that we're actually minimizing risk --
that we're "balancing" the very rights in our Constitution
against a threat with an infinitesimal chance of killing any
one of us? That makes about as much sense as the 5,000
American lives lost when the same ruling class that built
the national-security state found it prudent to preempt a
perceived threat from Iraq. And we still trust them?
"We have suffered several thousand casualties from 9/11
through today. Suppose we had a 9/11-level attack with 3,000
casualties per year every year. Each person
reading this would face a probability of death from this
source of about 0.001% each year," Jim Manzi once
pointed out at National Review. This is why we're
letting the government build an Orwellian spy state more
sophisticated than any in history?
Manzi went on:
demand that the government "keep us safe" by doing
things out of our sight that we have refused to do in
much more serious situations so that we can avoid such a
risk is weak and pathetic.
speaking of torture, but the logic applies more generally.
I am not saying that terrorism poses no threat -- of course
it does. Of course we ought to dedicate substantial
resources to preventing all the attacks that can be stopped
without violating our founding documents, laws, values,
or sense of proportion. For the national-security state,
loosed of the Constitution's safeguards, is a far bigger
threat to liberty than al-Qaeda will ever be. Vesting it
with more power every year -- expanding its size, power, and
functions in secret without any debate about the wisdom of
the particulars -- is an invitation to horrific abuses, and
it renders the concept of government by the people a joke.
The ruling class is trying to keep us ignorant of what it's
doing on behalf of us, because it doesn't want us to object!
You'd think, listening to those who defend the national
security state's expansion, that the excesses detailed in
the Church Committee report never happened; that the
horrific abuses of our own era never happened; that the FBI
and the CIA have unblemished records respecting the rights
of Americans. In fact, America always overestimates its
ability to anticipate and preempt abuses.
Yet Americans think they're special. If you doubt that, ask
yourself what the average American would say if they heard
about China pulling call records on millions of innocent
"Those authoritarian Communists."
We go easier on our own.
America has stepped back from the brink in the past when
wars ended. But we've never had a "war" go on this long --
and there's no end in sight. It's time for the people to
pressure their elected representatives, so that, through
Congress, we can dismantle the infrastructure Bush and Obama
have built. In less than four years, an unknown person will
start presiding over the national-security state. He or she
will be an ambitious power seeker who will guiltlessly
misrepresent his or her character to appeal to different
voters, lie countless times on the campaign trail, and break
numerous promises while in office. That's a best-case
scenario that happens every time!
For once, let's preempt that threat.
Conor Friedersdorf is a
staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and
national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the
founding editor of
The Best of
Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.
This article was originally published at
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