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Political Animal

The Fear of Fear Itself

It’s not like poverty, drugs, or terror are going to suddenly jump up and shout, “OK—I give up!”

For all the information the internet instantaneously delivers to our greedy eyes, the curse that rides along with it is hyperbole. The net has been driven to a fever pitch over the last fortnight regarding the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012—the bill that covers funding for the Pentagon, the military’s actions overseas (including the “end” of the Iraq War), and, most importantly in this instance, what the Bush administration used to call the Global War on Terror.

This writer has never been a fan of the construction where one declares war on abstract nouns, if only because it is a recipe for war without end, where a “victory” can only be declared by the institution that made the declaration in the first place. It’s not like poverty, drugs, or terror are going to suddenly jump up and shout, “OK—I give up!”

And that brings me around to one of my main problems with the latest defense authorization bill: The language in it leads one to think that there is no end to this conflict. Oceania will always be at war with Eastasia. As long as there is one person on the planet who stands up and says, “I am al-Qaida,” these provisions will be in effect.

Much of the furor that went around over the provisions in the NDAA as it came out of the Senate were justified. It would have considered the United States to be a battlefield; it would have opened the door to the military being able to pick up and detain American citizens indefinitely without charge or trial and in military custody to boot. Habeus corpus, a cornerstone of the legal system going back to the Magna Carta? Poof, gone.

Many of the most odious provisions of the NDAA as it stood when it was passed by the Senate were stripped or modified once it made it through the House-Senate conference report, and that’s why President Obama said he’d sign the bill. The language changed included a number of caveat paragraphs inserted (specifically, Section 1022, paragraphs [b] 1-2; do a search for it in the PDF) that exempt United States citizens and lawful resident aliens from military custody. But all this overlooks a central point, something that the bill itself points out. This horse was let out of the barn a long time ago.

If there’s one document upon which the entire campaign against terrorism was based, it was the Authorization for Use of Military Force that was passed a week after Sept. 11. No fancy political name like the PATRIOT Act, just a dry statement of permission, barely a page and a half long. Yet this one paragraph:

That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

. . . set the stage for every Constitution-shredding act to come. It was this provision that allowed then President Bush to believe he could spy on American citizens and conduct an end run on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2005. It was this provision that allowed his solicitor general, Paul Clement, to stand in front of a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that same year when asked by a judge if he was “prepared to boldly say that the United States is a battlefield in the war on terror.”

Clement responded, “I can say that, and I can say it boldly.”

So we, as Americans, long ago allowed our fear of what seemed like an invisible foreign enemy to infect our political system and gut the checks on democracy instituted by our Founding Fathers. It hasn’t been the first time in our history that our politicians—Democrat and Republican—have failed us, but that is cold comfort to the fact that power surrendered is rarely returned.  This latest bill is just another timely reminder that we have leaders too craven to fear to put a sunset on what were supposed to be temporary limits to freedom. Fear of weakness, fear of what might happen should there be any kind of successful terrorist attack, from a failed underwear bomber to an apocalypse. After all, think of what kind of ads an opponent might run in the next election.

But we are now prisoners to fear; as Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick put it, “Congress appears determined to do away with every tactic that has identified and halted terror attacks in the past 10 years, and to enshrine into the law everything that has failed.” Our current political climate, which insists on denying the legitimacy of the current president as commander-in-chief, even micromanages counterterrorism in this bill to the point where it mentions one detainee in Guantanamo Bay, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, by name.

This is just one more drop in the river. Sadly, we stopped watching it a long time ago.

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