In 1930s Germany, a unitary leader pled for sufficient power to make his homeland safe from the threats faced by his nation. The German people and their parliament, in the name of security, allowed him to assume virtually unlimited power to make them safe.
The draconian measures implemented to prevent terrorism were soon turned upon the citizens of Germany and they, along with millions of others, lost their freedom. Who could have imagined how terribly wrong it would go?
In our day, Americans are being asked to trust the head of the Executive Branch to exercise unprecedented power for the purpose of securing the homeland against the threat of terrorism. Draconian powers including indefinite detention and extra-judicial executions are being authorized against foreigners and Americans alike in a worldwide war against terror that we’re told will last for generations.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the increasing parallels between the former Weimar Republic and modern America are becoming difficult to ignore.
Disturbing as that realization may be, it’s not half as unsettling as the raucous cheers and applause of those who actually celebrate the emerging authoritarian state inflicting harm on others without recognizing the corresponding damage being done to their own liberties.
Like the Germans of the 1930s, Americans appear to be afflicted with a nationalistic short-sightedness that seeks to excuse virtually any abuse of government powers, so long as those powers are directed at others for the stated purpose of making us safe.
As a nation, we stand at a crossroads with the choice of restoring limited government that keeps us free by safeguarding our inalienable rights, or creating an unlimited police state that will promise us security even as it fits us for our restraints. How our experience with unchecked government power will end is anybody’s guess.
The passage of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with its provisions for indefinite military detention at home and abroad represents an unmistakable departure from the concept of limited government in America. With the open assertion of executive power to detain anyone anywhere without evidence, trial or due process the bill heralds the approach of a presidential dictatorship legally authorized to use the U.S. military to impose its will domestically.
The 2012 NDAA follows hot on the heels of the extra-judicial assassination in September of an American-born radical Muslim cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. The cleric’s death by Predator drone missile was ordered by the president after a secret panel within the Executive branch labeled al-Awlaki an “enemy combatant.”
No indictment was issued. No evidence presented. No proof required. The president simply ordered the snuffing out of an individual (as well as a few innocent bystanders) based on his word alone. This wasn’t the first time such extra-judicial killings have been authorized by the Executive branch, but it’s the first time that the power to do so was openly and brazenly acknowledged.
How could such a naked abuse of government power stand virtually unchallenged?
Attorney Glen Greenwald explains:
“What’s most striking about this is not that the U.S. Government has seized and exercised exactly the power the Fifth Amendment was designed to bar (“No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law”), and did so in a way that almost certainly violates core First Amendment protections (questions that will now never be decided in a court of law). What’s most amazing is that its citizens will not merely refrain from objecting, but will stand and cheer the U.S. Government’s new power to assassinate their fellow citizens, far from any battlefield, literally without a shred of due process from the U.S. Government.”
In our haste to embrace absolute security at the cost of proper government and our essential liberties, we’re making the same mistake many Germans made in the 1930s of mistaking patriotism for its belligerent counterfeit: nationalism.
Orwell addressed this phenomenon beautifully in his Notes on Nationalism written in 1945. He makes a clear distinction between patriotism and nationalism as follows:
“By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”
The desire to dominate others has been an observable part of human nature throughout the history of mankind. Writer Christopher Manion notes that St. Augustine, in his work City of God, identified libido dominandi or the lust for power in the very first page. Manion goes on to point out that, “these lusts are more powerful than simple physical appetites. And they tempt us all.”
A perfect example of this mindset can be found in the ongoing Republican presidential debates.
Of the seven candidates still in the running, six of them are seeking to solidify their voter base by promising to expand government powers to secure America. Most say they would engage in more aggressive, unconstitutional wars abroad. They have affirmed their support of torture, indefinite detentions, and continued expansion of the global War on Terror.
They are united in their belief that American exceptionalism justifies the projection of military power around the globe out of the fear that “If we don’t dominate the world–someone else will.” Concern about the proper role of government has no place in their dialogue; only the desire to see American military might continue as the dominant force globally.
Warmongering, exploiting fear and creating enemies to vanquish is a key to maintaining their power. It’s no coincidence that the more we send our military abroad to police the world, the less free we become here at home.
One solitary candidate has proven the exception by advocating fidelity to the principles of limited government and strict adherence to the Constitution. This approach would mean less intrusive government and greater freedom at home and less meddling and interventionism abroad.
Too often, this candidate’s message is met with anger and derision by those whose lust for power over others would be checked by such reforms.
For freedom to be maintained, three things are required.
We must be an educated, independent-minded, clear-thinking people. This can only occur when we have inoculated ourselves intellectually against the daily onslaught of propaganda that beats against us on all sides. Mass media in America today does not serve to inform and enlighten the public so much as it exists to sell us the agenda of those in power.
To counter this manipulation of public opinion, there is simply no substitute for the power of a good old fashioned liberal arts education.
A classical education enables us to more clearly see the world as it is. It also leaves us better equipped to speak with clarity and power while persuading others across a broad spectrum of beliefs and viewpoints.
We must be capable of practicing public and private virtue. Public virtue means that we are willing to step up and do things that will benefit others generally without thought of recognition or personal reward for ourselves. Public service used to actually include a degree of public virtue. It can take forms other than public office, but it requires a willingness to serve others to the best of our abilities.
Private virtue means that we rectify our own hearts and minds, as Confucius suggested, before we set out to correct others. It’s not enough to insist that others be good, we must be willing to govern ourselves first. By setting our selves and our homes in order, our communities and states will follow.
We must be willing to love liberty more than we hate our enemies.
We must have correct forms in our government and our personal lives. A form is what gives wet concrete its structure, limits and purpose. Without a proper form, the concrete would flow uncontrollably and become useless. In a similar sense, correct forms in government are what define its proper role and upper limits. They are what allow the powers of the state to be used wisely and humanely for securing our natural rights rather than for simple domination or mischief.
In our personal lives, correct forms include strong marriages and families and sound personal financial practices as well as greater self-sufficiency.
When these elements are widespread throughout a society, self government and freedom flourish. When they are generally lacking, even well-schooled, highly technologically advanced societies can be led into the abyss.
Military might and domination alone cannot make us or keep us a great nation. Abiding by correct principles and doing the right things for the right reasons–regardless of circumstances–can.