Martialing our Constitution


Saturday, August 4
In the August issue of The Progressive, in one of his last interviews before his death from cancer on June 9, philosopher Richard Rorty was asked how much improvement our democratic institutions are in need of today.

Rorty said that after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, "it became clear that the political right would try to substitute the 'global war on terrorism' as an excuse not only for keeping the national security state intact but for undermining the political institutions of the old democracies. I was terrified that the Bush administration would carry American public opinion with it, and would succeed in brushing the liberties of the citizen aside."

Even though public support for the Bush administration is at low ebb, Rorty still believed that "sooner or later, some terrorist group will repeat 9/11 on a much grander scale. I doubt that democratic institutions will be resilient enough to stand the strain."

Lest one thinks that Rorty was letting paranoia get the better of him, his words echoed what Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the man who led the U.S. invasion of Iraq, expressed in an interview to Cigar Aficionado magazine back in December 2003.

Franks said that if terrorists somehow got hold of a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon and used it against a U.S. city, we would lose the "freedom and liberty we've seen for a couple of hundred years in this grand experiment that we call democracy," and that such an attack would lead Americans "to question our own Constitution and to begin to militarize our country in order to prevent a repeat of another mass-casualty-producing event, which in fact, then begins to unravel the fabric of our Constitution."

This has been the fear we have lived with since 9/11 -- that we are one catastrophic attack away from martial law and the end of our constitutional form of government. And when an Army general and a liberal philosopher end up sounding the same notes regarding the health and resilience of our democratic institutions, there is cause for concern.

That concerns grows when one considers how diligently the Bush administration has worked over the past six years to pave the way for martial law.

Look at the record. The Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed by Congress just days after the 9/11 attacks, allowed President Bush to proclaim that the entire world, including the United States, was a battlefield in the so-called global war on terror. In addition, as a "wartime president," Bush has the power to ignore laws passed by Congress if he believes those laws interfere with his role as commander-in-chief.

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The PATRIOT Act followed just a few weeks later, and undermined much of the Bill of Rights. During this period the Bush administration began a campaign of illegal surveillance on Americans, all done without court warrants or judicial review. Also during the period was the rewrite of policies regarding detention and torture of so-called "enemy combatants."

In 2002, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft sought to create a mass network of millions of citizen spies. Operation TIPS, as it was called, was curtailed by Congress, but it still more or less functions in a slightly different form today.

Last October, hidden within the Military Commissions Act -- the legislation that repealed the right of habeas corpus -- was another provision that gives the president the power to take control of the National Guard in all 50 states, even if the governors in those states object, in the event of a national emergency. The legislation also gives the president the right to use active-duty military units for police-type functions within the United States.

In May, the White House released what it called a National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive for how the federal government would respond to a "catastrophic emergency."

This directive states that if the president determines that a catastrophic emergency has taken place -- loosely defined as "any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy or government functions" -- the president would have the power to take over all government functions until the emergency is declared over.

In other words, a dictatorship.

While few were paying attention, all the ingredients for martial law have been quietly put into place. All these things seem hypothetical for now, but one event -- say, another terrorist attack -- could put everything in motion.

Are our democratic institutions strong enough to withstand the pressure they would be put under in the event of an attack? Can we resist the urge to throw what's left of the Constitution out the window? Can we trust our leaders to preserve our system of government, or will we allow them to take total control in the name of our national security?

These are important questions to ask, not just of the current occupants of the White House and Congress, but also to those who are running for public office. The threat of martial law in the United States is real enough that it should be taken seriously and all Americans need to be aware of the possibility that it could happen here.


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