Give Up Freedom To Gain Perpetual War? No Thank You!
In times of conflict, when our country is at war, we are willing to tolerate such inconveniences, burdens, and abridgements of our rights and freedoms as are deemed to be necessary for the war effort. We recognize, in such times, that the good of our whole country must come first and that we must come together in support of those who are fighting on our behalf. Implicit in all of this, however, is the understanding that war is an exceptional circumstance and that the conditions of peace in which our rights and freedoms are not so curtailed are the norm.
This long-standing traditional consensus served us well down through the ages but in the last century it was torn apart by attacks coming from two different directions. While there have always been those who have defected from their society’s collective efforts in wartime in post-World War II conflicts these have occurred on a much larger scale as part of organized movements that have been driven by ideologies such as pacifism. From this direction the tradition that tells us to come together in unity when our country is at war has come under attack. The attack from the other direction is upon the tradition that tells us to make the conditions of peace the norm and it is this attack, and especially one particular form of this attack, that I wish to discuss here.
If the tradition under attack says that the conditions of peace in which the public are not overly burdened with rules and taxes and their customary rights and freedoms are not abridged are to be the norm then to attack this tradition is to say that the conditions appropriate for wartime are to be the norm instead. One way in which this occurred in the last century was that liberalism, the ideology that started in the so-called “Enlightenment” and came to dominate the Western world in the period known as the Modern Age, changed, at least in North America, in the period between the two World Wars. Until the First World War the ideas of John Locke, in which the need to protect the rights and liberties of the individual from the state was stressed, formed the most prominent strain in liberal thought. After the war the ideas of Jeremy Bentham, in which the role of the modern democratic state as the agent and instrument of utilitarian progress was emphasized, eclipsed those of Locke. The basis of this shift in liberal thought was the reasoning on the part of many liberals who served in administrative positions in the First World War that if the government can mobilize and organize society for the sake of the war effort in times of war then surely it can mobilize and organize society to achieve a better, more just, society in times of peace. This has certainly taken the liberty out of liberalism.
Another way in which governments, addicted to wartime powers, have resisted the tradition of reverting to the conditions of peace as the norm, has been to make conflict the norm rather than peace. About the time that liberalism underwent the shift described in the preceding paragraph liberals of the older type, including American historians such as Charles Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes, began to see a tendency in the foreign policy of the liberal American Presidents of the ‘30s and ‘40s towards holding up “freedom”, “democracy”, and “peace” as ideals while constantly mobilizing the country for war on behalf of those ideals. “Perpetual war for perpetual peace” was how Beard described this policy to Barnes, who borrowed the title for a anthology of essays he edited in 1953 that took a hard, critical, look at the policies of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. (1) Another of these older type liberals, who now called themselves libertarians, Murray N. Rothbard, observed that a “welfare-warfare state” had developed that both practiced the policy of perpetual war for perpetual peace and employed high levels of taxation, spending, and regulation for non-belligerent, progressive purposes in the Benthamite manner we have discussed. That a policy of perpetual war for perpetual peace could be used as a cover for collusion between military leaders and arms manufacturers for the sake of war profiteering on a whole new level made possible by the advent of mass production was a danger against which American President Dwight Eisenhower warned in his Farewell Address.
In the last decade and a half events have transpired that our governments have exploited to take the policy of perpetual war for perpetual peace to a whole new level.
Since the end of the Second World War the acknowledged leading country of the Western world has, for better or worse, been the United States of America. After the Cold War came to an end America and the West have become increasingly entangled in the conflicts of the Middle East. When, on September 11, 2001, the United States found herself the victim of a terrorist attack the American President at the time declared a “War on Terror”. As part of this “War on Terror” the American government created a powerful new agency, the Department of Homeland Security, charged with the task of preventing terrorist attacks on American soil, and the USA PATRIOT Act, which enhanced the investigatory powers of law enforcement and security agencies by removing such impediments as the need for a court order to search records, was rushed through Congress. Here in Canada Jean Chretien’s Liberals rushed similar legislation through Parliament in the form of the Anti-Terrorism Act of the fall of 2001.
The supporters of bills like these argued that they were necessary to remove obstructions that got in the way of security agencies and hindered them from doing their job of protecting us from the violence of terrorism. Critics and opponents of the same bills argued that these so-called obstructions were actually safeguards that protected Canadians and Americans against the misuse of government power and that to get rid of these safeguards is to abandon centuries of tradition, stretching back to before the founding of either the United States or Canada, in which these safeguards evolved to protect our rights and liberties, lives and persons. These critics were, of course, right. If we were to interpret every crisis that occurs as indicating a need for either enhanced government powers or a loosening of constitutional, prescriptive, and legal restraints on the use of government powers, very soon we would have an omnipotent state and no rights and freedoms worth speaking of.
Chretien’s Anti-Terrorism Act was no better. This Act utterly abandoned our country’s traditions of liberty and justice and allowed for people to be arrested and detained without charges, denied basic legal protections, and tried in secret without being guaranteed the opportunity to hear and respond to all the evidence against them, if the government were to determine them to be a threat to national security. This Act expired several years ago – legislation of this nature can only be enacted for five year periods – but, contrary to Kelly McParland’s claim in the National Post on February 2nd of this year, it did not expire without having been used. Among its other provisions was an amendment to the national security certificate provision of the Immigration Act that made possible an incident that was a shameful disgrace to our country.
An elderly man, who immigrated to Canada from Germany in the 1950s, who had never committed any violent crime here or elsewhere although he was the victim of terrorist attacks on the part of the followers of Rabbi Kahane, but who was repeatedly dragged through our courts for the “crime” of trying to spread the idea that accounts of atrocities committed by the other side in the Second World War still need to be revised to less resemble wartime propaganda, moved to the United States in order to escape this persecution. He married a woman there, applied for citizenship, and was arrested by United States Immigration who handed him over to our authorities, who issued a national security certificate against him. He was placed in solitary confinement and tried behind closed doors by a judge who refused to recuse himself, despite his obvious bias, and found guilty on the basis of evidence he was not allowed to hear in full, and was then sent to Germany, with our government knowing full well that the German government would arrest him upon landing, and sentence him to five years in prison for mere words that he said. This man, Ernst Zündel, was a noted admirer of a rather odious historical regime, but that did not make him a terrorist any more than Pierre Trudeau’s admiration for the even more odious Maoist regime in China, which, as was not the case with Zündel, was still around when Trudeau was doing the admiring, made the former Prime Minister a terrorist. It is certainly no excuse for treating the man with such blatant injustice.
Chretien’s Anti-Terrorism Act has, as we have noted, expired but our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, wishes to pass another one. Bill C-51, which has passed its second reading and been referred to the Standing Committee in the House, has several parts to it. The first, and the one most emphasized by the bill’s advocates and defenders, is the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act which tells other government agencies to share their information with those charged with protecting national security. This sounds reasonable at first, until you think about why government agencies were prevented from doing this in the first place. The fourth part is the one the bill’s detractors prefer to emphasize because it greatly enhances the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). The bill’s supporters say this is to reduce threats to Canadian security, its detractors say that it is to enable CSIS to better spy on Canadians. Other parts of the bill include the Secure Air Travel Act, which authorizes the creation of a no-fly list and otherwise ensures that airport security will be even more of an obnoxious pain in the buttocks than it already is, and various amendments to the Criminal Code including one that makes mincemeat out of the traditional right to confront and challenge your accuser in court in the euphemistic name of the “protection of witnesses”.
This bill is an abomination and the vote on it should be a pretty good litmus test as to how much respect for Canadians and their traditional rights and freedoms our Members of Parliament and Senators possess. The present government was elected by supporters who were sick and tired of the way the Liberal Party was overtaxing and overregulating Canadians while showing complete disregard for our traditions, rights, and freedoms. Why then is it determined to establish a surveillance state? It is rather ironic that the most active opposition to this bill in the House seems to be coming from the party whose members can never speak about freedom without sounding like a Cold War era apparatchik spouting off about “the freedom loving people of the Soviet Union”.
The fact of the matter is that the “war on terrorism” is the ultimate form of “perpetual war for perpetual peace”. The enemy in this war is not a foreign government, with its own territory, that can be decisively conquered, defeated, or destroyed. No matter how many Cato the Elders we may find to punctuate their speeches with “terrorismo delenda est”, we will never be able to produce a single Scipio Africanus to conclusively defeat terrorism, or an Aemilianus to raze its stronghold to the ground, and sow its fields with salt, that it may never rise again. It is not that kind of an enemy. Terrorism can pop up anywhere at any time. A war against terrorism is a war that can never end. A government that wishes to constantly retain its wartime powers and abandon the traditional understanding that peace is to be the norm, not war, could find no better means of accomplishing this end, than by declaring a war on terrorism, and passing bills like C-51.
(1) The title was reused by the late, left-libertarian novelist and essayist Gore Vidal, for a collection of essays similarly criticizing the policies of more recent administrations in 2002.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca