"People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people."
- Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
"We are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia."
- George Orwell, 1984
This is how it begins. I'm not talking about this today, I'm talking about this past 5 years, give or take. This is how it begins in the great cautionary tales. In the great cautionary tales, a catastrophe occurs, a devastation which shocks a casual and free people into a constant, overwhelming fear of their own inevitable demise. They rally, and they empower their government to protect them. Quaking from fear, they nod in the affirmative when their leaders tell them that this new extension of power is necessary for their protection, or that new suppression of liberty closes a doorway where evil might have entered. When it comes time to elect new leaders, the government reminds the people of the catastrophe, of the war, of the devastation, and of how they have kept the people safe since that time. The fear in the people surges again, and the leaders keep their place, continue to expand their power, and slowly (not suddenly, not shockingly, but insidiously, creeping like a shadow across the afternoon and into twilight) what was a free people whose government answered its dictates becomes an unfree people, bound by the dictates of a government whose perpetuity is guaranteed by a cultivated fear of what might occur should the iron bars of fascism be removed.
I'm not saying that we are living in a world as envisioned (in one of those great cautionary tales) by Alan Moore, where that catastrophe was generated purposefully to lead us to this place. I'm not saying things have progressed so far that the only way to change course is through anarchy and rebellion, masks and murder (Alan Moore again). But we must be aware of where we are, of the crossroads at which we now stand.
Our leadership, the administration of President George W. Bush, tells us we are at war. We are at war with Terror, with Al Qaeda. Fortunately, says our President, we have broken Al Qaeda's back -- it is not as powerful as it once was. We should be proud of our Victory -- we should take heart that total Victory is inevitable. Still, he says, oblivious to self-contradiction, it is a highly dangerous organization, capable of great devastation, so we need to continue our war, even as it takes us into other countries, as it pits us against other sovereign governments. What's more, our war against this specific organization and our efforts in those other countries has created splinter groups similar to Al Qaeda, but with few direct ties to them. As long as any of these groups exist, we will be at war. Every time we attack these groups, more are created. For each terrorist we kill, six more rise. We will never back down. We will never change tactics. We are at war with Terror. We have always been at war with Terror. We will always be at war with Terror.
In addition, war places burdens on the people. The people must sacrifice some freedoms in order to protect themselves. The government must extend its power beyond the normal interpretations of the law in order to protect its people in this time of war. Actions which may be unthinkable in peacetime are necessary in wartime. International agreements which had been made in the past may have to be bent, even discarded, in order to protect ourselves. Presidential powers are at their zenith during wartime, and the Executive must be given broad discretion in order to do whatever it can to protect all of us, lest the protection fail and we regret any possible action, legal or no, that it did not take.
So that you don't think I'm overreacting, that I'm over-dramatizing, you should know that last statement is not woven of fantasy, of Orwell and Moore and Huxley -- it is a more or less direct quote from Alberto Gonzales at this morning's congressional hearings on President Bush's secret and illegal domestic spying program. When congress worries that, even though a legal path for this type of surveillance (through an extraordinarily permissive, speedy, even retroactive, if need be, process) exists, the President chose to ignore that path and proceed outside the law, Attorney General Gonzales answers that a) during wartime, the President can do pretty much whatever he deems necessary, provided it is intended to protect our nation and b) if the president did not do this, and we were attacked, we'd regret that we had not spied on our own citizens. When asked to point out where any legal language specifically grants the President the right to order surveillance of American citizens without court-approved just cause (since so much legal language specifically prohibits it), Gonzales answers "nowhere specifically," but points again to the zenith of executive power during wartime.
We are at war with Al Qaeda. We will always be at war with Al Qaeda.
As long as we allow our leaders to cow us with threats of "Weapons of Mass Murder" (the new monicker used by President Bush in his most recent State of the Union Address) and so long as we allow our leaders to perpetuate the idea that we are at war with an elusive, ultimately unkillable enemy, we will be the captives of our fear. We will be caged by our own democracy, so cleverly manipulated by half-truths and near-lies and doublespeak. We are at war with Terror. Fascism and democracy are not incompatible, we find, so long as the people can be convinced to vote for the fascists. These things which seep through the cracks in the wall of celebrity news and outrage over mendacious authors -- the Jack Abramoffs and Valerie Plames, the Tom Delays and the Robert Steins, the Samuel Alitos and the domestic surveillance -- these things are only symptoms of a larger problem. Of the larger problem. Our leaders have decided that the totality of their power, and the perpetuation of that power, is more important than the free will of a democratic people.
We have the chance to remove these leaders, some of them, to shake off the fear which paralyzes us, to peer around the wall of lies to find what might become, with deeper investigation, the beginnings of the truth. This year is an important year, as will be all the years after it. Let's not waste our chance.