TCS Daily

War Changes Men

By Nick Gillespie - November 18, 2002 12:00 AM

Let me begin my final post with the well-worn observation that war changes men. Apparently, the war on terrorism has led even rock-ribbed conservatives to wholeheartedly embrace new government programs and powers, mostly on the argument that they can't be that bad (would the same logic hold, one wonders, if Al Gore had emerged victorious from that long national nuisance otherwise known as Election 2000?). The discussion of war also apparently drives at least some conservatives to distraction. Hence, Jonah Goldberg characterizes my failure to rally around The USA Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security as the equivalent of selfishly arguing "that the small sacrifice of some liberty at home is not worth the alleviating of total oppression abroad."

My argument is quite different and, alas, far more modest: that laws such as the Patriot Act and new agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security are unnecessary and costly both in terms of money and potential for abuse. As such, they embody the starting point of this debate (Christ, that seems like ages ago!): Milton Friedman's statement that "War is often the enemy of freedom."

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If Jonah's some-small-liberty-for-the-alleviation-of-total-global-oppression deal was the one actually on the table, I'd personally resuscitate the stillborn Operation TIPS program and become the nosiest neighbor in America since Mr. Roper heroically tried to catch Jack Tripper in flagrante delicto on Three's Company. Hell, I'd even return my 2001 income tax refund and check off the box on my 1040 giving money to presidential candidates.

Nor am I particularly worried about "slippery slope-ism," if that means that once we start down a bad road - or a blind alley, for that matter - the only possible destination is the honeymoon suite in the basement of Orwell's Ministry of Truth, a complimentary cage of rats strapped to our faces. However, there's plenty of room for all sorts of lower-order encroachments and harassments that have precious little to do with fighting terror at home and abroad (the war on drugs, which has sanctioned many erosions of constitutional rights and bad public policies, may be particularly relevant here). Jonah doesn't think that weakening privacy laws, lessening the burden that federal agents need to meet to get warrants to investigate people from probable cause to mere suspicion, and a host of other post-9/11 changes matter much. I disagree, partly because of well-documented past abuses of wide-ranging police powers (COINTELPRO,
anyone?) and partly because the implications of the changes are hardly clear yet.

That flaming New York Times liberal William Safire has just reported on one such implication: The "Information Awareness Office," a $200 million Defense Department operation run by Iran-contra's "ring-knocking master of deceit," the "disgraced admiral" John Poindexter. Safire points out that absent any changes to the Homeland Security Act, the IAO will be authorized to create a computerized dossier on every U.S. citizen drawn from commercial, academic, medical, and other sources. The self-proclaimed goal is "Total Information Awareness" in the form of "a virtual, centralized grand database." Safire dubs this "the supersnoop's dream" and notes, "The Latin motto over Poindexter's new Pentagon office reads 'Scientia Est Potentia' - 'knowledge is power.' Exactly: the government's infinite knowledge about you is its power over you."

Safire concludes that "Political awareness can overcome 'Total Information Awareness'" just as it did for Operation TIPS. Which brings me to one of Jonah's large points from his previous post: "Nick argues that the government is today taking unnecessary measures... maybe he's right. But we correct mistakes in this country. Or at least we have the power to correct them."

He's right, of course. Yet Jonah seems a bit remiss in acknowledging how we correct them, which is through debates, declamations, and, on occasion, demonstrations. Jonah may groan at one more mention of Japanese internment, but surely our willingness to revisit such darker episodes is one way the past remains in the past. The peacetime draft, I should note, didn't disappear because the Pentagon suddenly realized after several decades that it was "militarily unnecessary." Nor did the original home page for the Operation TIPS go down the memory hole simply because the Bush administration had some sort of small-government epiphany after a late-night bull session.

As someone who has characterized the war on terrorism as a "low-grade version of the Cold War," I'm hardly a spokesman for the tinfoil hat crowd. Indeed, I've been attacked from both the right and the left - and even some apocalyptic libertarians - for being a little too happy and upbeat about the prospects for individual liberty in a post-9/11 world. Last December, Jonah himself castigated me (accurately) as "a voluptuary of the idea that we can all have individualized, designer cultures" and (strangely) laid some of the blame for John Walker Lindh at my feet.

But much as I'd like to - really - I can't share Jonah's apparent assumption that the federal government is always reliably competent, remarkably self-regulating, and relentlessly humble in its aspirations. If that were true, the FBI, for example, would have actually deployed the the counterterrorism staff it hired between 1997 and 9/11 to track down terrorists rather than "run-of-the-mill" criminals. There would have been no need to rein in agencies in the past. And outfits like the Information Awareness Office would be the bad joke they seem to be.

Even - especially - in times of war, we need as much transparency and accountability as possible from our leaders. Indeed, it's precisely when our government asks us to give something up - as they surely have over the past year - that it most needs our trust. All too many years of suspect behavior have left very little of that in reserve. War may change men, but it's not clear that it changes governments, even well-meaning ones. Which doesn't mean you don't fight necessary wars. It just means you fight them carefully and in full recognition of all the possible casualties.

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