March 22, 2019

Is the Patriot Act Unpatriotic?

Republican presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul had an interesting exchange at the National Security Debate hosted by CNN on November 22nd. Not surprisingly, Gingrich supported the Patriot Act, going so far as to say that it should be “strengthened.” Paul argued that “the Patriot Act is unpatriotic,” because the legislation undermines American liberties. He thinks it should be abolished. Both men did well making their points and each got enthusiastic applause from their supporters. But who was right?

At first glance, it might have seemed as if Paul had stumbled into a “gotcha” by bringing up Timothy McVeigh. In supporting his assertion that one must never give up liberty for security, Paul argued that Timothy McVeigh, the terrorist who blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, was prosecuted, convicted, and executed under the existing laws, without the “tools” that the Patriot Act provides to law enforcers. Gingrich replied:

“Timothy McVeigh succeeded. That’s the whole point. Timothy McVeigh killed a lot of Americans. I don’t want a law that says after we lose a major American city, we’re sure going to come and find you. I want a law that says, you try to take out an American city, we’re going to stop you.”

Paul responded:

“This is like saying we want a policeman in every house, a camera in every house, because we want to prevent child beating and wife beating. You can prevent crimes by becoming a police state. So, if you advocate the police state, yes, you can have safety and security and you might prevent a crime, but the crime then will be against the American people and against our freedoms and we will throw out so much of what our revolution was fought for. So don’t do it so carelessly.”

It is likely that uncommitted observers – those not passionately for Paul or Gingrich – thought that both men made good points and that the right answer is “somewhere in the middle.” To be moderate is always viewed as being more reasonable. But is that really true? I believe that the question debated here between Paul and Gingrich is a fundamental question and compromise is impossible. To use a well-worn but appropriate cliche, Gingrich wants America to cross the Rubicon. Once we do, there is no going back.

The crux of the matter is preemptive government. Not just preemptive war, but the ability of the government to act preemptively in any situation. Paul takes the libertarian position that is based upon the non-aggression principle. Government force may never be employed against anyone until that person has invaded the person or property of another. Gingrich takes the more Hobbesian-conservative position: if the government is not all-powerful, we will all be killed.

If “patriotic” means the love of one’s country’s ideals, the highest being liberty for Americans, then you have to agree with Paul. That’s because not only is non-aggression the libertarian position, it’s the founding principle underlying the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. The meaning of the word “liberty” is to be free from coercion, which is free from other people initiating force against you. Once the government or anyone else is legally empowered to do so, rather than limited to responding with force in defense against an aggression that you’ve already committed, then liberty as Thomas Jefferson understood it is gone.

Non-aggression is the concept expressed in the statement that “no person shall be…deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” In other words, the government can’t use force against you until it is not only asserted but proven that you have committed an aggression against the person or property of someone else.

If you’re reading this to mean that the government is powerless against individuals until after they’ve committed a crime, then you’re correct. That is the price of liberty and there really is no way to compromise it. Force must always be initiated by someone. To be free means that it is never initiated against the innocent, at least not with the endorsement of the law. A person is innocent until they actually commit a crime. You cannot prosecute someone for what might be in his mind – at least not in a free country. As Paul argued, once you throw out the principle of liberty, you have invited the police state, complete with ubiquitous surveillance, unwarranted searches, curfews, and the rest. It is astounding how much of it is already in place in a nation that calls itself “the land of the free.”

The obvious concern with this line of reasoning is that it would seem that to be free, one must set oneself up as a sitting duck for criminals and terrorists, powerless to resist them until it is too late. Ed Meese cited the “42 terrorists attacks, amied at the United States…thwarted since 9/11,” and went on to say, “Tools like the Patriot Act have been instrumental in finding and stopping terrorists.”

I don’t know how Meese arrived at that number, but it doesn’t jibe with reality. I suspect that it includes all of the entrapment schemes that have been perpetrated by federal law enforcement officers, whereby an undercover agent poses as a terrorist and approaches a mentally unstable person for the purpose of convincing him to participate in a phoney terrorist plot. Once the hapless “terrorist” agrees, the undercover agent arrests him and charges him with a crime.

All of the attempted terrorist attacks that the American public know about since 9/11 have defeated the Patriot Act and other security “tools” insituted since that crime was committed. The shoe bomber and the underwear bomber were both overpowered by private citizens acting in their own defense, after the would be terrorists had defeated the security measures within the Patriot Act and the TSA. Even on 9/11, with the federal government already in charge of security, albeit without the “tools” of the Patriot Act, the only crime that was prevented was the one that would have been perpetrated using Flight 93. Again, it was private citizens acting in their own defense and defense of their neighbors that thwarted the attack. While they were unsuccessful in defending their own lives, they prevented the loss of many, many more.

This illustrates another fundamental element of liberty – the right of each person to be allowed to provide for their own defense. The right and duty of each individual to defend themselves to the best of their ability replaces absolute power in the hands of the government. Consistent with this idea, Paul has been a staunch advocate of the 2nd amendment, while Gingrich, although he supports the right to bear arms in rhetoric, also voted for the Lautenburg Gun Ban and the Criminal Safezones Act, sponsored by Nancy Pelosi.

Gingrich tries to qualify his position on the Patriot Act by drawing a conceptual line between criminal law enforcement and national security. He says that “criminal law – the government should be on defense and you should be innocent until proven guilty. National security – the government should have many more tools in order to save our lives.”

In other words, if the government decides that “national security” is threatened, you are  no longer innocent until proven guilty. He also says that Americans must “build an honest understanding that all of us will be in danger for the rest of our lives.”

Do the math.

This exchange between Paul and Gingrich represents a fundamental choice that the American people have to make. They can take personal responsibility for their security and take power back from the federal government or they can hand unchecked power to the federal government along with their liberty. There is no “centrist” or “moderate” position, because once the principle is conceded, liberty is gone.

As Benjamin Franklin warned, the choice between liberty and security is a false one. No, there were not nuclear weapons in 1755, but to think that the existence of nuclear weapons changes the principle is counterintuitive. Franklin spoke those words in 1755 because the same choice existed then as now. Those who sacrifice liberty in the hopes of greater security deserve neither and will get neither. The most immediate threat to one’s security is always the closest one – the government itself.

In deciding who was right in this debate, Americans are really deciding whether liberty is something they cherish or whether Franklin, Jefferson, Adams and the rest were wrong. If they were wrong or if we’ve decided that there is something fundamentally different today that trumps those timeless principles, let’s at least dispense with the notion that we live in the “land of the free.” At the next sporting event, let the singer end with “o’er the land of the secure, and the home of the safe.” It may not be pleasing to the ear, but neither is Gingrich’s plan for a “secure” America.

Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.

© Thomas Mullen 2011

Fighting For Our Freedom?

iraq warTo even question the active wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the now-institutionalized worldwide military empire being maintained by the U.S. government draws tourrettes-like attacks from all who identify themselves as conservatives.  Not only are critics of U.S. foreign policy accused of being unpatriotic or even traitorous, but conservatives routinely go so far as to label them ungrateful.  The argument goes that critics of the empire enjoy the freedom of speech with which they criticize the government only because the military has fought to defend that freedom.  Therefore, those who oppose the present wars or our military presence around the world should be ashamed of themselves for “biting the hand that feeds them.”

Of course, this argument rests upon an assumption.  The assumption is that if the U.S. had not fought any of its past or current wars or had not maintained its military presence around the world, that we would have lost some or all of our freedom.  This fundamental assumption is never questioned (or I suspect even considered) by supporters of U.S. foreign policy, despite the fact that it completely disintegrates under even superficial examination.

Let’s give conservatives WWII for now, Pat Buchanan’s interesting arguments notwithstanding.  Is there any credible argument to be made regarding any of the major wars that the United States has waged since 1945 wherein one could conclude that not fighting it would have resulted in a loss of freedom for Americans?  What chain of events can any reasonable person construct whereby U.S. citizens would have lost their freedom if not for the invasions of Korea, Viet  Nam, Afghanistan, or Iraq?

The first two post-WWII wars were justified for ostensibly the same reason.  We supposedly had to prevent the communist governments of North Korea and North Viet Nam from taking over South Korea and South Viet Nam, respectively, because if we did not, communism would spread like a virus throughout all of Asia and eventually the world.  This was the so-called “Domino Theory.”  While anyone with a globe that is more or less correctly scaled can see through the ridiculousness of the argument in terms of Korea, one need not even resort to conjecture to refute this argument regarding the Viet Nam war.  History has shown in its case that the domino theory was completely untrue.

North Viet Nam did take over South Viet Nam.  The U.S. pulled out of Viet Nam in defeat and the very outcome that the U.S. had spent 14 years, the lives of 50,000 U.S. soldiers, and hundreds of billions of dollars attempting to prevent came to pass.  The communists took over all of Viet Nam.

Did American citizens lose any freedom as a result?  No.  In fact, as young men were no longer conscripted into the army to participate in this futile exercise, anti-war protestors were no longer being suppressed, and a huge chunk of government spending was eliminated (in theory, anyway), Americans were actually far freer once the war was lost than they were while it was being fought.

There is no argument to be made, no matter how far logic is stretched or how much disbelief is suspended, that Americans lost any freedom as a result of the loss of the Viet Nam war.  Therefore, the assertion that the troops fighting it were “fighting for our freedom” must be false.

Moreover, communism didn’t spread like wildfire beyond Viet Nam. After approximately 12 years, it imploded there just as it did in China at about the same time.  In the mid-1980’s, the Vietnamese began transitioning to a market economy, just as China did.  Today, both countries are arguably as capitalist as the United States, which unfortunately isn’t saying much.

As for Korea, the most generous conclusion one could come to regarding the “fighting for our freedom” theory is that the jury is still out – sixty years later.  U.S. troops are still stationed at the 38th parallel, supposedly keeping the communist barbarians from taking over South Korea as a stepping stone to the rest of the world.  Here speculation is certainly necessary, but not random speculation.  While it certainly would not be a postive outcome for South Koreans, can anyone seriously argue that if North Korea took over South Korea tomorrow that American freedom would be lost or even noticeably diminished?  How?

Fast forward 25 years and consider the present war in Iraq.  That war was started based upon on the assertion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that it was preparing to use against its neighbors to destablize the Middle East.  Let’s pretend for a moment that this assertion was not proven completely false.  Exactly how would another war in the Middle East, which would presumably resemble Iraq’s ten-year war with Iran, jeapordize the freedom of American citizens?  What cause and effect relationship could possibly be established between Middle Eastern politics and American freedom?  This question has to be answered before the “fighting for our freedom” assertion can be proven.

There is only one answer: none.  The Middle East has been unstable for thousands of years, and freedom has come and gone for countless western nations regardless of political devleopments in the Middle East, with the exception of the actual invasions of Western Europe by Muslim nations in the Middle Ages.  Those were ultimately defeated.  Certainly today the Middle Eastern nations pose no military threat to Europe, much less the United States.  To assert that Afghanistan could possibly threaten American freedom borders upon the absurd.

Putting the active wars aside for the moment, any objective observer would be even harder pressed to conclude that the U.S. military presence in the other 135 countries in which the U.S. maintains troops is contributing anything toward American freedom.  Can anyone seriously argue that if the U.S. government were to remove the 56,000 troops presently stationed in Germany that American freedom would somehow be jeopardized?  How?  The same question applies to  the 33,000 troops in Japan, the 10,000 in Italy, and so on.  There is simply no reasonable argument to be made that Americans would be one iota less free if all of these troops were to come home.

Warfare conducted for any purpose other than defending the borders of the nation does not make Americans freer.  On the contrary, it destroys freedom without exception.  More of Americans’ property is confiscated in taxes to support warfare.  Freedom of speech is curtailed.  Opponents of the war are rounded up and imprisoned or exiled.  Privacy is destroyed by the government in search of enemy spies or saboteurs.  These destructions of freedom have occurred during every war that the United States has ever fought, including all of the wars of the past 60 years.

Furthermore, America’s vast military presence in countries where no active war is being fought also results in less freedom for Americans.  Regardless of the public relations efforts of the U.S. military establishment, foreign troops are universally regarded the same way by the citizens of countries where they are stationed: they are resented.  This resentment breeds terrorism in some countries and other forms of protest in others.  Americans traveling abroad are much less free in what they can do, where they can safely go, and where they are welcome because of resentment born of U.S. troops stationed in foreign nations.

As Randolph Bourne famously observed, “war is the health of the state,” and the state is the enemy of freedom.  America was founded upon the idea that the state was “at best a necessary evil” and that there was an inverse relationship between war and liberty.  James Madison wrote that if “tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy. No Nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”  History has proven him correct.  In the post-WWII era, the wars have become more numerous and longer and government has grown exponentionally.  With the expansion of war and the state, freedom has diminished.

This is not an argument for pacifisim or against the actual soldiers.  We live in a world with other nations that pose a threat to our lives and liberty and there must be some means to defend ourselves against an aggressor nation.  Whatever their reasons for joining, the men and women who serve in our miltary do make a huge sacrifice.  The overwhelming majority of them serve honorably both on the battlefield and off.  They join believing that they are defending our nation and freedom and the blame for our foreign policy does not rest with them.  A military force cannot function with each of its members questioning every order before carrying it out.  They have an obligation to disobey an order which is obviously immoral, such as shooting a non-combatant or torturing a prisoner, but beyond situations like those they must carry out their orders without question.  They place a sacred trust in their civilian leaders to deploy them only when it is absolutely necessary.

It is those civilian leaders who have violated that trust over and over again for the past sixty years.  It is they who have not supported our troops, spending their lives like so much loose change in wars that have been fought for everything but freedom.  They have sent them to countries that pose no military threat to the United States whatsoever and then tied their hands with rules of engagement that, whether intentionally or not, have prolonged those wars for years and even decades.  There can be no greater insult to the honor of brave soldiers than to exhort them to give their lives defending freedom when in fact freedom is not at issue in the war.

The United States government is broke.  It has accumulated a debt that can never legitimately be repaid.  While entitlement programs are ultimately far more economically destructive, costing over twice as much as U.S. military adventures, the $700 billion annual military budget is the next largest contributor to the deficits.  Of that $700 billion, less than $200 billion is spent fighting the two current active wars.  An active war should represent the high water mark of government spending, yet most of our military expenditures go to support standing armies in places like Germany and Japan.

It is evident that the military could be downsized by orders of magnitude without jeapordizing U.S. security in the least.  In fact, the U.S. would be far more secure without troops in 135 countries inspiring resentment against Americans and fighting wars against nations that could not launch a military attack against the United States in anyone’s wildest dreams.  Most importantly, the lives of hundreds of thousands of our troops, their opponents, and the innocent civilians in the countries that they fight in would be spared.

The gargantuan U.S. military establishment survives because American soldiers and civilians continue to accept the assertion that it is necessary to preserve our freedom.  This assertion is at best a destructive delusion and at worst an insidious lie, told by people who care nothing for our troops or the civilians they defend.  It is time to stop believing the lie and to truly support our troops.  Bring them home.

Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.