The Culture War of National Security
Why is Guantanamo still open? Why has there been no public accounting for the Bush Administration’s use of torture? Why does President Obama successfully claim the right to kill American citizens living abroad accused of terrorism, with only the flimsiest of “due process” protections?
And why do civil libertarians lose arguments of this sort time and again? In 2008, Obama ran as a civil liberties candidate against the Bush legacy; today, his policies on drone strikes, indefinite detention, and executive power have given that legacy a bipartisan sheen. True, Obama has disavowed torture; but his failure to authorize any investigation into the practice of torture has helped turn what Americans once universally regarded as a war crime into one more election-year football, akin to the auto bailout or the stimulus.
It’s easy, then, for civil libertarians to look at the last two administrations as a double failure: having done little to prevent the excesses of President Bush, they were also unable to stop a seeming ally from endorsing many of those same excesses.
But if the deck looks permanently stacked against civil libertarians’ most persuasive efforts, that isn’t anything new.
Recently, for instance, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald looked to ancient Roman history—the history that was constantly on the minds of America’s founders—for the origins of one of the strongest arguments against an expanding security state. It’s an argument about precedent: when you give expanded power to a leader you like for purposes you support, don’t be surprised when a future leader you oppose uses that same power for purposes you deplore.