The courts are finally meeting their responsibility to defend the Constitution against the paranoid power grab by the Bush administration in “the War on Terror.” A federal court of appeals recently ruled that the government can’t arbitrarily target people and lock them up in jail without charges or legal defense. Yet there are still people who defend this practice out of fear of attack and, apparently, a belief in the infallibility of our government.
In a time of crisis, where an attack is imminent, our system of checks and balances, of proof and arguments about motive, may operate too slowly to prevent mass death. Like many people I am a fan of the television show “24,” whose elaborate plots turn on this very premise. In such cases, no sane person would argue against quick response; the Constitution is meaningless if there are no citizens alive to use it.
The Bush administration would have us believe that we are in a perpetual state of crisis, where attack is always imminent. It uses this “fact” as the justification for its draconian detainment of “enemy combatants” here and overseas, its blanket wiretapping of U.S. citizens, and its tinkering with the election system to keep “weak” Democrats from gaining too much power (at the heart of the U.S. attorney firings; see “caging lists”). There is no credible proof of this basic claim that has been presented to the American public; we are expected to take the government’s word for it (and constantly remember September 11, 2001 as the shining example of how we can be killed if we are not excessively vigilant).
The United States has faced far greater threats in its past. For example, if one considers the fraction of a population (rather than the absolute numbers) that can be killed, weapons of mass destruction are nothing new. The Constitution was created by people who had lived through some of the greatest peril our country has ever faced, and its controls on power have stood the test of a variety of wars where Americans were at significant risk of being killed. The Constitution has also dealt remarkably well with criminals, whose methods are not unlike those of terrorists.
To throw aside the most basic protections and concepts of the Constitution would require that, ultimately, we believe in the infallibility of those who are currently in power (that they accurately perceive the threat and can effectively deal with it). Such infallibility is something our Founding Fathers knew was impossible, an expectation more than backed up by our experience.