Occasionally I venture into areas of debate that are slightly out of my realm of expertise. This was certainly the case when I started drawing comparisons between the “Cold War” and the “War on Terror” in this post. (My BA after all is in religious studies, not US history.) Lucky for me, I had just the guy to turn to for help in fleshing out my thoughts: my old buddy Discomustachio. He used to host a blog with a political bent similar to JSL called “Whydontyourelax”. It was funny and always informative and able to deliver a harsh reality in a matter-of-fact and digestible manner. About a year or so ago, he and I were out bar-hopping our way through Bridgeport and I was schooled (in the most welcome way) on the manner by which political remnants of the cold war still play a role in international policy. So clearly, when I started thinking about parallels between the Cold War and the War on Terror, I knew I had the guy to talk to. But rather than talking it out and regurgitating his thoughts, I asked him to write a guest post for me. So here it is:
The Return of Discomustachio…
The Jobsite Liberal asked me some time ago to address the question of how our rights as citizens and our government’s ability to infringe on those rights have differed from the Cold War to the modern era. Due to the endless distractions that life throws at you I never really had any time to really devote to this. And then at work one day I got a fresh cup of coffee, decided to take a break (from working), and decided to have a “one-off” with this topic. So here’s a 20 minute ramble on a word doc…
In comparing the relationship of US citizens to their government and how it compares to different periods of our history deemed “crucial” or “special” it’s important to remember that, historically, this current period is like any other time in our history. The rights that we are allowed by our government and their willingness to infringe on those rights may differ depending on the threat but they will always try to balance the need to protect the nation with staying in keeping with the moral foundation of our nation’s commitment to liberty and justice. But ensuring the continuation of the system is always the mission – even if it means a certain percentage of citizens are rightfully or wrongfully denied their rights. Publicly the government may drone on about individual liberty and the rights of citizens. But in the end, as Dick Chenney once said, “Moral principle is meaningless if you lose,” (which may well be the only thing he’s ever said that I agree with).
So consider for a moment the threats we have faced over, say, the last 50 years. People in today’s world often forget that in the Cold War years the threat to the nation was complete. It was irreversible if realized. It was all encompassing and it was systemic. A nuclear war with the Soviets was something that could not be tolerated. So, helping them was seen as the true measure of violating your relationship to your country if you were a citizen. From the government’s stand point, simply helping the Soviets could tip the balance of power, encourage them to choose general nuclear war if they felt they had a true first strike advantage, and render all principles the US supposedly adhered to meaningless as it crumbled under the weight of nuclear destruction. The need to curtail citizens’ rights were premised on preventing this eventuality; the balance needing to be struck between allowing citizens the power of constructive dissent all while ensuring the republic survives – primarily by keeping the global balance of power in place. Of course it was easy to misuse this understanding in order to further different agendas that may run counter to the spirit of allowing citizens their freedom. Consider the endless accusations by Segregationists in the American south calling MLK a Communist and arguing that his prevention from participating in public life was actually good for social order. Back then the aim of Southern White Supremacists was to prevent Black Liberation. Sure, it was ludicrous to infer that the Civil Rights movement actually aimed to make Alabama Kazakhstan – but the endless accusations that activists like MLK were “Communists” played all too well into the prejudices of those who were against Black Liberation in the first place. Tying Black Liberation with Communism played into the public at larges’ understanding over the world they lived in, the space that they inhabited, and the threats the world posed to them as citizens. No one rightfully though that MLK or the Black Panthers would aid the Soviets in anything. But the simple subconscious association with pairing the two ideologies helped opponents of Black rights continue to disrupt Black progress wherever they could.
Fast forward to today and the relationship between security and rights needs to be more intrusive and focused because the nature of the threat is entirely different. Now that the US is the only dominant power in the world – the modern day Rome – it’s entirely true to argue that destabilizing the international system is the real threat. We are the reserve currency. We are the military stabilization force for Global Corporatism. Our position on the globe just in terms of shear geography provide us with an advantage that no other nation can dream of. At the same time, the threat to that system is much more diffuse and doesn’t require our nations complete destruction to alter the balance of power. Consider the aim of Al-Qaida, which is primarily to weaken the United States enough to force it to retreat from the world, which would then, in their best case scenario, allow Muslim nations a much larger say in global affairs as they would be united under some sort of modern day Caliphate. In order make that reality possible one need not saturate North America with nuclear missiles. Our complete geographic destruction doesn’t play into it. Instead, the application of hostile force to our systemic weak points is what drives Islamic militant strategy. So, because an American born cleric who’s publicly declared war on his nation of birth (as Alwaki did before getting his ass blown in half by a predator drone) can post YouTube videos encouraging other Muslim born Americans to conduct attacks on the United States, he becomes a threat because the level of what the system can tolerate and still function has been greatly reduced in a world run by the US. In the Cold War days someone getting on YouTube (had there been one) and advocating for the Soviet Union to launch a premeditated nuclear strike against NATO, or any hostile military move, would have been deemed nuts and would have hardly been considered a threat because unless he worked in the military his ability to aid that attack was nil. He wasn’t even a pawn in that great game. But in a world in which 3 or 4 Islamist fanatics, or right wing Christian fanatics, or left wing anarchist fanatics, can launch a cyber attack that would cripple the power grid indefinitely and cause a complete destabilization of the United States and the global system along with it, “protecting the rights of citizens” has to be measured against the ability of one single solitary citizens ability to destroy our system of government, making US moral principles meaningless as we all shoot each other trying to get the last can of soup from the Jewel Osco everyone has raided in the ensuing chaos.
Of course, misusing the understanding of these threats continues today just as it did in any other “pivotal” era of this nation’s history. Think of all of the times someone on Fox News screamed that liberals “wanted the terrorists to win” for simply questioning the rationale for invading Iraq, to say nothing of the evidence. Think of every time MSNBC screamed that George W Bush was a “dictator” despite his never actually infringing on anyone’s rights en masse. Sure, some folks got whisked off to Gitmo. Some folks had the NSA listen to their phone calls to relatives in Yemen. But those were not the actions of a dictator, just as killing American citizens who are actively aiding the terrorist enemy in Yemen via Predator drones is not dictatorial either (I’m talking to you, Rand “I love the sound of my own voice” Paul).
In the end, every individual citizen needs to figure out for themselves where they stand on issues regarding the rights of citizens vs. the need to protect the nation from those who wish for our destruction. To the individual citizen, the choice is clear. You want your rights protected and that’s the end. Depending on your understanding of “freedom” you will rationalize what you feel is acceptable. But that’s where the problem comes in doesn’t it? You may feel that you should have the freedom to stockpile massive amounts of automatic weapons in some sort of need to satiate your fear of some unspecified apocalypse. But, since you can take those weapons and give them to others who might want to conduct a mass casualty operation, like the Hutaree Militia in Michigan in 2010, are you not a threat to the system at that point? Are you not equipped to strike at the very same weak points that groups like Al-Qaida might target? The point is that whether or not you are some Christian Nationalist, or some hacker, or a US born Islamist, or just some guy, you have to reconcile the idea that we can’t live in a nation that protects the individual liberty of its citizenry in its entirety. You simply can’t protect the system by protecting every single solitary citizen’s rights. Those who are hostile to the system will take advantage of their rights in order to destabilize the system. What one must accept is that we can either live in our imperfect society that is filled with injustice and Have’s vs. Have Not’s, or we can exist in anarchy in a world filled with injustice and Have’s vs. Have Not’s. The difference between the two is simply that what the Haves and Have Not’s value in each system is drastically different. You can either choose to bitch and moan on your computer in air conditioning or fight for that last can of soup at the Jewel-Osco.