“Constraint is Intolerable”

Andrew Bacevich, reviewing Jane Mayer’s new book The Dark Side:

That fear should trump concern for due process and indeed justice qualifies as a recurring phenomenon in American history. In 1919, government-stoked paranoia about radicalism produced the Red Scare. After Pearl Harbor, hysteria mixed with racism led to the confinement of some 110,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps. The onset of the Cold War triggered another panic, anxieties about a new communist threat giving rise to McCarthyism. In this sense, the response evoked by 9/11 looks a bit like déjà vu all over again: Frightened Americans, more worried about their own safety than someone else’s civil liberties, allowed senior government officials to exploit a climate of fear.

Although Mayer does not dwell on this historical context, her account suggests implicitly that the present period differs in at least one crucial respect. Whereas the earlier departures from the rule of law represented momentary if egregious lapses in democratic practice, the abuses orchestrated from within the Bush administration suggest that democracy itself is fast becoming something of a sham. From Mayer, we learn that in George W. Bush’s Washington, the decisions that matter are made in secret by a handful of presidential appointees committed to the proposition that nothing should inhibit the exercise of executive power. The Congress, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the “interagency process” — all of these constitute impediments that threaten to constrain the president. In a national security crisis, constraint is intolerable. Much the same applies to the media and, by extension, to the American people: The public’s right to know extends no further than whatever the White House wishes to make known.

h/t Laura Rozen

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