Saturday, January 28, 2006

Finding a Place for Joseph Ellis

Joseph J. Ellis struts his wisdom in "Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History":

"IN recent weeks, President Bush and his administration have mounted a spirited defense of his Iraq policy, the Patriot Act and, especially, a program to wiretap civilians, often reaching back into American history for precedents to justify these actions. It is clear that the president believes that he is acting to protect the security of the American people. It is equally clear that both his belief and the executive authority he claims to justify its use derive from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

A myriad of contested questions are obviously at issue here — foreign policy questions about the danger posed by Iraq, constitutional questions about the proper limits on executive authority, even political questions about the president's motives in attacking Iraq. But all of those debates are playing out under the shadow of Sept. 11 and the tremendous changes that it prompted in both foreign and domestic policy.

Whether or not we can regard Sept. 11 as history, I would like to raise two historical questions about the terrorist attacks of that horrific day. My goal is not to offer definitive answers but rather to invite a serious debate about whether Sept. 11 deserves the historical significance it has achieved.

My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic.

Here is my version of the top tier: the War for Independence, where defeat meant no United States of America; the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground; the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union; World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism; the cold war, most specifically the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility.

Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so.

My second question is this: What does history tell us about our earlier responses to traumatic events?

My list of precedents for the Patriot Act and government wiretapping of American citizens would include the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which allowed the federal government to close newspapers and deport foreigners during the "quasi-war" with France; the denial of habeas corpus during the Civil War, which permitted the pre-emptive arrest of suspected Southern sympathizers; the Red Scare of 1919, which emboldened the attorney general to round up leftist critics in the wake of the Russian Revolution; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which was justified on the grounds that their ancestry made them potential threats to national security; the McCarthy scare of the early 1950's, which used cold war anxieties to pursue a witch hunt against putative Communists in government, universities and the film industry.

In retrospect, none of these domestic responses to perceived national security threats looks justifiable. Every history textbook I know describes them as lamentable, excessive, even embarrassing. Some very distinguished American presidents, including John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, succumbed to quite genuine and widespread popular fears. No historian or biographer has argued that these were their finest hours.

What Patrick Henry once called "the lamp of experience" needs to be brought into the shadowy space in which we have all been living since Sept. 11. My tentative conclusion is that the light it sheds exposes the ghosts and goblins of our traumatized imaginations. It is completely understandable that those who lost loved ones on that date will carry emotional scars for the remainder of their lives. But it defies reason and experience to make Sept. 11 the defining influence on our foreign and domestic policy. History suggests that we have faced greater challenges and triumphed, and that overreaction is a greater danger than complacency."
What a good example of the sad state of education in the country. Mr. Ellis can't perceive the difference between an act and a process, he confuses acts of war with wars themselves, and he can't comprehend how differing states of technology might color the degree of differing threats. Does Mr. Ellis really have to be told, for instance, maybe by a student of his, that he should be comparing 9/11 with, say, Pearl Harbor, not with World War II?

And while I am at it, I might as well note a few other things.

Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus may look bad from here in our cozier present and knowing how the war turned out because, among other things, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, but it didn't look all that bad back then (except for Taney and those detained) and that policy looked good enough to Jefferson Davis for him to institute it also. In 1866, it was rescinded and freedom expanded.

I should also note that the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1898 were promulgated during Adams' Presidency at a time when, as Ellis notes, the US was embroiled in a quasi-war with France. Adams was trying to find a peaceful solution and was working feverishly to get a peace treaty signed. In the midst of this, cries for war rang loudest, (so much so he had to negotiate secretly) and the Vice President of the United States was, among other things, paying a newspaperman to savage the President in the press, just as he did during the earlier election contest between Adams and Jefferson. And remember, the Acts were not enacted by the president but passed by Congress and signed by the President. Adams held off the warhawks, with the help of the Acts, long enough to get the peace treaty signed with France, but the damage to Adams' reputation was enough that he lost reelection, though it helped that Hamilton, also a Federalist, conspired to have him lose. And even though the Alien and Sedition Acts were roundly despised, repeal took more than a year for some, while others were left to expire. But they did disappear.

But I will grant that in some respects, Mr. Ellis' consideration of threats, as cluttered in thinking as they are, has some merit. Certainly the danger to the Republic now is not as great as say, the secession of the Southern States or, if you grant nuclear annihilation as the distinct possibility, the Cuban Missile Crisis (though, at least, the Soviets worried about dying.) A less comprehensive nuclear strike than that possible from the Soviet Union of 1962, say a succession of nukes exploding here and there over a year, would be easily more survivable in contrast. The loss of life, too, would be less significant, particularly compared to the loss of life in some other areas of the world as a result of that second tier threat being acted out. In fact, the Republic would still be here even if everyone else in the world died and, as a bonus, our balance of payments deficit would drop to zero.

By the same token, let's do a little Ellis'ing ourselves. Let's put the Patriot Act and the still as yet undetailed and possibly hyped surveillance by NSA first reported by NYT's on an overreaction tier system, too. Compared to those you list, I'd put the Patriot Act not on the First Tier with those you list but rather on a Tier called "Innocuous" and the NSA surveillance on the Tier called "Do we know enough yet to break a sweat?"

So my tentaive conclusion is that your tentative overreaction to the the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance is a greater danger than your complacency, not of the terror threat, but in risking the lives of your fellow Americans because you let the ghosts and goblins of lost liberties get the best of you.

Thanks for the history lesson, Mr. Ellis. (Remind me to put Mount Holyoke's History Department on a Questionable Tier.)

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