Shocks to the Constitution. (Comment)

By Cole, David | The Nation, April 14, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Shocks to the Constitution. (Comment)


Cole, David, The Nation


Spring officially began on Thursday, March 20, but the first real spring day in Washington was Saturday, a blindingly sunny day, flowers just beginning to peek out, the National Kite Festival occupying four blocks on the Mall, the remainder filled with carefree games of soccer and ultimate frisbee, couples basking in the sun and tourists sporting T-shirts and video cameras. If it weren't for the slightly stepped-up security at the Air and Space Museum, one would hardly know that we had just launched a war against a nation said to be threatening us with weapons of mass destruction.

The arrival of spring in Baghdad, by contrast, was marked by the kickoff of the Pentagon's "shock and awe" campaign, as more than 1,300 cruise missiles and bombs were launched at the city, beginning with what the New York Times called a "10-minute volley of almost biblical power." The stark contrast between living conditions in these two warring countries right now makes it seem almost selfish to sound alarms about civil liberties here at home. I can almost hear Donald Rumsfeld now: "Would you rather live in Baghdad?"

But if history is any guide, this is exactly the time to sound alarms. According to Francis Biddle, FDR's Attorney General during World War II, "The Constitution has not greatly bothered any wartime President." It's not clear that the Constitution greatly bothered George W. Bush during peacetime, but given the permanence of the "war on terrorism" and a "pre-emptive" national security strategy likely to make Iraq the first of a series of conquests, we may never find out.

War in America has always prompted government officials to adopt "preventive" measures that jettison principles of individual culpability, due process and political freedom. Punishing only the guilty seems suddenly antiquated in wartime, and procedures designed to protect the innocent seem dispensable luxuries. In prior wars, we have suspended habeas corpus, criminalized antiwar speech, locked up people because of their Japanese ancestry and indulged in guilt by association.

What this war will bring is anyone's guess. But the early signs suggest it may not be only the Iraqis who are shocked and awed. We were already at war with terrorism, of course, a war that has led to preventive detention, guilt by association, ethnic profiling and spying without criminal suspicion.

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