“Give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry defiantly declared at the
dawn of the American republic. In the light of recent comments from some of
America’s present-day leaders, it appears that Henry was laboring under a
misapprehension. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, responding to critics of President
Bush’s apparently illegal domestic spying program, has reminded us that “none of
your civil liberties matter much after you’re dead,” while Sen. Trent Lott
answered criticisms of the program from fellow Republicans by declaring, “I want
my security first. I’ll deal with all the details after that.”
Updated for contemporary use, Henry’s quote would read, “Give me liberty, or
give me a slight theoretical decrease in the already microscopic risk I face
from terrorism. On second thought, forget about liberty.” While this revised
version does not roll trippingly off the tongue, it captures the logic of the
Bush administration’s foreign policy.
This policy features a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, hundreds
of thousands of American soldiers are being ordered to risk their lives in Iraq,
while their families shoulder enormous emotional and economic hardships. On the
other, they’re required to do this while the leaders of a nation made up of what
our government seems to assume are hedonistic cowards emit squeaks of fear such
as those that escaped Sens. Cornyn and Lott last week.
In a democracy, this is an unsustainable policy. It’s both politically
impossible and morally disgusting to expect one group of Americans to exhibit
stoic courage and extreme self-sacrifice, while the rest of us are encouraged to
be fear-ridden compulsive shoppers who squeal with outrage when, for example,
it’s suggested that we might forgo a tax cut in order to pay to properly equip
the soldiers who protect us.
Indeed, no truly democratic politics can thrive under such circumstances. If
the cultural conditions that enabled the Iraq war were to last long enough, the
American military would gradually be transformed into a warrior caste that would
view the people they were ordered to protect with well-deserved contempt. Why,
after all, should the bravest among us continue to sacrifice for the sake of a
culture in which open cowardice isn’t considered shameful, and in which those
who claim “we” are fighting for freedom are only too happy to trade much of
their own freedom in exchange for making the already extraordinary safety in
which they live even more cocoon-like?
Fortunately, the American people are not, in fact, a bunch of hysterical
cowards who are willing to expose our soldiers to endless danger and hardship in
the hope that doing so will make us slightly safer. Nor are we willing to
sacrifice basic civil liberties every time some demagogue tries to frighten us
into submission with lurid tales of a potential Islamofascist empire that
supposedly threatens us with decapitation (See James Wolcott’s popular blog for
an amusing if disturbing analysis of the extent to which various “warbloggers”
indulge in sadomasochistic fantasies revolving around the horrible tortures that
terrorists would inflict on opponents of the war).
Thus a solid majority of Americans now oppose the Iraq war _ not, as some
would have it, because of an unwillingness to sacrifice, but precisely because
we are revolted by the absurdity of expecting boundless courage and sacrifice
from our soldiers so that none whatsoever should be required from ourselves.
“Courage,” remarked Samuel Johnson, “is reckoned the greatest of all virtues;
because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any
other.” It doesn’t seem to occur to those who tremble before the threat of
terrorism that terrorists only have power over the terrified.
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be
reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)