Bush authorizing his own brand of terror

Published: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 12:11 a.m.

Unlike the "heart of America" as depicted in the monolithic press, my heart was among the number that shrank when President Bush proclaimed his "War on Terror."

Every falling bomb on the miserable, hapless, defenseless territory of Afghanistan shrank it more. It may shrivel to nothing when the bombs and missiles start to blast Iraq.

I fly the flag as proudly as anyone. My skin tingles and my heart races when the national anthem plays. Why, then, am I so un-moved, so unbeguiled by Bush's war whoops?

First, Bush's "War on Terrorism" is plainly a political contrivance. Its goal is to overcome the ordinary American aversion to military adventurism with fear and flag-wrapped patriotism.

Second, America has scant history of being the first to open hostilities.

Third, and most important, is the total void of introspection about why "Terror" has attacked America.

Is Terror some evil incarnate that suddenly appeared in robes and turbans as Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein? Has it no rationality but to wreak havoc in the West? Does it spring from no deep wound that it perceives our government and culture have inflicted upon its hallowed sanctuaries? In short, has it no internal justification and morality?

Bush has not evidenced the slightest acknowledgment of these questions, much less sought to answer them.

My heart tells me, "Terror has legitimate grievances," that Terror has not mindlessly attacked America without suffering, in its own mind, an intense sense of overwhelming and frustrated provocation.

But what is it? I am quite sure that the Sept. 11 bombings are as righteous to Terror as the threatened bombing of Iraq is to Bush. In each case, the violence is against symbols - innocent of themselves but stand-ins for the presumed threats to "us" from "them."

Risks to us we see more clearly every day; the Bush administration is redefining our nation as "fortress America" in the garb of Homeland Security. But, what risks to "them" from "us" has Terror lashed out against? Public dialogue tells us nothing.

Bush thinks "we" can knock out of Iraq in a short and brutal assault. No thought is given to the devastated civilization. Terror thinks it will win a bloody campaign ground out body by body over a long period of time. The very purpose is to change the culture.

Still, what "American" qualities have goaded Terror to make war on us? Protecting life and liberty is aspired to universally. Defending home, family and faith is even more elemental. Does not Terror cherish these things as much as we?

America has an immense economy and invincible planes, ships, bombs and missiles to make its points. Terror has only, well, terror. Why does it surprise us then - much less outrage us - that a foe uses its best weapons when we exult in the power of our own?

Our American constitutional government possesses a critical feature that separates it from most parliamentary democracies. We, the people, elect governments for fixed terms and must suffer even failed governments as they run their constitutional courses. By contrast, in many parliamentary democracies, failed governments are ousted and pre-emptorily replaced.

This constitutional stability profoundly affects the way people think about government. We Americans are prone to identify the "government" in its constancy with the content of the Constitution and even with the ideals of the American people. This is a false and dangerous identity. In bad times, cynical leaders are prone to exploit this misidentification to garner support for quite un-American actions.

American governments - as all others - are inherently corruptible. In its most virulent expression, governmental corruption demonizes its critics as unpatriotic - even unAmerican. This is but a pretext for destroying them.

America's genius is not its possession of the best bombs and bravest soldiers, but is a constitutional structure to control governmental abuses and excesses. During the past two centuries, our constitutional system has controlled the oppressive tendencies of our governments better than most the Earth has seen - perhaps the very best.

But even America has had its failures. Our government began nationhood encumbered with slavery. It demonized the Indians (scalp-taking "savages") to make palatable the occupation of their lands, suppression of their liberties, destruction of their cultures - and slaughter of their braves. Vietnam and its "gooks" are too painful to need refreshing. Bush's "War on Terror" is but the latest attempt of an American government to demonize an enemy it wishes to attack.

Every government fears and despises revolutionaries. But this administration has forgotten that the founders of our nation were true revolutionaries. Foremost of their fervent claims was the right to govern themselves free of overseas fetters. Yet, Bush has dared to claim authority to make war on Iraq to install a government agreeable to him.

At one stage, Bush asked the news media to squelch Terror's statements and to refuse to communicate them directly to the American people. Terror itself could not have made a more blatant attack upon American ideals. Key to the First Amendment is not the simple notion that any fool may speak as he pleases. The Constitution guarantees the people a marketplace of ideas from which ultimately the truth has the best chance to emerge.

When an American administration pronounces that ideas it opposes should not be heard, then that government has assailed an essential premise of the Constitution. Likewise, when it dictateso how other peoples shall govern themselves, then it has impugned an American ideal. Self-determination was good enough for our American forebears, but it is bad for nations with governments that our current government disapproves.

American administrations have shown no compunction to take innocent lives. Who can compute how many innocent civilians will die in Iraq if the threatened war goes on?

These deaths are "collateral" damage; the administration says, and even suggests that they are self-inflicted. After all, the so-called victims have been unwilling to overthrow a regime that the administration opposes.

As now fought, we must reject the administration's "War on Terror" as a war on American ideals of free inquiry, free speech, free debate and self-determination. We must reject Bush's impending launch of terror against Iraq as senseless destruction of innocents designed only to intensify Terror's hatred of America and productive of nothing good.

We must continue to show our American colors and defend life, liberty, property, pursuit of happiness, freedom of speech, freedom of press and religion, self-determination, individual accountability, and righting wrongs through orderly and just processes of law.

We must oppose all terrorism. Terrorism sponsored by an American administration is no holier than Terror's own version. An American missile out of the blue is no less terrifying than a terrorist maniac's cardboard cutter. It is worse because it deeply offends the genuine meaning of what America is - or was - about.

Joe Little is a professor of law at the University of Florida. This column was adapted from a talk that Little gave to the annual meeting of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on Nov. 20, 2002, in Gainesville.

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