Compared to most of the other excesses and horrors in American history, though, those wartime ones were consistently ameliorated by one key fact: when the wars in question ended, so too did nearly all of the excesses. Habeas corpus was restored after the Civil War; the US stopped bombing European and Japanese cities after peace treaties were signed with those nations; the interned Japanese Americans were freed and allowed to return home; and so on. Such definite endpoints don’t of course make up for or erase the horrors that have come before, nor do they mean that the aftermaths and effects of the excesses don’t linger for decades or longer still (as any visitor to 21st century Dresden can attest), but nonetheless, a horrible and brutal past policy or action beats the heck out of a horrible and brutal continuing one. Moreover, these briefer wartime excesses are at least somewhat easier to recognize as the horrors they are than long-term and so more ingrained policies—as evidenced by the US government’s formal apology and reparations for the internment, only forty years after the war’s end, compared by the complete official silence on the century of institutional and legal support for segregation (in a wide variety of arenas) that followed the end of slavery.
I have plenty of problems with the way the US government specifically and Americans more broadly have responded to 9/11—with what has sometimes come to be called the 9/12 mindset—but certainly at the very top of the list would be the concept of the “war on terror.” Such a war would seem to be a parallel to other non-declared government wars—the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on crime—but in fact, both as the Bush administration intended the phrase and as it has been deployed and hardened over the last decade, the war on terror has been treated quite exactly like a full-blown, declared, shooting war. That means, again not surprisingly to anyone with a knowledge of American and human history, a whole range of excesses and horrors, from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib to the murders of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, from warrantless wiretapping and the darker corners of the Patriot Act to torture and extraordinary rendition to CIA black sites, and much else besides. But in this case, because the war is one that may well never end, so too is it difficult to imagine an end to the wartime excesses—if anything, the last few years seem simply to have added new and just as horrifying ones to the mix, including drone strikes and the idea that the president has the authority to assassinate American citizens with alleged terrorist affiliations.
To put it another way: Roosevelt responded to the attack on Pearl Harbor by terming December 7th, 1941 a “day that will live in infamy,” but when the war with Japan ended three and a half years later, much of that antipathy was forgiven; but when Americans say about 9/11 that “everything changed” and that we will “never forget,” the phrases seem more darkly and troublingly prophetic than we could ever have realized. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The text of Lincoln’s suspension: http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/historicdocuments/a/lincolnhabeas.htm
2) An eloquent op-ed on the war on terror by former Carter cabinet officer Zbigniew Brzezinski: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/23/AR2007032301613.html
3) OPEN: What do you think?
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