None Dare Call It Hypothetical
In Washington, D.C., a local talk-radio host poses a provocative question: What if international terrorists were plotting a Super 9/11 that would kill not just 3,000 Americans mere childs play for these nuts but might wipe 30,000, 300,000, or even a city of 3,000,000 off the face of the planet? Would the president then be justified in a few technically illegal wiretaps to detect them in time? The question practically answers itself.
Come to think of it, what if a bunch of raghead Islamofascist suicide bombers got hold of a bomb that would destroy the entire world, blasting the planet into four or five huge chunks? And suppose the details of their plot were known only to a few long-haired, reefer-crazed, unpatriotic hippies who hated our way of life and werent talking. Wouldnt the president, in that case, be duty-bound to use interrogation techniques frowned on by the ACLU?
As Abraham Lincoln said, it may be necessary to sacrifice one provision of the Constitution in order to preserve the whole of it. The problem of saving the Union becomes even more urgent when you face the chance that various sections of the Union may wind up in different parts of the solar system. (But theres always a silver lining: The media would have to stop whining about global warming.)
In the unhappy event that our Mother Earth were violently sundered because President Bush didnt have time to get court authorization to rough up a few hippies for want of a nail, a horseshoe was lost, et cetera a few of the survivors, stranded on the wrong chunk, would still have to live under a Republican administration, listening to talk radio. And no doubt the president would continue to insist that it was still quite feasible to bring democracy to the Muslim world, even if this now required an interplanetary mission. He might also point out, with some justification, that withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, as the cut-and-run Democrats want to do, had just become an even greater logistical difficulty than before.
Or, to think outside the box for a moment, consider an even more chilling possibility: What if we had an arrogant moron in the White House who neither understood nor cared what the laws and the Constitution said, with his party controlling both houses of Congress? I admit this is a far-fetched example, but these are not normal times. Just try to imagine it. We cant be too careful.
Such are the stakes in the current debate over whether President Bush has acted ultra vires beyond his legal powers, even in violation of the Constitution he swore to uphold in ordering surveillance for what is called national security. His defenders appeal to the presidents implied powers, the right-wing answer to liberalisms penumbras formed by emanations as a device for infinitely elastic interpretations of plain words, words their authors mistakenly assumed anyone could understand, even an ordinary Yale graduate.
When the U.S. Constitution was written, Yale and Harvard were still little Christian colleges, not yet big universities; Benjamin Franklin was puttering with electricity, which nobody foresaw would transform home life, communication, and everything else; air travel was hardly even a dream; modern weapons of mass murder werent even imagined; and the first version of King Kong hadnt yet been filmed.
How could this quaint document have relevance to our world today? A fair question. Without treating it as Holy Writ, we can recognize that it embodied a sound principle: the division of power. Like an even older and quainter document, the Magna Carta, its distant ancestor, it recognized the danger of concentrating arbitrary power in the hands of too few men, especially one man. The narrow specifics differ, which is why each generations passions sound quaint to the next; but the principle is always the same.
In a word, the Constitution is anti-monarchical. This is why it provides for things like elections, which we still have, and impeachments, which, though essential protections, are all too rare. Elections without the real threat of impeachment invite the abuse of power.
Monarchism which might be called political idolatry or hero-worship is a perennial temptation, even under the forms of a republic, as Bush and his supporters illustrate, with their bizarre claims, demands, and excuses for concentrated power. And the temptation is most acute in time of war. This isnt just an occasional case of history repeating itself; its the never-ending story of all politics.
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