January 18, 2002

Commentary

Protecting Our Way of Life?

by Sheldon Richman

Even when responding to a monstrous and unjustifiable provocation such as September 11, the U.S. government threatens our liberty. We have much to fear from the power in Washington.

At least Osama bin Laden never says he has our interests at heart. We can't be lulled into trusting him. Not so with the U.S. government. It constantly tells us that it's acting in our best interests - even as it enacts legislation and executive orders that steal our freedom; even as "the people's representatives" give the president a blank check to make war that Napoleon would have envied. Thank you, President Bush and Congress, for putting another nail in the Constitution's coffin.

The most disturbing thing about all these professions of devotion to our "way of life" is that most people believe them. War is celebrated as the great unifier. Unity is a euphemism for "collectivism". Conservatives abhor peacetime collectivism but adore wartime collectivism. (Left liberals are onboard too.) They are all "kick ass" patriots now - they feel best about their country when it's dropping bombs somewhere.

A newspaper in the South with a conservative editorial line recently described how America has changed since September 11: "It has changed the way a great people changes when it wakes up from trivial pursuits and calmly, confidently begins to find its bearings, correct its mistakes, and keep its eye on the goal: victory."

Trivial pursuits? Excuse me, those would be our lives and families that writer was referring to. But then the private life becomes expendable whenever war fever seizes a nation. War is the great collectivizer - I mean "unifier". Makes one wonder what we're fighting for.

Too extreme a statement? Look at what has come out of Congress and the Oval Office in recent weeks. Our representatives passed a 300-page "anti-terrorism" bill - obscenely named the USA Patriot Act - without reading it! It expands the surveillance powers of government by orders of magnitude and lets government agents search our homes without our knowledge.

That same bill imposes new and intrusive obligations on every business in the country. It contains this little, underreported bombshell (Sec. 365): "Any person - (1) who is engaged in a trade or business; and (2) who, in the course of such trade or business, receives more than $10,000 in coins or currency in 1 transaction (or 2 or more related transactions), shall file a report described in subsection (b) with respect to such transaction (or related transactions) with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network at such time and in such manner as the [Treasury] Secretary may, by regulation, prescribe."

As the Boston Globe observed, "Three $4,000 pieces of furniture, for example, might trigger a filing."

Extensive violations of our financial privacy were imposed, first, to ensure tax compliance, then to fight the war on drug users. They mostly involved banks and related institutions. (You can't take $10,000 out of the country without telling the government.) Now the violations have been broadened to every business and consumer in the guise of fighting terrorism. Whatever happens, the power mongers win.

More than 500 people (noncitizens) are being detained indefinitely, in many cases incommunicado. Some of those who are permitted to see lawyers are denied private meetings with them. Do the public schools tell kids about habeas corpus?

And of course, the president has signed an order permitting noncitizens to be tried in secret military tribunals under rules of evidence and a standard of proof to be determined by - the secretary of defense. Someone could be executed under a standard weaker than the traditional "beyond a reasonable doubt" and with a less-than-unanimous verdict. Now there's confidence in the American way of life.

But all such concerns are to be blinked away in the wave of patriotic war fever that currently washes over America. The politicians - egged on by the cheerleaders of the news media - figure they can keep us too giddy with the rocket's red glare and bombs bursting in air to notice our liberties being sucked out of our lives, not by the terrorists, evil as they are, but by our government's reaction to them.

All in a day's work in the American Empire. It's a just war. Anything goes.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) in Fairfax, Va., and author of Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State.

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