Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A Matter of Trust

Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post has a couple of good points.

[I]f the president really were determined to do anything it takes to prevent another terrorist strike, why not suspend habeas corpus, as Lincoln did during the Civil War? That way you could arrest everyone who could possibly be a terrorist, or who once lived next door to a suspected terrorist’s uncle, and you could hold those people as long as you wanted. Why stop at surveillance of international telephone calls and e-mails? Why not listen in on, say, all interstate calls as well? Or just go for it and scarf up all the domestic communications the National Security Agency’s copious computers can hold?


If potential terrorists may be walking among us, why not have police officers stand on street corners all day and subject anyone who looks “suspicious” to questioning and a search? That’s what Fidel Castro does in Cuba, and believe me, Cuba is an extremely safe country.

In Vietnam we destroyed villages in order to save them. In this war on terrorism, why not go ahead and destroy our freedoms in order to save them?

The reason we don’t do these absurd things, of course, is that we see a line between the acceptable and the unacceptable. That bright line is the law, drawn by Congress and regularly surveyed by the judiciary. It can be shifted, but the president has no right to shift it on his own authority. His constitutional war powers give him wide latitude, but those powers are not unlimited.

If you go along with my experiment and assume that the president has the best of motives, then the problem is that he wants to protect the American people but doesn’t trust us.

I think that last line sums it all up pretty neatly. The Republicans have always said — with apparently no intentional irony — that they are in favor of smaller government and more freedom; that people are at their best when the government doesn’t intrude in our lives. (Unless, of course, you have a uterus or are in love with someone of the same gender. Then all bets are off.) Now with the War on Terror the excuse is that we must do everything within our power to protect America. Great; I’m all for that, but the phrase “within our power” is the sticky point. Who decides what the limits are? Is it the president or our elected representatives, or is it the courts who decide when one of them has gone too far because the other hasn’t?

It’s all three working together. The Constitution does not grant unilateral power to any one branch of the government. The Congress controls the purse strings on the budget, but the president can veto the bills. The president can send troops into war, but only with the approval of Congress. The Congress may write the laws and the president may sign them, but the courts decide if they are within the scope and intent of the Constitution. It may be inconvenient in a particular situation and it may even, as Mr. Robinson notes, put us at some risk, but we have to accept this as the price of liberty. It has seen us through nearly 230 years of entrusting both the people of this country and the type of government we have chosen with our survival, and we have endured. We have had lapses — Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans were not shining hours in the annals of liberty — but we have also taken steps to correct them.

If, as Mr. Bush says, we must trust him as president to do what he sees is right for America, we must first have a sense that we can trust him to faithfully execute the laws and live within them regardless of the short-term risks. The American form of government has always been a risk — trusting the people to do the right thing is a scary thought — but it has proven to be a risk that we are willing to take in light of the alternative.