The diabolical attacks of September 11, 2001, which claimed nearly 3,000 lives, were more than just an effort to kill and terrorize. They were aimed at destroying the fundamental framework of American society and culture, which are viewed as anathema by the terrorists.
Now, more than a year since that fateful day, many still ponder what exactly the future holds, particularly as the war against terrorism still continues to rage. In the wake of post-September 11 legislative changes that have transpired here at home, some question whether the greater threat to the American way is foreign or domestic. That raises two crucial questions: Is the United States poised to become a "National Security State" and, if so, on what level?
A new book explores both of these questions. No Greater Threat: America After September 11 and The Rise Of A National Security State is authored by C. William Michaels, a former University of Baltimore law professor and a one-time "justice and peace" coordinator with the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.
A Thorough Analysis Of The Seminal USA PATRIOT Act
Michaels meticulously analyzes literally every single provision of the USA PATRIOT Act. (USA PATRIOT stands for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.") The Act is comprised of ten separate Titles broken down into more than 150 sections. It totals almost two hundred pages in length, and was passed by Congress at lightning speed amidst little debate. Virtually no oversight or other procedural safeguards normally associated with the legislative process occurred. On October 26, 2001, while the ashes of the World Trade Towers still smoldered, it became the law of this land.
Michaels asserts that the Act represents a radical overhaul of then-existing law, increasing federal authority in a wide range of areas. Indeed, he describes it as representing "nothing less than a fundamental shift of national attention, funds and priorities." As he explains, the Act affects the way criminal cases are prosecuted, the way oversight of banking is be conducted, the way surveillance and intelligence-gathering are done, the way agencies share information among themselves, and the circumstances under which immigrants can be detained.
While the timing of the Act's passage suggests to the general public that it was in response to September 11, Michaels accurately recognizes "the Act is a 'wish list' of powers long sought by federal law enforcement and investigative agencies, chiefly the FBI and CIA" Indeed, many of its provisions languished for years on the shelves of various intelligence and law enforcement agencies just waiting for the opportune moment in time to surface as a necessary response to whatever event might have occurred.
A Barometer for Judging the Degree to Which the U.S. Is a National Security State
Will implementation of the Act serve to rid the United States of the scourge of terrorism or, instead, act as a prelude to a National Security State?
Michaels offers 12 different characteristics that he believes are common to a National Security State. They include a reduced role of the judiciary and executive treatment of suspects, secrecy of ruling authority and continued momentum of threat, media in the service of the state and direct attack against dissent. Michaels rates each of the characteristics on a scale from 0 percent to 100 percent and concludes that eight of the 12 are at over 50 percent in today's America. Two are assessed at 100 percent: a "visible increase in uniformed security personnel" and a "wartime mentality and permanent war economy," both of which seem grossly exaggerated.
Many also might find it a stretch to herald, as Michaels does, that "[a]s the year 2002 continues to year 2003 and beyond, America is poised precariously close to fulfilling nearly all of" the characteristics of a national security state. Nevertheless anyone reasonably concerned about civil liberties and democracy has cause to consider seriously the words Michaels has written.
Though the PATRIOT Act is one of the most important legislative acts of the new millennium, attention to Michaels's sobering book has so far been limited to progressive magazines sympathetic to his message and local radio stations. That's not too surprising, since the book is extremely detailed and at times dry, with massive footnotes that should more appropriately have been endnotes to increase ease of reading. Moreover, the book often reveals to the reader a particular - and at times overstated - ideological perspective.
For many books this might serve as a detracting factor, but quite frankly these observations equally apply to the Patriot Act itself. There can be little question that the subject requires serious and public analysis of the type authored by Michaels. It is this very level of "dissent" that is necessary to avoid falling into the National Security State chasm Michaels is so rightly concerned about.
Will the Judiciary Shield Us from Transforming Into a National Security State?
On this legal commentary site, special attention is due to the role of the judiciary in the post-September 11 environment. To date the courts have been remarkably guarded, and even in opposition to, many of the more well known national security actions of the Bush Administration. To be sure, the courts have not entirely rejected the current government's efforts to move towards Michaels's National Security State. For example, so far no legal challenge regarding the status of suspected al-Qaeda members held in Guantanamo Bay has succeeded - even though evidence apparently exists that a number of these individuals are guilty of nothing more than simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The next few years will reveal the judiciary's proper place in history as aspects of the Patriot Act no doubt will be legally challenged. Hopefully, the courts will not repeat their past mistakes. We should not forget that the Alien and Sedition Acts of World War I, the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the actions of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s were all upheld by federal courts including the Supreme Court.
Will History Reflect The Price For Security Was Too High?
In times of chaos, citizens look to their government to ensure security and restore calmness. Yet, what appears to achieve this objective in the short term is not necessarily good for the country in the long run.
Hopefully, every one of Michaels's concerns will turn out to be wrong or grossly exaggerated. The accuracy of Michaels's assessments and the prescience of his predictions will ultimately be revealed by the passage of time. The value of his concerns and encouragement for thoughtful debate, however, will undoubtedly continue beyond that time.
However we may view today's new society, as we move forward it may be wise to continually remind ourselves of Benjamin Franklin's words of caution, voiced more than 200 years ago: If we surrender our liberty in the name of security, we shall have neither.