That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony and Cleopatra,  Act 1, Scene 2

Unsilent Truth
December 27, 2001


"War"? But this is liberty
we're talking about!

Remember Donald Hamilton's rules



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In one of Donald Hamilton's most instructive novels, the hero must leave a woman he's been protecting for a short time. He gives her a pistol and warns her not to listen to anyone who tries to talk her into giving it up. He warns her, "Don't give it up to anybody; and if somebody tries to take it, figure that's all the proof you need of his hostile intentions, and blast him to hell right then."

Now reread those instructions, and instead of thinking of a pistol, think of your natural rights as a free man.

If Americans were serious about their liberties — of course, they are not, but let us pretend for just a few minutes — they would remember that they were told in the Declaration of Independence that the reason governments are instituted is to secure our natural rights. There may be any number of actions that are necessary in order to secure them, but if we are really serious about the liberties we pretend to celebrate on July 4 every year, we would keep it at the forefront of our political thinking that the point of those actions is to secure our liberties. And you don't secure anything by giving it up.

In a November 23 column, Mona Charen wrote, "In wartime, our society defends its existence. A too nice preoccupation with civil rights risks all our liberties and our lives. For if there is no country to enforce those rights, there are no rights."

And Bob Levy of the Cato Institute wrote in an article in Liberty magazine attacking the USA Patriot Act, "With America under attack, and lives at risk, civil liberties cannot remain inviolable."

And then there are the frequently heard syllogisms "This is war!" and "We're fighting a war!" The listener must presume that by grunting out the word war the speaker obviates the need for supplying any major or minor premises that might smooth the path to a logical conclusion. Raising one's voice is adequate substitute for inference rules.

I wonder — well, I don't, really, but we are pretending here — why instead we don't hear people saying, "'War'? These are people's liberties we're talking about!"

In other words, for people who really treasure their liberties, liberty should be trumps. It should outrank every other consideration. If a war or a law threatens to undermine them, such a people would rise up and say, "We'll take our chances with terrorist thugs." Or Communists. Or the Mafia. Or whomever.

The one entity you don't dare take your chances with is the state. It will more certainly succeed in slurping up your liberties than any terrorist thug you have ever heard of. And once it has those liberties, getting them back is like trying to pull the tooth of an unsedated tiger. And the time to be most on guard is when its officials come to you with their lullaby, "These new measures don't really undermine your liberties. Oh, no." Or when its unofficial propagandists coo over the TV and in their op-eds, "All the branches of government have authorized such measures at one time or another. Why, FDR himself ..." Or when the martinets of the military bleat, "Military tribunals have an excellent record of observing civil rights."

Is the issue whether they are right or wrong? It is not. When the puppets of power come at you with such comfortable words, that is not the time to argue details with them. The whole point of war is to keep you looking to the right and to the left, and make you forget the guy who is coming straight at you with tyranny in his heart. People who do not intend to curtail the natural liberties of free men simply do not cobble together measures or laws or orders that appear to curtail them in the first place. The rush to reassurance is necessary only when it is also necessary to conceal the true nature of those measures or laws or orders.

Let us suppose that such measures as are being insinuated into our legal system now do not — remember, we are just pretending — curtail our natural liberties. Let us suppose that George Bush and John Ashcroft and the grandfatherly Dick Cheney are all the honorable men they play on TV. Still, consider the powers themselves. Were you a Clinton-hater? If so, ask yourself what you're going to think about those powers when they are wielded by a Janet Reno. And make no mistake ... there is another Janet Reno in law school or in a state's attorney general's office even as you read these words. Were you a Nixon-hater? There is another John Mitchell this very day interning in some law office. What will he do with those powers?

There is, of course, little we can do against the cooing reassurance, except not be misled by it. We may not be able to defend our liberties from this raging tiger the state. But when they are stripped from us, we don't have to smile, and say that it is all very wonderful that we are being defended.

When the cooers come to us, we can ridicule them, we can mock them, we can call them rude names, we can call them liars, and we can try to get our neighbors to see the hunger for tyranny in the cooing. (We are still pretending that our neighbors love liberty and are not instead heartened by the cooers' hunger for tyranny and eager to disguise it as a love for country.)

We cannot say to our neighbors what Hamilton's protagonist says to his charge:

"If you shoot it, do a good job. Use both hands ... hold steady, keep firing, and really perforate that target. Never mind the Cossacks attacking from the left flank and the Apaches galloping in from the right, whooping and hollering. Get that guy in front of you and get him good.... Just don't fall for that line about how we're all reasonable people here and just hand over that gun, you know you're not really going to shoot it, my dear, so please pass it across and let's talk things over in a civilized manner.... Don't give it to anybody."

We can't say it. But we can pretend.

© 2001 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

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