September 11 Digital Archive






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TomPaine Story: Story

War and Civil Liberties

A time of war is the wrong time to weaken the presidents ability to protect the American people," President Bush recently stated, threatening to veto a bill containing standard labor protections for civil servants. This rhetoric is hardly unique: since September 11, the Bush administration has consistently advocated the restriction of civil liberties -- for citizens and civil servants alike -- on the grounds that traditional liberties must be sacrificed in a time of "war."

Contrary to popular belief, however, wars do not inevitably lead to restrictions on civil liberties. In fact, some of the greatest gains in civil liberties in this country have come in the wake of wars and their liberalizing rhetoric. But only some wars.

The Revolution, Civil War, and WWII all led to great expansions of liberty. In the wake of the Revolution, opponents of slavery used its principles -- liberty and equality -- to attack slavery throughout the North, and even in the South. The war expanded suffrage, and inspired declarations of rights throughout the states.

During the Civil War -- initially fought to preserve the Union -- white and black leaders astutely manipulated wartime rhetoric to render the war into a battle for the emancipation of slavery. The War transformed the meaning of American liberty itself, a "new birth of freedom" that left us the 13th and 14th Constitutional amendments -- which (notwithstanding creative interpretation by conservative justices today) continue to preserve American civil liberties.

World War II had a similar result. Cast as a struggle for worlds freedom, it undermined the moral legitimacy of Jim Crow segregation.

Other wars, however, have had precisely the opposite effect. The Mexican-American war of 1846-1848 opened vast new territories for the expansion of slavery, and accelerated the genocidal extermination of Native Americans.

The invasion of Cuba and the Philippines in the Spanish-American war buttressed a growing racial ideology at home, legitimating Jim Crow segregation and strict racial quotas on immigration. These imperialist wars bolstered the racial and exclusive elements always lurking in American nationalism.

A third type of war -- call them quasi wars -- particularly damaged civil liberties. In the 1790s, fear that foreign subversives might try to overthrow the fragile new republic led to the Alien and Sedition Acts, the first massive crackdown on civil liberties.

The Cold War similarly resulted in the suppression of civil liberties at home, particularly those whose politics fell outside a newly defined "liberal" consensus. These wars invited political demagoguery, leading to the criminalization of ideology, and restricting the scope of political discourse itself.

* * *

After September 11 the nation appeared to launch a new "war of liberation," which held the tantalizing possibility of bolstering the much-faded inclusive strands of American nationalism. Working people -- the firemen who died saving bankers, union workers volunteering at Ground Zero -- were celebrated. President Bush even deployed a unifying rhetoric, calling for shared sacrifice and warning against the targeting of Arabs and other minorities.

One might even have imagined a nation that would support increasing the job security of these brave men and women.

That potential soon faded, however. Wars can lead to social and political progress -- or they can lead to regression from which our country recovers only slowly. It is the character of our leaders that shapes the outcome.

Sadly, we lack an Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, a Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King, a figure who could marshal the civic, inclusive strains of American patriotism today.

The rhetoric of sacrifice, which briefly bloomed after September 11, disappeared in the squalid drive to cut corporate and estate taxes, and to abrogate international treaties and multilateral action.

The fight against terrorism now looks vastly different from the liberating wars, and begins to imitate imperialist and quasi wars. Like the quasi wars, this "war" remains undeclared, and of dubious Constitutionality. The President even contemplates attacking a country that has not attacked us, ignoring all constitutional requirements. Meanwhile, the government issues repeated warnings of terror, seeking to subvert political dissent and generate support for its policies.

We now face the specter of perpetual war, against whatever enemy the government fingers, justifying aggression abroad and suppression of civil liberties at home.

It is the mirror image of the Civil War: September 11 has been transformed from an event that might have bolstered the civic and liberating forces in American life into one that bolsters reaction and exclusion.

This was not inevitable. Reactionary patriotism is not inherent to all wars. The current state of affairs has resulted from the clever and largely uncontested manipulation by the Bush administration to define this "war" for its short-term political interests.

Meanwhile the opposition remains silent, retreating behind a shallow and cowardly patriotism, squinting at polls, and biding their time.

Ironically, by assuming that American nationalism is inherently reactionary, leaders of the left underestimate its liberating potential as well as their own ability to alter the course of events. They cower before the devils they see in us, rather than touching the better angels of our nature.


“tp71.xml,” September 11 Digital Archive, accessed March 23, 2023,