Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Waving the bloody shirt
Anyone who has paid any attention to the way this administration defends itself when in trouble could have predicted what their line of defense would be for their illegal wiretapping: we did it to save American lives.
President Bush defended using government wiretaps without court authorization to monitor terrorism suspects and urged the Senate to renew the USA Patriot Act during his year-end news conference Monday.

The president said he intends to continue using secret international wiretaps to monitor activities of people in the United States suspected of having connections to al Qaeda.

"To save American lives we must be able to act fast and to detect these conversations so we can prevent new attacks."

His supporters have already picked up the message, converted it into talking points, and begun spreading the message through talk radio, cable television talking head show, and newspaper columns.

There are actually several parts to the message. The most obvious, I've already mentioned: we did it to save American lives. In this, Bush is claiming noble and pure motivations. By declaring his intention to continue, he's striking a pose of heroic defiance: I'll climb any mountain, swim any sea, break any law, and shred any constitutional principle necessary to save American lives. By emphasizing the speed non-issue, he sets up a straw-man opponent to bash and to distract from his own culpability. The bureaucracy is the enemy of security. Nitpickers who insist on due process, legality, and constitutionality are the enemy of security. The rest of the government is the enemy of security. Only George Bush and those directly under his control can act quickly and effectively enough to save American lives.

Notice, too, that he's saving "American lives." This personalizes it. He's not saving abstract other lives; he's not saving ungrateful and undeserving foreign lives; he's saving our lives--me, you, and our loved ones. This is the vital point to understanding his propaganda. He's whipping up a sense of fear that he wants to use as a justification for law-breaking.

For decades after the Civil War, Republican politicians continued to win elections by using a tactic called "waving the bloody shirt." This refers to the cheap rhetorical emotionalism of bringing up the sacrifices of the war dead and claiming it would all have been in vain if traitorous democrats were allowed to win an election or advance a policy.

For the Bush administration, the bloody shirt is 9/11 and fear. They tell us we are in imminent danger and will ALL DIE unless we let them do whatever they want. In case we don't know what our reaction to this fear-mongering should be, we have former cheer-leader Trent Lott to tell us our lines:
I want my security first. I'll deal with all the details after that.

As early as 1759, Ben Franklin had the only possible response to Lott's craven cowardice:
They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Some on the left, and on the libertarian right, see this as the final straw for Bush. They find such criminal disregard for basic constitutional principles unforgivable and don't think the public will stand for it. I'm not that confident. We've yet to see whether the effectiveness of the bloody shirt has run its course. Yes, the administration has dropped its silly color-coded panic chart, and, yes, they play the fear card far less often now, but that doesn't mean one last gotcha wouldn't work. At the very least, I expect to hear about a horrible disaster that was barely averted thanks to illegal wiretaps.

More importantly, I'm not convinced that most people understand the seriousness of this. The power of warrants and restrictions on eavesdropping were both undermined with the original Patriot Act. Barely a week before this revelation, domestic surveillance by the military was received by the public with a yawn. Over the last four years, most people have come to assume that the government is snooping with little or no limitations. As is almost always the case with rights issues, most people don't see any personal relevance in it all. "The government is only harassing bad guys. I'm not a bad guy. Therefore, I have nothing to worry about."

This lack of a sense of relevance combined with Lott-style cowardice is a powerful combination and a tough one to overcome. Five years of Bush has my native pessimism running at full blast. Maybe I'm wrong this time. I hope so.

UPDATE: Sen. John Cornyn picks up Trent Lott's cowardly talking point: "None of your civil liberties matter much after you're dead."

Russ Feingold elaborates on Ben Franklin's principle by bringing up Patrick Henry "Give me liberty or give me death."

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