How Wars Subvert Freedom

Even though I still think it could be a turning point, and one that just might lead to a relatively large-scale rethinking of what we might term the imperial imperative, I’m reluctant to write about Fallujah just now because I really have little or no idea what’s going on there. It’s not that I haven’t paid attention or haven’t read dozens of news stories. But I seldom trust news stories to be right – especially on implications and meanings as compared to basic who-where-when facts – the first time. And the ground in Fallujah is shifting. Over 24 hours, the story has gone from an imminent attack by U.S. Marines to a cease-fire and turning things over to the Iraqis to a new attack, with the Pentagon denying there was ever a cease-fire.

From halfway around the world I can’t claim to know if the resistance to American occupation in Fallujah is done by a small band of former Saddamites, foreign al-Qaida fighters, ordinary Iraqi citizens or a genuine popular uprising. I do know, as’s Fred Kaplan explained earlier this week that Fallujah presents a serious dilemma for US occupation forces. As Kaplan put it, an invasion of Fallujah would mean, “first, a resumption of war. No longer could US officials speak of conducting mere ‘security and stabilization operations’ – the Marines’ declared mission last month when they took over the area.”

Storming Fallujah would also imperil the June 30 handover of even “symbolic” sovereignty, and that date was chosen not because anybody really expected the Iraqis to be “ready” to assume control of their own country, whatever that might have meant, but because Dubya wants that part of the war behind him when the campaign gets underway seriously this summer. Furthermore, outright house-to-house fighting against whoever it is bedeviling the US occupiers would undoubtedly mean more dead civilians and more people outraged at the United States and ready to take part in the next semi-organized act of resistance – which would more than likely not be long in coming. That would unquestionably make the next phase of the occupation much more difficult – and it was never going to be especially easy.


On the other hand – and I wouldn’t discount it as a motivation – failing to invade Fallujah could make the US command look and feel weak and indecisive, could feed the impression that the US is beginning to lose its grip on the area, that a bunch of rag-tag terrorists and semi-organized insurgents can make the sole superpower leave with its oversized tail between its legs. I don’t think Bush is quite as callous and stupid as some of the conservative radio talkers – and I don’t listen to many these days, but the few I hear say pretty much the same thing – that it would be a good and noble thing to just “level Fallujah” and everybody in it.

Some Americans seem to think that a massive show of force is the key to success in any situation and that the US military, carrying the sword of righteousness, is omnicompetent in such situations. They also seem utterly oblivious to any second thoughts about the morality of leveling an entire city, including thousands and thousands of utterly innocent people who might otherwise wish you well,. Indeed, they seem to find a way not to think of all those slaughtered innocents as real people at all. Nor do they imagine that people being occupied by foreigners might feel a certain resentment at having their fellow Iraqis slaughtered by the invaders, or that people with such resentments might just find ways to make future operations more dangerous..

All this is an example of the coarseness and immorality that war almost always brings out in certain people who support or are indifferent to the war (to be sure, some war critics get coarse and shrill as well). And many of these war-whoopers, as they advocate wholesale slaughter of innocents, have the effrontery to call themselves deeply religious people.

As I say, I don’t really think Bush is as stupid and callous or oblivious to the possible bad consequences of an attack on Fallujah. But if there is anything that seems to drive him in his conduct of foreign policy, it seems to be his apparent conviction that showing resolve and toughness and will (with other peoples’ sons and daughters, of course) is the key to success. So he just might order an attack, however counterproductive it cold turn out to be.


But I wasn’t going to discuss any of that. We have examples, before the US Supreme Court, of the way war undermines freedom here at home, in the Guantanamo prisoner, Padilla and Hamdi cases.

In our system of divided power, with three theoretically coequal branches always contending for power and therefor checking one another so that power never becomes absolute, it is precisely during wartime that the courts should be especially vigilant about abuses of power by the executive branch, because it is precisely in wartime that the president and his minions will be most tempted to abuse power. In practice, however, the courts are more often inclined to cut the president a bit of slack during wartime, whether because they are afraid of a backlash or because they sincerely believe that the president needs all the slack he can get to do the job.

We’ll see what happens this time.

If the US Supreme Court ends up agreeing with the government’s arguments in the cases of Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi, heard on Wednesday, those who seek answers to the eternally frustrating question, “Why do they hate us so?” will be deprived of one of their most facile answers. Maybe that wouldn’t be the end of the world, but the effects on the rest of us would be fairly dire.


They hate us because of our freedom. That’s how many seek to explain the deep hostility many militant Islamists harbor for the United States and/or its government. Freedom leads to license, decadence, impiety and immorality, and the blood of some fanatical adherents to a questionable interpretation of Islam simply boils at the prospect, say some.

If the government, however, simply by declaring Hamdi and Padilla (who are both US citizens) to be “enemy combatants,” can confine them in a military brig with no charges brought against them, no access to a lawyer and no contact with friends or family, American freedom will be substantially undermined and in a very real sense the terrorists will have won. They will have found a way to reduce the freedom of every American, perhaps permanently.

Actually, I rather doubt that most militant Islamists spend much time fretting that Americans have relatively free speech and elections. The suspicion is that the US government meddling in their affairs on a persistent and ongoing basis is rather more at the forefront.

It’s really the US government, or at least certain elements in the government and in the intelligentsia, that desires the decline of traditional American liberties on a persistent and ongoing basis. Those who believe their kind do much better at making decisions for the people than the ignorant people themselves could ever do are unlikely ever to disappear from the earth, no matter how much damage they do.

We should remember, however, that throwing people in jail indefinitely, with no chance to make their case or even appeal for a second chance, is the kind of thing tyrants, totalitarians and absolute rulers do, not the servants of the people in a free country.


The ancient protection against arbitrary and indefinite imprisonment is the writ of habeas corpus. Applying for the writ allows one who has been seized or imprisoned to get a hearing before an impartial judge.

There’s also the matter of a statute, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 4001(a), which bars the detention of citizens without express congressional authority.

Yaser Hamdi was captured in Afghanistan, fighting for the Taliban. He is a US citizen because he was born in this country, although his parents were Saudis who moved back to Saudi Arabia. Jose Padilla is a Chicago native, captured at O’Hare airport, on suspicion that he was part of a plot to set off a “dirty bomb” somewhere in the United States.

The government argues that the “war on terror” allows the president, as commander in chief, to order anybody he deems an “enemy combatant” imprisoned indefinitely. There are two problems with this. The first is that Congress has never passed a declaration of war as the Constitution gives it the sole power to do. The second, as Justice Sandra O’Connor noted, is that “we’ve never had a situation where this war could last for 25 years or 50 years.”

Congress did pass an Authorization for Use of Military Force after September 11. It authorizes the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force….” That’s not the same as “whatever he feels like.” And it is not express authorization to detain citizens.

If the Supreme Court allows this indefinite detention, American liberties are in great peril, and the terrorists will have succeeded in getting our own government to put them there. This way lies tyranny. And war always paves the way for that kind of expansion of arbitrary power.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).