Is America Becoming a Police State?

Editor’s note: Justin Raimondo’s column will return Monday.

In the question and answer session following a speech given at the American Enterprise Institute, Karl Rove blurted out the truth. Although no doubt inadvertent, this unusual incident of truth-telling is nevertheless shocking to those of us who have grown used to an administration that lies as a first resort. In front of an audience of politicians, policy wonks, and journalists, the president’s grand strategist admitted that, while Americans are content with their economic lot, they are in a “sour” mood because of the Iraq war: “I think the war looms over everything,” Rove said:

“There’s no doubt about it. Being in the middle of a war where people turn on their television sets and see brave men and women dying is not something that makes people happy and optimistic and upbeat.”

While it is no doubt true that Americans are disturbed and saddened by the sight of their soldiers falling in combat, it isn’t the fact of war per se that has soured them on this administration, and, more broadly, the GOP. If television cameras had been present to chronicle, say, the War of 1812, one can hardly imagine that the sight of Washington burning would have lessened their zeal to keep up the fight. To take a more recent example, Americans would not have caviled and turned against Franklin Roosevelt even as they watched the battle of Bataan and the fall of Corregidor broadcast live: the reaction might even have increased support for the Roosevelt administration as the public rallied around their commander in chief and determined to fight the “Japs” – as the newspapers of the day routinely referred to the enemy – with renewed fury.

During World War II, Americans knew – or thought they knew – why they were fighting, and had to fight. No such certainty is present in their minds as they watch the tragedy of Iraq unfold on the nightly news.

As Hitler’s armies occupied the Eurasian landmass, in the early years of WWII, and Japan gobbled up the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and threatened Hawaii, Americans believed they were in a fight for their very survival. They believe no such thing when it comes to the war in Iraq. Most Americans are skeptical of this administration’s announced war aims: they correctly perceive the invasion and conquest of Iraq as a futile crusade to “democratize” a region that has never known anything but the rule of thugs. They see their sons and daughters dying, not to protect the homeland or even to defend capital-D Democracy, but to ensure the survival of an Iraqi government made up of authoritarian mullahs and their armed gangs.

Americans do not fear adversity, nor do they quail at the sight of brave men and women dying – as long as it’s in a good cause. The only causes one can discern in the current conflict, however – a lust for oil, and the seductive power of America’s pro-Israel lobby – are hardly enough to inspire a crowd much bigger than the editorial staff of the Weekly Standard.

Rove is right when he says the war looms over everything. As the cost of our Iraq campaign approaches the trillion-dollar mark, the entire Republican agenda of less government and lower taxes has been fatally undermined by the Napoleonic foreign policy championed by this White House. And we aren’t even winning! If this is the price of defeat, one has to wonder what victory would cost us.

While the astronomical cost in dollars and cents has an immediate and readily apparent impact, the price we are paying in other ways – in damage to our core values and institutions – is even dearer. The Bush administration may be losing the war against the Iraqi insurgency, but they are doing much better with their war on the American people – reading our e-mails, gathering up our phone records, and instituting a hi-tech spy system such as no Russian commissar ever dreamt of. The news that the feds are tracking phone calls made by and to major news organizations, including ABC News, the Washington Post, and the New York Times – ostensibly to find evidence of “security leaks” – is just the latest in a series of outrages against civil liberties and common decency.

The price of perpetual war is a police state, one in which a permanent state of “emergency” – the threat of a terrorist attack – is utilized to break down institutional safeguards, the system of constitutional checks and balances, that protect us from dictatorship.

A foreign policy driven by the imperial impulse is bound to have grave domestic consequences, none of them conducive to the American form of government. The Founders envisioned a republic, not an empire: they set up a system designed to govern the 13 former colonies, not the world. Foreign policy was a matter of avoiding reabsorption by the British and quashing the ambitions of the other European empires in their quest for North American colonies. Domestic policy was the main concern of every major American political figure and political party, right up until World War II. With the advent of the Cold War, however, and the rise of the national security state, the focus was increasingly on foreign policy.

Garet Garrett, the Old Right author and editor, saw the dawn of the new day and was quick to discern its meaning. In his 1951 philippic “Rise of Empire” [.pdf file], Garrett described what he called the “marks of empire,” the signs that say the republic is no more and “Hail Caesar!” There were, I recall, five or six of them: the first was the ascendancy of presidential power over the other two branches of the federal government. We see this, today, in the neoconservative theory of the “unitary executive,” which puts special emphasis on the president’s role as commander in chief of the armed forces. Militarism goes hand in hand with this Bonapartist impulse, quite naturally, and this, in Garrett’s words, gives rise to:

“A second mark by which you may unmistakably distinguish Empire is: Domestic policy becomes subordinate to foreign policy.

“That happened to Rome. It has happened to every Empire. The consequences of its having happened to the British Empire are tragically appearing. The fact now to be faced is that it has happened also to us. The voice of government is saying that if our foreign policy fails we are ruined. It is all or nothing. Our survival as a free nation is at hazard.

“That makes it simple, for in that case there is no domestic policy that may not have to be sacrificed to the necessities of foreign policy – even freedom.”

That was written just as the first frosts of the Cold War blew arctic gusts across Europe, and the freezing wind of witch-hunts and loyalty oaths deadened the political atmosphere in America. Yet it could easily have been written today, as America gets ready to launch a new global struggle – the president calls it his “global democratic revolution” – against a new enemy. We are in a war, the president and his allies tell us, that will last for at least a generation. Small wonder, then, that the current administration is launching a large-scale assault on civil liberties of a kind not seen since the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, spying on and trying to intimidate journalists, trampling on what remains of the Founders’ libertarian legacy.

There are many reasons to oppose war, both moral and practical. Aside from abhorrence of mass murder, however, libertarians such as myself dedicate so much of their energies to this issue because the price of interventionism is liberty itself. With each war, the power of government increases, until, at some point, it spills over the dike of the Constitution, washes away the Bill of Rights, and drowns us all in a flood tide of tyranny.

As recent events have shown, the danger is not theoretical or postponed to some future time: we are not speaking here of some dark dystopia as a kind of “what if” experiment. The danger is imminent: the dystopia is here and now. The only question is: will the American people stand for it?


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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].