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Saturday, January 28, 2006
 
Ellis: 9-11 Not That Important in the Grand Scheme of Things

There is an argument to be made here, but it's certainly made poorly by Joseph J. Ellis in the New York Times.

My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic.

Here is my version of the top tier: the War for Independence, where defeat meant no United States of America; the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground; the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union; World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism; the cold war, most specifically the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility.

Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so.


First, let's stop calling it "Sept. 11". That's one incident. Where does Pearl Harbor rate on his scale? Answer: It doesn't; it's a part of a larger conflict called World War II. Obviously 9-11 wasn't as big a threat to the United States as World War II. But is Islamic terrorism as big a threat as Hitler and the Japanese? Maybe not, but the scale is not as dramatically off kilter. How many American civilians were killed by our enemies in World War II? I don't know the answer, but I suspect it was not as many as died on 9-11.

And then, hilariously, he compares the wiretapping of Al Qaeda agents in the United States to the worst excesses of these other threats against America:

My list of precedents for the Patriot Act and government wiretapping of American citizens would include the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which allowed the federal government to close newspapers and deport foreigners during the "quasi-war" with France; the denial of habeas corpus during the Civil War, which permitted the pre-emptive arrest of suspected Southern sympathizers; the Red Scare of 1919, which emboldened the attorney general to round up leftist critics in the wake of the Russian Revolution; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which was justified on the grounds that their ancestry made them potential threats to national security; the McCarthy scare of the early 1950's, which used cold war anxieties to pursue a witch hunt against putative Communists in government, universities and the film industry.

Well, of course you see the flaw in the logic here? Wiretapping and the Patriot Act are nowhere near the Alien and Sedition Acts, the suspension of habeas corpus, internment of the Japanese, etc. If you look at the rights that we have as a bundle of sticks, what rights were given up in the Patriot Act? Arguably the right to not have the government checking out what books you had borrowed from the public library. With the wiretapping, you have lost the right to not have your calls monitored if you have previously received calls from members of Al Qaeda, a circumstance that apparently affects all of about 1000 people in the United States, not all of whom are citizens, by the way.

Now, the Alien and Sedition acts, on the other hand, took away some pretty significant sticks.

The last of the laws, the Sedition Act, passed on July 14 declared that any treasonable activity, including the publication of "any false, scandalous and malicious writing," was a high misdemeanor, punishable by fine and imprisonment. By virtue of this legislation twenty-five men, most of them editors of Republican newspapers, were arrested and their newspapers forced to shut down.

Suspending the writ of habeas corpus effectively means that the government can imprison you for any reason whatsoever; indeed it actually means they don't have to present a reason.

Both these actions were obviously far greater threats to our civil liberties than the Patriot Act, as were the Japanese internment camps.

So the logic Ellis uses here amounts to this: We've faced more serious threats to our survival as a nation, and we've responded by giving up more of our civil liberties (which were restored when the crisis passed), and therefore we should not give up even the comparatively smaller civil liberties encompassed in the Patriot Act or the wiretapping cases.

See also our buddy Rick Moran's post on this. Rick's more concerned about civil liberties than I am, but he agrees that Ellis laid an egg with this column.
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