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Fear distorting the rule of law

IN MARCH OF 1933, Franklin Roosevelt, facing the crisis of the Great Depression, said in his inaugural address that ''the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

The fear people felt then was not nameless, unreasoning, nor unjustified, as Roosevelt well knew. In fact, his address went on to say that ''the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone . . . Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment."

What Roosevelt meant was that fear can distort judgment and cloud the mind's ability to perceive right turns from wrong turns in the road to safety.

Roosevelt was not to avoid wrong turns. His incarceration of Japanese-American citizens after Pearl Harbor is looked back on now as a national shame.

Roosevelt remembered the very real and dangerous disloyalty of some German-Americans during World War I when he made his decision on Japanese-Americans. He should have remembered, also, the unreasoning and unjustified ''patriotic lunacy" of that time, as historian David Traxel calls it in his new book ''Crusader Nation." ''Sauerkraut became liberty cabbage . . . frankfurters were hot dogs, hamburgers liberty stakes."

I have no doubt that one day the Bush administration's curtailment of civil liberties, especially the torture of prisoners, will be looked back on as a national shame. I never would have thought I would live to see the day when the president of the United States would threaten to veto a bill in Congress to ban torture, or when the vice president would spend his days lobbying Congress in favor of torture. That little shop of horrors, the vice president's office, seems to be the place where fear regularly gains ascendancy over good judgment.

The Bush administration's predilection to torture was clearly a result of mind-clouding fear caused by the greatest terrorist attack in history on Sept. 11th, 2001. The same can be said of the excesses of the Patriot Act, and, too, the decision to use the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens without benefit of warrant as required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The Bush administration has shamelessly used fear to get its way. Both the president and vice president have tried to picture a withdrawal from Iraq as resulting in an Al Qaeda takeover of Iraq, and an Al Qaeda-led Caliphate stretching across the Muslim world. In reality al Qaeda hasn't the remotest chance of taking over Iraq, not with 80 percent of the population either Kurdish or Shi'ite, and a timely end to American occupation might sooner lead to an Iraqi-Sunni disenchantment with foreign terrorists.

But in this month of December we may have reached a tipping point. Last week the American Congress finally stood up. President Bush, after expending so much effort trying to find ways to circumvent Senator John McCain's heroic efforts to ban torture, finally surrendered in the Oval Office last week.

''We've sent a message to the world that the United States is not like the terrorists, " said McCain -- a message that had been badly diluted by Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the administration's efforts to justify the mistreatment of prisoners.

Congress followed suit by refusing to reenact the Patriot Act as now constituted, and, although the domestic spying case will be argued as to its legality, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter promises congressional hearings. Eavesdropping on citizens may be necessary in these terrorist times, but, given how easy it is to obtain a warrant under the current law -- even retroactively -- the wonder is why the Bush administration chose not to comply.

In any event, Congress has put the president on notice that he no longer has a blank check to erode civil liberties at his will.

Americans could take some comfort, too, in Bush's new willingness to admit to at least some mistakes in the handling of his war in Iraq. Franklin Roosevelt, in that first inaugural address, said: ''In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. " Bush may have the vigor, but the frankness has been sorely lacking.


Last week I misnamed one of America's most influential public intellectuals, Richard Perle. My apologies.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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