Progressive Writers Bloc

Confused Patriots

By Bill Becker

Bill Becker

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer with 22 self-proclaimed years in the intel business. (Here "intel" refers to "intelligence gathering by various U.S. government agencies, both secret, and not-so-secret.") In an article for the New York Post titled "Intel, Lies & Treason," Peters takes aim at those who suspect a hidden agenda behind the Bush administration’s purported "war on terrorism."

Specifically, what bothers Peters is criticism by Congressional Democrats of President Bush’s plan for wholesale, warrantless spying on Americans. Peters does not dispute that such warrantless surveillance has indeed taken place, but he denounces as lies the Democrats’s allegations that such surveillance does not pass constitutional muster:

"Stop lying. Show us the victims. Name one honest citizen who has been targeted by our intelligence system. Name one innocent man or woman whose life has been destroyed. Come on, Nancy [Pelosi]. Give it up, Howard [Dean]. Name just one."

Peters conducts something of a poll—not particularly scientific in method, but a poll nonetheless:

"Has a single reader of this column suffered personally from our government's efforts to defend us against terrorists? Have any of your relatives or even your remotest acquaintances felt our intel system intrude into their lives?"

"That's what I always ask the group-think lefties," says Peters. "Not one has ever been able to answer ‘Yes.’"

Well, now. Let’s say that Peters asked me, for example, whether any readers of his New York Post column, or their relatives or remotest acquaintances "suffered personally from our government's efforts to defend us against terrorists." I must admit that I would be unable to say "yes," for two reasons at least: First, I do not know any readers of his column, much less their relatives or remotest acquaintances.

Second, readers of his column, by virtue of their rightward political leanings, are far less likely than I, say, to be targeted by our domestic spies. Indeed, if the experience of one administration critic is any guide, fans of Peters who might know of me might well be eager to pass my name along to the spooks. (I refer to the elderly fellow who averred in gym one day that while Osama bin Laden was indeed an asshole, he was not nearly as much an asshole as President Bush. Courtesy of his fellow muscle builders, the FBI paid him a visit shortly afterward. But, at least he was not taken to Guantanamo to have his genitals electrocuted, and he was even allowed to tell his story in Michael Moore’s Farhenheit 9/11. )

Let’s assume, though, that the referentially challenged Peters is really asking us lefties about our experiences with Big Brother. In fact, Peters is seriously confused the real issue at hand: what it means to be an American patriot. I emphasize "American" because the generic meaning of patriotism applies across the board to anyone who loves his or her country, whether democracy or dictatorship.

To get a handle on what it really means to be an American patriot, let’s go back to one of the earliest "group-think lefties," founding father James Madison. If he were with us today, Madison would make hash out of Peters’s suggestion that just because no one may have been abused, so far, under a potentially repressive law, there is nothing to be concerned about. As Madison puts it so eloquently:

"The free men of America did not wait til usurped power strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and avoided the consequences by denying the principle."

In Madison’s own day, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, overtly as protection of the new nation from domestic and foreign supporters of revolutionary France, but in reality as an attack on Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party, which was sympathetic to French egalitarianism. The Acts made it a crime to criticize the government, and virtually the only people prosecuted and convicted under them were journalists sympathetic to Jefferson. In response, Madison wrote the Virginia Resolution, which condemned the Acts as unconstitutional.

My bet is that Madison would also have approved of one of my own favorites: Carl Schurz, German-born Civil War General on the Union side, later Senator from Wisconsin. In the latter half of the 19th century, Schurz was attacked as being unpatriotic for opposing the same kind of American empire-building we see today. Ralph Peters would find it difficult to refute Shurz’s "watchword of true patriotism":

"The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming ‘My country right or wrong.’ In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right."

There are darker currents in Peters’s screed than simple ignorance of what America really stands for. He calls duly elected representatives of millions of Americans "traitors" — members of the "Osama bin Laden Fan Club" — because they dare to criticize his government. The overall tone of his diatribe makes his sop to the Constitution a joke: "Reasoned dissent is patriotic, but serving as propaganda agents for mass murderers is something else." Peters, and those for whom he speaks, appear to be blind to the many constitutionally acceptable ways of protecting the nation from terrorism. That makes them as much a threat to our democracy as Osama bin Laden will ever be.

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