In Giving Up Our Rights, We’d Lose the War

This op-ed originally appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 11, 2002.

by Jack M. Balkin

Whenever our country faces new threats, changes in constitutional structure soon follow. That was true during both World War II and the Cold War. But these changes do not require us to give up our civil liberties. Quite the contrary: Although World War II began with the internment of Japanese-Americans, our experience of fighting a racist Nazi regime eventually led President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the Armed Forces. The Cold War began with McCarthyite hysteria; yet the need to distinguish ourselves from communist dictatorships eventually led to Brown v. Board of Education and a great flowering of civil liberties. Repeatedly Americans have discovered that we respond best to new dangers when we remain true to our deepest values.

Today many argue that the War on Terrorism requires Americans to surrender their civil rights and restructure our constitutional system to give the President ever greater power. But the lesson of history is precisely the opposite. Poised on the brink of war, with an administration altogether too sure of itself, we need democratic accountability and constitutional safeguards more than ever.

Well before September 11th the Bush Administration sought to operate without interference or consultation and to disclose as little information as possible. Its refusal to reveal who met with Vice President Dick Cheney when the administration was formulating its energy policies is only the most well-known example. The administration’s approach to the press has become increasingly Orwellian, cloaked in euphemisms and newspeak, routinely describing its positions as their opposites and blatantly denying contradictions and shifts in government policy. Secrecy has been its watchword; bullying its strategy of choice.

The events of September 11th only confirmed the administration’s worst instincts about how to govern the nation. Domestically, it rounded up hundreds of immigrants while refusing to release their names to the public. It announced the creation of secret military tribunals with no right of appeal to the judiciary. It detained American citizens in military prisons without the right to consult an attorney or seek judicial review. It ordered a wholesale closure of immigration hearings to the public, barring not only the press but family members. It repeatedly sought to make as much new law as possible without consulting Congress, and it repeatedly insisted before the courts that it had unreviewable power to do whatever it wanted to prosecute the War on Terrorism. In foreign policy it has announced its determination to attack another country preemptively in violation of international law, whether or not Congress gives authorization, and whether or not our allies support us. Only after weeks of protest from congressmen and former government officials did the President grudgingly announce that he would seek Congressional approval for an invasion of Iraq. Even so, administration officials have continued to promote the idea that the United States should wield its military power early, often and unilaterally to secure its interests around the world.

The Bush Administration’s policies are not simply unwise or undiplomatic. They also undermine constitutional government. Open government is crucial to a free society; it keeps government officials honest and deters them from making bad decisions and covering up their mistakes. Democracy presumes that government officials are accountable to the people, but accountability becomes impossible if the people can’t find out what the government is doing in their name. Separation of powers lets the different branches of government check each other’s errors and enthusiasms, but it cannot work if the executive branch insists that it will do whatever it wants anyway. The rule of law prevents government officials from arbitrary action, but it means nothing if the administration can flout international agreements, round up citizens and refuse them access to the courts.

The War on Terrorism is a war to defend our country’s way of life. That way of life includes a commitment to constitutional checks and balances, individual liberty, democratic accountability, open government and the rule of law. It would be ironic indeed if in our zeal to preserve our way of life we destroyed it.

Jack M. Balkin is Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School. His most recent book is What Brown v. Board of Education Should Have Said (New York University, Press, 2001).