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« Big News | Main | This Week In Tyranny »

The Right Rediscovers Civil Liberties (For Now)

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Conservative blogs erupted this week over the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) report on right wing extremism. Glenn Greenwald noted the discrepancy that these were generally supporters of Bush-era domestic spying programs. However, at the first sign the same security apparatus turned its attention to their end of the political spectrum under a Democratic president they were outraged. That in turn prompted a new round of responses, which along with the initial reactions seems to belong to one of the following categories:

Running through the commentary were complaints that those of us who have been warning about the erosion of civil liberties during the Bush years are somehow OK with this latest development. It is an easy accusation to shoot down since the very people noting the hypocrisy on the right generally pointed out their own objections to the DHS report as well:

  • Greenwald - “the DHS description of these groups seems excessively broad”
  • Andrew Sullivan - “I share the general unease about this kind of surveillance.”
  • Thoreau - “I don’t really want anybody to wind up on the wrong end of an unchecked and brutal security apparatus. We all need to stick together here.”

And so on. It is a strange myopia, or probably just willful blindness. The Republican rump and its supporters view this issue as a game, which explains Reynolds’ reasoning: liberals will now bear down on the right because they can. Ignoring Greenwald’s examples of Bush-initiated expansions of executive power, he just flatly asserts that the left “did” it in the 90’s, then it was the right’s turn during the Bush years, and now the left is doing it again. That his position cannot be reconciled with facts or evidence does not appear to trouble him.

Malkin’s position doesn’t square well with reality either. Even if it was true that previous DHS reports hadn’t generalized left wing movements - but see Greenwald’s updates for just such examples - the report states “lone wolves and small terrorist cells…are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.” The extremists are not organizing in a way that ALLOWS them to be so easily identified. (There is also a big difference between monitoring those who plan and engage in explicitly political murder and those, say, engaged in antiwar protesting. One might expect DHS to evaluate those threats differently.)

But the most revealing post is Maguire’s. He writes:

Andrew Sullivan chooses to miss the point and savor an “I told you so moment”, exulting in his criticism of Bush’s shredding of the Constitution and expansion of the “Surveillance State”. Uh huh - the problem with this DHS study is not that they are threatening extra-Constitutional surveillance and interrogation of people; it is that they are coming very close to attempting to criminalize non-violent political dissent. That is deeply problematic even if they do it with all the proper warrants.

He puts “Surveillance State” in quotes but not “Bush’s shredding of the Constitution.” Is that an acknowledgement? It may be an oversight but if not it is a remarkable development. Then look at how much hair splitting is required to defend Bush’s policies but criticize Obama’s. How can he object to stifling political dissent but not the means by which it is done? Don’t warrantless wiretaps and vacuuming up data greatly facilitate suppression and make it more likely? Requirements for obtaining “all the proper warrants” in an expansive and aggrandized security system are far different than in one that is restrained. Legal requirements are not scientific quantities that can be precisely measured, but products of the environment they are created in. If you discount the idea of a burgeoning surveillance state you can’t very well turn around and complain about the lengthening shadow of Big Brother. The two are linked, and trying to compartmentalize them looks silly.

Now, the report concludes by saying DHS “will be working with its state and local partners,” and that has an ominous ring to it. The devil is in the details; partnerships that involve deployment of the military or fusion centers, for example, should be strenuously opposed. And it is gratifying to see some on the right finally having their “come to Jesus” moment, whatever the reason. Maybe now we can work together to roll back some of the worst civil liberties encroachments. If we are lucky we will get those safeguards in place before the next Republican is sworn in as president and the right reverts to its erstwhile position.

Reader Comments (7)

I used to constantly tell the righties that giving such unilateral power to the president was bad. Inevitably, much to their chagrin, a "liberal" would eventually get elected and then use those broadened powers against them, like taking their guns away, etc., but they just continued to bitch and whine about how "liberals hate America" and "the president (Bush) needs the power to keep us safe", .... blah, blah, blah.

April 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJimW

The rot began long ago, before anybody was making noises about "Red" or "Blue".

The destruction of civil liberties started with the DrugWar, which both 'conservative' and 'liberal' played one-upmanship in ratcheting up the penalties for. Given that the only way to 'fight' the 'War on (Some) Drugs" required the diminution of civil liberties, such as eviscerating the 4th Amendment, the groundwork for the execrable PATRIOT Act and the MCA was laid. ..and it was begun under Tricky Dick's watch (that alone should have been enough of a warning).

This is nothing new. And so-called 'liberals' bear as much responsibility as do 'conservatives' for the mess being allowed to continue and mutate into what it's become.

April 17, 2009 | Unregistered Commenternemo

A very good example of the potential was the Republican National Convention last year. Where was the outrage then when people,including journalist,were just rounded up and detained for no apparent cause.

April 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJim M

I had to re-read that Maguire paragraph a few times because the internal contradiction is so striking. Going to the post and reading it in context makes it no better. You're right when you point out, "How can he object to stifling political dissent but not the means by which it is done?" But since the warrantless surveillance is unconstitutional as well, Maguire is essentially saying, it's okay to shred the Constitution (the 4th Amendment) as long as you don't shred the Constitution (the 1st Amendment). He's trying to split hairs, but the hair is a Mobius strip. His piece reads as cognitive dissonance and the desperate BS of an authoritarian tribalist to me.

April 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBatocchio

Thanks Batocchio - I'm glad I'm not alone at being a little bewildered by his logic. Sometimes you read stuff like that and think, "is it me or is it him?"

April 17, 2009 | Registered CommenterDan

A couple of years back I got into a lengthy debate with a right winger who was all in favor of the new surveillance state and torture regime. When I pointed out that all it took was an election and those same tools could be put in the hands of his opponents, his response was that democrats would be too weak to use them so he didn't have to worry. In other words, he was confident that illegal acts would only be committed upon people he didn't like so he didn't have a problem.

The problem with "Maybe now we can work together to roll back some of the worst civil liberties encroachments" is that they aren't actually interested in the notion of civil liberties. They are only interested in having everything always go their way. I'm not saying we shouldn't fight to protect their liberties as well as our own. I'm saying you can't work with them if you actually want to achieve anything.

April 17, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterlinus bern

Dan, I'm re-reading The Authoritarians by Bob Altremeyer right now, and it seems highly relevant. I'm not as familiar with Maguire as I am some other conservatives, so I don't know precisely where all of his views fall But it sure looks like his thought process was, however unconsciously, "Wait, there must be <I>some reason it's wrong under Obama but was right under Bush!"

And Linus has a point. If you care about civil liberties, you'll defend them for everyone, and rule-of-law conservatives join with liberals on that one. There's common ground there. But the rightwing authoritarians think entirely differently. For instance, they hold that torture is wrong when done to them but right when done to people they don't like. Morality for them is authority-based and a matter of tribal identity versus objective principle.

I don't think any of that means we don't address arguments on the merits or argue rationally. But some people don't want to have a rational discussion, and after you try a few times, it can be wise for mental health to move on to members of the reality-based community. (Bruce Reed wrote a great essay years back on the differences between wonks and hacks – but there are also sincere but mistaken zealots.)

April 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBatocchio

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