Civil Liberties and Endless War

Civil Liberties and Endless War

Civil libertarians have tolerated the normalization of perpetual, if more sanitary, war.

With a response by David Cole.

Protest against torture and indefinite detention at Guantanamo, Jan. 11, 2015 (Stephen Melkisethian)
This article is part of  Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” To read David Cole’s counter-argument, click here.

Civil libertarianism was not written into America’s national code. Rather, it has been a strategy of progressives. It often works by denying that it is a strategy, and by claiming merely to serve America’s founding commitments or the incontestable norms of human dignity, without choice or cost. But from time to time, it is worth naming it as a strategy and evaluating how—and what—it is doing.

Civil libertarianism in the United States began, in fact, as a leftist response to the persecution of communists and pacifists during and after the First World War (when the U.S. Supreme Court began defending freedom of speech). Its advocates were internationalists and radicals who claimed that their values were as American as apple pie. ACLU co-founder and then fellow traveler of the Soviet experiment Roger Baldwin helped found the U.S. movement for the sake of his pacifist values. He privately advised followers “to get a good lot of flags” and “talk a good deal about the Constitution” as part of his strategy to represent the movement’s precepts as if they were what Americans already believed.

But such public relations came—and still comes—at a price. The focus on civil liberties singles out certain issues rather than others, and risks making the strategy the goal, converting means into ends. Even if it is just a ranking of priorities, focusing on one burning problem configures our possibilities and intervenes in a particular way. I think it is now fair to voice the worry that, in its post–9/11 form, our civil libertarian response has accompanied the rise of “hygienic war.” Endless, though clean, war, is one of the main legacies of our time.

Not only have civil libertarians generally failed to connect with broader antiwar politics—such as by failing to join opposition to the Iraq war in 2003—but they have also tolerated the normalization of perpetual, if more sanitary, war. American liberalism was once haunted by its participation in, indeed sometimes escalation of, the Cold War, most memorably during the Vietnam disaster. In the long view, it is worth asking whether the contribution of an otherwise upright culture of civil liberties to the rise of hygienic war is a parallel to—even a continuation of—that mistake.

The prioritization of civil liberties by American liberals since 9/11 has been an immense contribution. We have read about torture, and Guantána...

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