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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Several issues

(1) This exchange between Kevin Drum and Atrios is quite revealing. I wish I had more time to add some thoughts, but I will just note that in the course of all the reading I did for my book of the pre-Iraq War "debates" this country had both on television and in print, what is most striking in retrospect is the casual and breezy tone which America collectively now discusses and thinks about war as a foreign policy option, standing inconspicuously next to all of the other options. There is really no strong resistance to it, no sense that it is a supremely horrible and tragic thing in all cases to undertake -- and particularly to start. Gone almost completely from our mainstream political discourse is horror over war. The most one hears is some cursory and transparently insincere -- almost bored -- lip service to its being a "last resort."

There are probably numerous reasons for this. Many claim that the senseless Vietnam disaster instilled in Americans an exaggerated resistance to war, a refusal to recognize it as necessary even when it really was. Whether that is true or not, I think the "wars" the U.S. fought in the 1980s and 1990s led Americans to the opposite extreme. The wars fought by the Reagan administration were covert (in Central America) or absurdly easy and bloodless (in Grenada). But the most consequential force pushing Americans to lose their instinctive resistance to war was probably the First Persian Gulf War -- everyone's favorite. It was the first fully televised war, and it made war seem like nothing more significant than killing bad people by zapping them from the sky with super high-tech, precision weaponry that risked nothing -- war as video game, cheered on safely and clinically from a distance.

We started getting to feel the power and strength that comes from triumph with none of the costs (the fact that "war" is the word we use for almost everything - on terrorism, drugs, etc. has cetainly helped to desensitize us to its invocation; if we wage wars on everything, how bad can they be?). The things that make war tragic and vile were all whitewashed away. That is why the American media never shows truly graphic photos of carnage in Iraq, why the Bush administration bars photographs of American war coffins, and why the few truly brutal though commonplace events that were captured partially on film or video -- Abu Grahib or the Saddam hanging -- resonated so strongly. We are able to forget or pretend that those things are the consequences of the wars we cheer except when we are forced to see them.

In our political discourse, there just no longer is a strong presumption against war. In fact, it's almost as though there is a reverse presumption -- that we should proceed to wage wars on whatever countries we dislike or which are defying our orders in some way unless someone can find compelling reasons not to. The burden is now on those who would like not to engage in a series of endless wars to demonstrate why we should not.

(2) In an interesting development, the legal counsel for the U.S. State Department, John Bellinger, is blogging this week at Opinio Juris, an excellent blog devoted to international law written by international law professors and other assorted experts. Bellinger's post today is devoted to a defense of the "unlawful enemy combatant" designation.

I've been invited by them, along with several others, to write responses to Bellinger's posts (to which he then responds), but unfortunately have not been able to do so yet because of the time constraints imposed by my book deadline. I hope to post something within the next day or two, particularly in response to what Bellinger wrote today. As radical and destructive as the positions are that he's defending, it is commendable that the State Department has sent its top legal official to participate in a blog debate of this sort. The discussion there is worth reading.

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