Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.” ~ George Santayana
On May 9, 2007, with little attention from the snoozing media, George W. Bush issued a “presidential directive” that allows him to assume control of the federal government following a “catastrophic emergency.”
Although the directive doesn’t specifically identify the types of emergencies that would qualify as “catastrophic,” it is vague enough to encompass “any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government function.” As Matthew Rothschild of The Progressive noted, it could include “another 9/11, or another Katrina, or a major earthquake in California.” In fact, the language is so broad that it could include almost anything the public is led to believe might have a major impact on the country. Not surprisingly, the president’s order comes neatly packaged within the trappings of national security and safety.
This directive followed on the heels of a bill, which I have previously written about, that was pushed through Congress and which gave the president the power to declare martial law and establish a dictatorship. Under these provisions, the president can now use the military as a domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, disease outbreak, terrorist attack or any “other condition.”
In other words, the groundwork has been laid for the president of the United States to do away with our democracy, such as it is, and establish a dictatorship. The president, in effect, has become a power unto himself.
Having said that, I’m aware that I have opened myself up to accusations of paranoia and alarmist sentiment. However, if it is paranoid or alarmist to recognize the potential for abuse and urge Americans to guard against it, then so be it. It’s time to sound the alarm.
If we continue down this road, there can be no surprise about what awaits us at the end. After all, it is a tale that has been told time and again throughout history. For example, over 70 years ago, the citizens of another democratic world power elected a leader who promised to protect them from all dangers. In return for this protection, and under the auspice of fighting terrorism, he was given absolute power.
This leader went to great lengths to make his rise to power appear both legal and necessary, masterfully manipulating much of the citizenry and their government leaders. Unnerved by threats of domestic terrorism and foreign invaders, the people had little idea that the domestic turmoil of the times – such as street rioting and the fear of Communism taking over the country – was staged by the leader in an effort to create fear and later capitalize on it. In the ensuing months, this charismatic leader ushered in a series of legislative measures that suspended civil liberties and habeas corpus rights and empowered him as a dictator.
On March 23, 1933, the nation’s legislative body passed the Enabling Act, formally referred to as the “Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Nation,” which appeared benign and allowed the leader to pass laws by decree in times of emergency. What it succeeded in doing, however, was ensuring that the leader became a law unto himself. The leader’s name was Adolf Hitler. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Yet history has a way of repeating itself. Hitler’s rise to power should serve as a stark lesson to always be leery of granting any government leader sweeping powers. But we are clearly not heeding that lesson.
Americans are being lulled to sleep by the government’s constant warning that terror and destruction lurk around the corner. Color-coded terrorism threat levels and reports of alleged terrorism plots are constantly paraded before us. Indeed, since 9/11, the American people have been kept in a state of constant fear and expectation of yet another terrorist attack or, more subtly, another Katrina. Thus, while the recent spate of directives giving the U.S. president broad powers to supposedly ensure America’s safety and security from terrorism and natural disaster should serve as a warning, they have caused barely a ripple among the media or the masses.
President Bush has assured us that he will do whatever it takes to keep America safe, and Americans have blindly trusted him. How did he reward that trust? First, he claimed the authority to permanently imprison American citizens alleged to be so-called “enemy combatants.” Then he asserted his right to order government intelligence agencies to not only spy on America’s enemies but also on Americans. Now he has quietly and unobtrusively granted himself the power to take control of the government in the event of a vaguely defined national emergency.
James Madison, the father of our Constitution, said that Americans should take alarm at the first experiment upon their liberties. But this latest “presidential directive” is not the first attack on our liberties, and I dare say it will not be the last. We’d better open our eyes soon, lest we wake up one morning and find that we live under a new regime. Only, this time, it will be one of our own making.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. John W. Whitehead