(Please welcome Salon blogger and author Glenn Greenwald who is here to discuss his book A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency. You can read an excerpt here — JH)
After 9/11, I remember being quite surprised that the US government would so freely use the phrase “good and evil” when our attackers had been extreme religious fanatics. Laden as those words are with religious association, it seemed to me to be fanning the flames when a smarter approach would have been to distance ourselves from such rhetoric and try to redirect the focus to more rational ground. I did a post quite early on in which I compared speeches by George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden in which their frequent references to God and good and evil and satan were nearly indistinguishable. Both speeches could have come right out of the 13th century. (It was one of the creepiest posts I ever did, and I recall that at the time we were in the grip of such paranoia, I wondered if I would gather the attention of the authorities for writing such a thing.)
From very early on Bush used archaic religious verbal constructions like “the evil ones” and “evil-doers.” Perhaps the most startling example is what he reportedly told Palestinian Prime Minister Mamhoud Abbas in 2003: “God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East. If you help me I will act, and if not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them.” Yikes.
It turns out that anachronistic verbiage was much more than boneheaded rhetoric. As Glenn Greenwald convincingly lays out in devastating detail in his new book “A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency”, this war between “good ‘n evil” became the all-purpose justification for the lawless usurpation of the bedrock values of our constitution. From the extended excerpt in Salon Magazine:
Because the threat posed by The Evil Terrorists is so grave, maximizing protections against it is the paramount, overriding goal. No other value competes with that objective, nor can any other value limit our efforts to protect ourselves against The Terrorists.
That is the essence of virtually every argument Bush supporters make regarding terrorism. No matter what objection is raised to the never-ending expansions of executive power, no matter what competing values are touted (due process, the rule of law, the principles our country embodies, how we are perceived around the world), the response will always be that The Terrorists are waging war against us and our overarching priority — one that overrides all others — is to protect ourselves, to triumph over Evil. By definition, then, there can never be any good reason to oppose vesting powers in the government to protect us from The Terrorists because that goal outweighs all others.
But our entire system of government, from its inception, has been based upon a very different calculus — that is, that many things matter besides merely protecting ourselves against threats, and consequently, we are willing to accept risks, even potentially fatal ones, in order to secure those other values. From its founding, America has rejected the worldview of prioritizing physical safety above all else, as such a mentality leads to an impoverished and empty civic life. The premise of America is and always has been that imposing limitations on government power is necessary to secure liberty and avoid tyranny even if it means accepting an increased risk of death as a result. That is the foundational American value.
It is this courageous demand for core liberties even if such liberties provide less than maximum protection from physical risks that has made America bold, brave, and free. Societies driven exclusively or primarily by a fear of avoiding Evil, minimizing risks, and seeking above all else that our government “protects” us are not free. That is a path that inevitably leads to authoritarianism — an increasingly strong and empowered leader in whom the citizens vest ever-increasing faith and power in exchange for promises of safety. That is most assuredly not the historical ethos of the United States.
No, it is not. Greenwald has written a book that finally gets to the meat of the matter and addresses the underlying error that has led inexorably to all the errors that followed. The Bush administration took a simplistic, Manichean, “good vs evil” approach to the threat of Islamic terrorism, and in that one act handed them a victory. One of the great advances of our civilization is the recognition that the line between good and evil is not between one group and another group; the line between good and evil lies inside every human being. All it took was a handful of religious fanatics with a willingness to commit suicide to make an awful lot of Americans forget that.
All of you know that Glenn is a writer of rare insight who cuts through the spin and the rhetoric to see the underlying motives and impulses that drive this administration to consistently seek to weaken, if not destroy, the fundamental tenets of our constitution. There is nobody writing today who can as forcefully explain, with both lawyerly precision and personal passion, just how important it is that Americans take these issues seriously if we want to preserve our democracy. The greatest threat to our way of life comes not from the terrorists but from our own complacency in allowing a creeping authoritarianism to change our definition of what it is to be a free people.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Glenn Greenwald to the FDL Book Salon …