War Comes With Unintended Consequences

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Despite conventional elements, like the movement of troops toward borders, the United States’ War on Terrorism resembles no other. It has been declared upon a strategy, not a nation, and it was declared swiftly, before the real debate on the consequences of war could occur.

Even the rush to war occasioned by the bombing of Pearl Harbor was preceded by years of conflict in Europe during which anti-war coalitions, such as the isolationist group America First, spoke out. The anti-war voices that are just now starting to cry out against measures that may destroy freedom in an attempt to save it were caught off-guard and stunned by Sept. 11. Only now are peace marches hitting the streets, with a major protest across from the White House being planned for Saturday. Washington, D.C., police spokesman Sgt. Joe Gentile has warned that the protesters will encounter "a big contingent of trained officers."

Many people who champion civil liberties over increased security or who favor peace are being targeted by the same public rage and paranoia that has caused American-Arabs to live in fear. I know this personally. In the wake of two rather moderate calls for restraint in responding to the terrorist attacks, I have received hundreds of hate e-mails.

Yet there is a screaming need to question the incredible transfer of political power from the people to the government that may be underway. The dramatically expanded powers of electronic surveillance the government is seeking would have caused a ferocious backlash only two weeks ago. In the wake of the attacks, the objection to this violation of civil liberties was, until recently, barely mumbled.

It is necessary to speak of the consequences of a war that has no specified enemy and no definable endpoint.

As long as one terrorist exists, America will be at war with that individual and with all nations that do not co-operate. Given that conflict breeds terrorism, Operation Infinite Justice may come to resemble nothing so much as Orwell's "perpetual war for perpetual peace" in the dystopian novel, 1984.

Infinite Justice may resemble 1984 in another way: "Big Brother" surveillance and thought control.

In any war, a government conducts hostilities on at least three fronts: The enemy nation — in this case any government that aids a terrorist; the ordinary people of that nation; and members of its own citizenry who dissent—those who say in some manner, "Hell no, I won't go!"

The well-documented suppression of political dissent during the Vietnam years was not merely true of that era. Civil liberties have always been a casualty of war, from the destruction of the labor movement during World War I to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Each generation looks back in dismay at how eagerly their parents surrendered the freedom that is America. Yet each generation rushes to do the same.

The consequences of war on civil liberties come in two broad varieties: intended and unintended.

There has been no war, from the American Revolution through the Civil War to the Persian Gulf, that did not involve aggressive censoring of the channels of communication by the government. With the U.S. Department of Justice's endorsement of the email monitoring system Carnivore and it's statements applying wiretapping to the Internet, it seems the government is now equiping itself to censor the Internet.

One intended consequence of a government granted greater authority to monitor emails and other expanded electronic surveillance powers could likely be the chilling — if not outright deep-freeze — of free speech on the Internet.

Just as Vietnam was the first war to come alive in people's parlors through TV broadcasts, Infinite Justice will be the first one to spin out over the Internet. Some of the people murdered in the World Trade Center had time to talk to their families or to leave heartbreaking messages on answering machines before dying. Imagine a world in which victims of war can communicate their fears and losses instantaneously to the global community.

The images of napalmed children and nightly listings of dead American soldiers took the heart out of militarism in the 1970s. Live cyber-broadcasts of the Infinite Justice military campaign are likely to do the same.

Moreover, the Internet is now the vehicle of anti-war protest. Tens of millions of Americans have deep reservations about the war, but these people are not represented in the media. They can be heard, however, on the bulletin boards and e-mail lists of the Internet.

The suppression of free speech and the surveillance of peaceful citizens will be among the intended consequences of the war. That is, authorities will take specific steps to accomplish those specific goals.

The unintended consequences of military actions will be more dangerous. War causes society to convulse; it shatters the normal morality by which people would not dream of killing a stranger; it creates strange politics.

Consider just one example: Mainstream feminism grew directly out of the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Though the feminist movement was largely left-wing, it benefited tremendously from the credibility the left gained for being in the forefront of the battle against Vietnam.

Because of the opportunity for legitimacy the anti-war movement gave the left, America experienced a paradigm shift through which liberalism and political correctness came to dominate. The creation of feminism and the ascendancy of the left were unintended consequences of the Vietnam War. No onw could have predicted the radical movements that would emerge under the banner of peace or how destructive they would later become. The grandchildren of those who advocated the war in Vietnam are still living with the consequences of their advocacy.

That is the point.

America is poised to plunge into a war without specified enemies, with no defined end, and so far without an expansive and honest discussion of the consequences. Those with reservations about this war must speak loudly and clearly the two words upon which all freedom ultimately rests...

I disagree.

McElroy is the editor of


. She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women(McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada.