Patriotism by John Denvir
Over 3000 people died in the
World Trade Center attacks. The victims were as blameless as
you or I. So it is natural that we ask that the terrorists who
planned the attacks be punished and that all necessary steps
be taken to prevent other such heinous crimes.
Our leaders tell us what steps
are necessary in this new "war against terrorism."
Some of the new weapons seem to contradict just those principles
we see America as representing. We are told that suspected aliens
are to be tried by military courts without normal due process
guarantees, that lawyer-client conversations are subject to government
eavesdropping, that over a thousand aliens are being held incommunicado
in government prisons, and that thousands of muslim students
are to be required to submit to questioning by government agents.
The President and the Attorney
General tell us that in this time of national emergency patriotism
requires that we trust the government not to abuse its powers.
But a fresh viewing of Ingmar Bergman's The Serpent's Egg
convinces me that patriotism counsels just the opposite course
of action. Suspicion, not docility, is the proper response.
The Serpent's Egg is set in Germany in 1923, a time
of runaway inflation, extremist politics of left and right, and
a growing anti-Semitism stirred by the nascent Nazi movement.
The plot concerns two unemployed circus performers who are stranded
in Berlin without means of support. They face their predicament
with completely different attitudes. One, Manuela (Liv Ullman),
constantly displays a trusting, positive attitude. She never
loses faith that things will get better, and when they don't
she's likely to blame herself instead of others. Manuela is a
very likeable person. Her brother-in-law Abel (David Carradine)
is anything but likeable. He's suspicious, self-pitying, ungrateful
to those who try to help, and prone to sudden bouts of violence.
Abel repels us just as much as Manuela attracts us.
Yet Abel's paranoia serves
him better than Manuela's trust does her. Her docility prepares
her for the role of victim in a Nazi plot which Abel's suspicious
nature enables him to uncover and escape.
I draw from this the moral
that sometimes trust is not a virtue. Paradoxically, it is in
times of national emergency that suspicion of government is most
necessary. It's then that the temptation to sacrifice our democratic
liberties on the altar of national security is most strong. The
patriotic citizen, especially the patriotic lawyer, has a duty
to demand that the government make its case whenever it proposes
a curtailment of civil liberties.
What sort of suspicions should
we harbor about the use of military tribunals? The government
tells us that they are necessary to prevent the disclosure of
national security secrets, but that seems a specious argument
in light of the fact that we already have laws in effect that
protect such secrets in federal courts. Why would the government
still want military tribunals? Maybe they know that federal courts
will not accept hearsay evidence and would reject confessions
where detainees have been subjected to torture or degrading treatment
such as long periods of sleep deprivation. There is no proof
that the government is using improper tactics; we have no information
on how these detainees are being treated because they have not
been allowed access to lawyers. But we do know that our closest
allies, Britain and Israel, have used such tactics against suspected
There is also something very
troubling about rounding up tens of thousands of Arab students
for questioning. Not only is there the haunting memory of the
World War II incarceration of Japanese-American citizens, but
also the lack of any proven connection between these students
and the September 11 attacks. One suspects that the government
might use small student visa violations unrelated to terrorism
as levers to force Arab students to spy on legal groups which
oppose American policy. This was a favorite tactic of the communist
secret police in East and Europe during the Cold War. And, unfortunately,
we also have a history of unlawful subversion by the FBI of lawful
groups like Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership
Maybe I am being a little paranoid;
perhaps we can trust John Ashcroft to go no farther than absolutely
necessary in the curtailment of democratic liberties. I hope
so. But until we know exactly what the government is doing, my
take is that the patriotic stance demands that we ask questions
and demand evidence. Docility is not a democratic virtue, nor
is suspicion of government a democratic vice.
Posted December 13, 2001
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