Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Civil Liberties in Wartime II

Mark Graber

Last week, I noted that civil liberties and rights were as often expanded as restricted in wartime. One pattern is that administrations use war to pursue preexisting agendas. Roosevelt administration attacks on white only primaries during World War II reflected FDR’s ongoing efforts to build up more electoral support for the New Deal in the South. The Bush administration’s effort to increase police surveillance has far more to do with that administration’s stunted view of due process than winning the war on terrorism. Witness administration refusals to require security checks at gun shows where suspected terrorists have purchased weapons.

Wars have the potential to unite as well as divide. While groups perceived as disloyal, often for racist reasons, suffer severe repression, those perceived as loyal to the cause often gain stature because of military conflicts. Many restrictions on persons of color in the north during the Civil War fell by the wayside as the need for African-American troops increased and stories of their bravery in battle disseminated. 18 year olds gained the right to vote as a direct consequence of Vietnam. Military needs trumped claims for status hierarchy.

The Bush administration will have none of this. Prejudice continues to trump military need when the two conflict. Linguists who specialize in Arabic are being dismissed from the United States military because they are homosexuals. Persons not previously known for advocating gay rights are pleading for the Bush administration to abandon existing restrictions on homosexuals in the military. Donald Hamilton, a member of the National Commission on Terrorism, declares that "(w)e face a drastic shortage of linguists, and the direct impact of Arabic speakers is a particular problem." "It’s not a gay rights issue," one discharged translator insists, "I’m arguing military proficiency issues–they’re throwing out good, quality people." An editorial in the Omaha World Herald proclaims, "(i)t makes no sense for the military to deny itself the use of these soldiers' competence in Arabic, on the grounds cited, at the very time when such expertise has unprecedented value for U.S. defense." An editorial in the normally conservative New York Daily News declares,

All available resources must be marshaled for this life-and-death struggle. How frustrating that this is often not the case. The Pentagon, for instance, has just cashiered nine linguists, six of them Arabic-language specialists, for being gay. Apparently, its new policy is don't ask, don't tell, don't translate. That's madness. We have a potentially deadly shortage of Arabic speakers, and the Defense Department is getting tough on gay translators?
Apparently, however, the Bush administration has other priorities. Pleasing religious conservatives is far more important than having competent Arabic translators. Remarkably, a media that daily praises Bush’s steadfast commitment to victory (whatever that means) never asks why he repeatedly champions his most extreme followers’ domestic concerns when they conflict with wartime needs (whoever fought for tax reduction during a serious war). But, of course, no commission will ever be able to prove that the next terrorist act might have been prevented had a slightly more competent translator seen some materials. As is the case with Bush’s lack of curiosity before 9/11, the ban on gays in the military simply makes an attack somewhat more probable. I guess Karl Rove has decided that politics makes that gamble worth taking.

Besides, what politically motivated gay person would want to serve after watching the smear campaign against John Kerry. Read the headlines in 2024. "Democratic Iraqi War Veteran May Have Exaggerated Heroism" (only saved seven lives, not nine as reported). Politically ambitious twenty year olds are better advised to booze and carouse than serve their country.


Exactly correct--another example would be the priorities of the DOJ, still more focused on drugs than on terrorism. I really wish that this was something that Kerry/Edwards would talk about more...

And all this time I'd thought that "Don't ask, don't tell" was fixed in our laws by the Congress of the United States!

Perhaps we can get you a job at the OLC? You could write memos on the power of the executive to ignore the law! I'm sure that'd go over well in the circles you travel in.

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