Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Decline and Fall of the American Empire

Robert Harris has a sobering article in yesterday's New York Times. "Pirates of the Mediterranean" draws comparisons between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and those on Rome's port at Ostia in 68 BCE, and even more ominously, between American and Roman responses to the attacks:
"Consider the parallels. The perpetrators of this spectacular assault were not in the pay of any foreign power: no nation would have dared to attack Rome so provocatively. They were, rather, the disaffected of the earth... Like Al Qaeda, these pirates were loosely organized, but able to spread a disproportionate amount of fear among citizens who had believed themselves immune from attack...

"What was to be done? Over the preceding centuries, the Constitution of ancient Rome had developed an intricate series of checks and balances intended to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual...But such was the panic that ensued after Ostia that the people were willing to compromise these rights... Pompey was to be given not only the supreme naval command but what amounted in fact to an absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone... Powers had been ceded by the people that would never be returned...

"Those of us who are not Americans can only look on in wonder at the similar ease with which the ancient rights and liberties of the individual are being surrendered in the United States in the wake of 9/11. The vote by the Senate on Thursday to suspend the right of habeas corpus for terrorism detainees, denying them their right to challenge their detention in court; the careful wording about torture, which forbids only the inducement of 'serious' physical and mental suffering to obtain information; the admissibility of evidence obtained in the United States without a search warrant; the licensing of the president to declare a legal resident of the United States an enemy combatant — all this represents an historic shift in the balance of power between the citizen and the executive.

"An intelligent, skeptical American would no doubt scoff at the thought that what has happened since 9/11 could presage the destruction of a centuries-old constitution; but then, I suppose, an intelligent, skeptical Roman in 68 B.C. might well have done the same."
Thanks to Matt Bertrand for the link.


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