A Summary of the Civil Libertarian Case for a “War” Against Terrorism


By Joe Campbell
February 27th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Liberals and those concerned about civil liberties should embrace the term “war” and policies consistent with some form of a war against terrorism. Bush’s War on Terror has largely discredited this idea because he abused the term, used it as a political wedge issue, and used it as a cloak for his attempts to remove checks to his power. But Obama has a chance to create a framework for a rational and effective war against terrorism – by redefining the aims of this war from aggrandizing the power of the president to preserving the rule of law and our way of life.

Bush’s War on Terror too quickly evolved from a struggle against terrorism to an attack on the rule of law and on any other checks on the president’s power – a war planned in advance of September 11, but justified in the aftermath by a fear of terrorism. The goal of this war was to ensure maximum flexibility for the executive to act which distracted the president from determining and taking the most effective actions. Bush focused on whether he could use torture rather than on whether torture was effective; he wanted the power to detain any individual without any oversight – without taking into account that this would hurt our war aims; he wanted the authority to wiretap and otherwise intercept communications without any limits, and so he authorized the commission of felonies based on a wacky legal theory that expanded his power rather than asking the law to be changed. Bush declared War on Terror but waged war on any checks to his power.

Obama must continue to fight the Wars Against Terrorism1 while reversing Bush’s war against checks on presidential power. Obama must focus on strengthening our society and its’ instutions (including our civil liberties and the rule of law); he must take measures to protect America from catastrophic events and attacks; and he must focus on creating resilient structures that can bounce back after an attack.

Some have asked if war is the right model to achieve these goals. They usually suggest a law enforcement approach instead.

I believe war is the right approach – as war is how a society has always responded to violent existential threats. Terrorism is such a threat. The term war has evolved over time to cover different state responses to these violent existential threats – and in this case it must evolve again. As part of our strategic approach to this war, we must aim to preserve the rule of law and create a more resilient society after an attack. 

At the same time, civil libertarians should realize that if we were to declare the war over, we would leave our society’s values vulnerable in the aftermath of the next attack – as perhaps, Americans shaken and vulnerable, seek a return to war footing, as they sought after September 11, and those liberties granted in peacetime will be once again revoked.

Instead, we must continue this war; but rather instead of seeing the rule of law as an obstacle, preserving it must be our fundamental war aim.

  1. I think the term “War on Terror” is misleading and vague. We need a new formulation. I’m not crazy about “Wars Against Terrorism” but for the moment, it’s the best I’ve got. It conveys both the multiple fronts of the war as well as the primary enemy, a tactic that strikes at the Achilles heel of our society. []