Give Me Liberty — No, Wait, Give Me Death

Terrorists killed fewer Americans over twenty years than coronavirus has in two months. Yet the Right, which insisted after 9/11 on the need to give up core civil liberties to “save lives,” is now demanding that we accept mass death for the sake of profit.

President George W. Bush poses for photographers after addressing the nation from the White House on September 13, 2007. (Aude Guerrucci-Pool / Getty Images)

The world is strange and confusing right now. But if you’re old enough to have some memory of the Bush years, it may be particularly so.

Unless you’ve joined the army of professional Democrats pining for the return of former President George W. Bush, you might well be suffering from a form of mental whiplash watching conservatives suddenly demand en masse that Americans be given the freedom to get themselves and everyone around them fatally sick. Perhaps the Federalist put it best late last month:

It seems harsh to ask whether the nation might be better off letting a few hundred thousand people die. Probably for that reason, few have been willing to do so publicly thus far. Yet honestly facing reality is not callous, and refusing even to consider whether the present response constitutes an even greater evil than the one it intends to mitigate would be cowardly.

Unfortunately, this monstrous logic has been taken up by a broad swath of the Right, from economists and news anchors to Trump himself. It’s been quite the reversal for the crowd that spent the entirety of this century insisting no expense or civil liberty should be spared to save even the most minute number of American lives from suicide bombers.

It may be hard to remember after the last four years of madness, but over the fifteen years leading up to Trump’s election, American conservatives spearheaded a successful campaign to reorient US domestic and foreign policy around waging a “war on terror.” After the attacks of September 11, 2001 left 2,753 people dead — a horrific number that now makes up just 3.5 percent of the death toll of the coronavirus pandemic so far, and is not much more than the number of Americans dying from the virus every day — the US right proceeded to pour absurd amounts of money and lives into counterproductive wars and various other initiatives aimed at preventing anything similar from happening again, shaming and attacking anyone who dissented as weak and even treasonous.

As the years went by and the nation’s bathtubs remained a bigger threat to American lives than acts of terrorism, the Right remained undeterred. By this point, they’d already erected a sprawling state infrastructure for global spying that more regularly violated the privacy of law-abiding Americans than it actually caught dangerous terrorists. Even so, they maintained, if getting rid of such programs cost even one life, the price wouldn’t be worth it.

“Not Much Worse Than the Flu”

Which is why it’s been astounding, yet not remotely surprising, to see conservatives taking the polar opposite position now that the threat is a pandemic that’s killed twenty-four times more Americans in two months than were killed by terrorists over two decades.

The Wall Street Journal was one of the earliest to get in on the action, warning that while “this should not become a debate over how many lives to sacrifice against how many lost jobs we can tolerate,” the fact was that “no society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its overall economic health.” In other words, the Journal was calling for exactly such a debate.

More than a decade ago, however, the paper was a reliably bullish voice when it came to trampling civil liberties for the sake of stopping terrorism. When civil libertarians criticized the Bush administration’s assertion of the right to indefinitely detain a US citizen without trial — namely accused terrorist plotter Jose Padilla — the paper complained that “absent from the public debate over one man’s rights has been any discussion of the rights of the rest of us — namely, the right to be protected against enemy attack.” At other times, the Journal mocked civil libertarian critics of Bush as hysterical paranoiacs who “think the Stasi has been reborn in the West Wing” or “the KGB has been unleashed on Main Street,” and argued for trying terrorists in military tribunals due to “security concerns.”

“Since 9/11, virtually every proposal to use intelligence more effectively — to connect the dots — has been shot down by left- and right-wing libertarians as an assault on ‘privacy,’” conservative writer Heather MacDonald complained in the paper’s pages, in a piece titled “The ‘Privacy’ Jihad.” “They are pushing intelligence agencies back to a pre-9/11 mentality, when the mere potential for a privacy or civil liberties controversy trumped security concerns.”

In the world’s least surprising development, MacDonald is these days denouncing the “massive overreaction” and “paranoia” over the pandemic that is “completely irrational,” falsely charging that the coronavirus is “really not much worse than the flu.”

She’s far from alone. ABC analyst Matthew Dowd has called for finding a “balance between protecting citizens health and protecting our economy.” Back when he still called himself a Republican, however, Dowd was a strategist for Bush, running ads accusing his Democratic opponent of “playing politics with national security” because he criticized the Patriot Act. It was “another opportunity for us to say Sen. Kerry is way out on the extreme on his views on the Patriot Act,” Dowd said at the time.

This goes beyond just Republican apparatchiks. Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson has said that “we should evaluate the total societal cost of this awful disease and try to put things into perspective,” because “every premature death is a tragedy, but death is an unavoidable part of life.” Johnson was less inclined to wax philosophical about the nature of corporeal existence four years ago, when he hammered his Democratic challenger, former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold, for being the lone vote against the original Patriot Act. “The world’s too dangerous for that,” went one of his negative ads.

For years, Rep. Pat Toomey (R-PA) was a reliable supporter of a variety of civil liberties–shredding anti-terror measures, including the Patriot Act, military tribunals, and the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act that gave the president the power to imprison people for as long as he wanted, and have the military conduct law enforcement on US soil. “I can’t sit by and not give our FBI, our CIA, our NSA, and our Justice Department the tools they need,” he said before voting for the original Patriot Act. Now he’s one of the lawmakers pushing Trump to hurry up and send people back to work in the midst of the pandemic.

It wasn’t even four years ago that former New Jersey governor and Trump’s personal punching bag, Chris Christie, was preening himself (falsely) on being a tough anti-terror prosecutor. “You can’t enjoy your civil liberties if you’re in a coffin,” he once said, while accusing a civil libertarian rival of making the US “weaker and more vulnerable” to a terrorist attack for opposing government surveillance powers. “For me, it is a daily occurrence to look into the eyes of the people who lost their husbands and wives, their fathers and mothers, their sisters and brothers, their sons and daughters,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations. So what’s Christie’s stance now?

“Of course, everybody wants to save every life they can, but the question is: toward what end, ultimately?” Christie recently said about the need to reopen, insisting Americans are simply “gonna have to” accept three thousand deaths a day. Clearly, looking into the eyes of less people now that he’s out of office has taken a toll on Christie.

Same goes for Vice President Mike Pence, who voted again and again to keep controversial provisions of the Patriot Act alive, and backed Bush’s secret (and very illegal) program to collect millions of Americans’ phone records. The terrorists’ “desire to inflict such violence on our homeland and that of our allies is real,” said Pence, who later opposed letting Syrian refugees resettle in Indiana on the basis of “safety and security.” Pence is, of course, now loyally backing Trump’s push to reopen the country during the pandemic, so that “the cure isn’t worse than the disease.”

It’s particularly amusing to see Fox becoming Ground Zero for coronavirus denialism, given that the network was once upon a time the one-stop shop for defending and playing down the extreme measures Bush was taking in the name of fighting “terror” and protecting the “homeland.” When token liberal Fox anchor Alan Colmes complained in 2007 that Bush’s measures were impinging on Americans’ civil liberties, Laura Ingraham replied that “we need to protect this country first,” and that “if we, heaven forbid, have another terror attack in this country, your arguments are going to become so academic.” Naturally, Ingraham is today one of the leading voices demanding a premature “reopening” of the US economy, because “we cannot deny our people their basic freedoms any longer.”

But none of these hold a candle to former Fox anchor Bill O’Reilly, who has been languishing in relative obscurity since being ousted from the network over his serial workplace sexual harassment. Early last month, O’Reilly confidently predicted the US death toll, at the time standing at more than ten thousand, wouldn’t even reach six times that number, and that, either way, “many people who are dying, both here and around the world, were on their last legs anyway.”

What’s rich is that for the better part of twenty years, O’Reilly could be counted on to use his primetime slot at Fox to endlessly yelp about the threat of terrorism, and how dangerous and irresponsible — possibly subversive — any criticism of the Bush administration was over its efforts to fight them. He once said that he “firmly believes the ACLU wants to undermine the military effort in the war on terror,” and that it was “the most dangerous organization in the country.” He wailed that “no country can win a conflict the way the US is fighting the war on terror,” what with all the dissent toward Bush’s policies.

Here was O’Reilly’s reaction to the news of antiwar protesters converging in New York for the 2004 Republican National Convention:

Instead of being slapped on the wrist, violent and damage–causing protesters should be slapped with federal prison time. Most Americans value protest. I certainly do. But we’re fighting a war here. And any act that puts this country in danger is sabotage. Again, a terrorist act.

Here he was in 2008 on then-president-elect Obama’s opposition to torture:

The far left, the ACLU types, wants no interrogation of terror suspects at all. Nothing but Miranda rights and civilian lawyers. Most Americans understand a policy like that would be very dangerous.

And here he was two years before that on liberal opposition to Bush’s anti-terror overreach:

In the end it comes down to this: I believe there will be more blood in American streets if the government eases up on aggressively pursuing the terror killers.

With their latest comments, it’s clear that somewhere down the line, for whatever reason, O’Reilly and his right-wing compatriots evidently learned to stop worrying and embrace “more blood in American streets.”

Two-Party Hypocrisy

It’s hardly news that the Right are shameless hypocrites; they say whatever they need to say to achieve their political goals.

During the Bush era, those included funneling money to military contractors, building a security state to eventually destroy any future left-wing political movement, and beating up on Democrats and liberals as weak and dangerous, so bodily security and saving lives was the issue. Now, those goals have become keeping the wallets of all wealthy industrialists comfortably filled during the pandemic, preventing a sudden, mass contradiction of decades of neoliberal economic nonsense, and beating up on Democrats and liberals as tyrannical and dangerous, so freedom at any price is the issue.

The trouble is that America’s narrow political spectrum is dominated by two sides that flagrantly don’t believe anything they say and make little effort to pretend otherwise. One side spent eight years being the party of centralized government power for the sake of security, before spending eight years caterwauling about government tyranny, and now backs measures to tacitly murder tens of thousands of its own people. The other side spent eight years warning about the imminent, dictatorial danger of a centralized national security state, before quickly adopting and enlarging that same national security state for another eight years. It couldn’t even keep up the pretense that it stood for voting rights and sexual assault survivors for a mere three years before reversing itself on both.

It’s hard to predict where exactly a political system ends up when it’s dominated by cynical actors like these. But history suggests a growing army of people disillusioned and distrustful with an existing political order rarely goes well for the latter.