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The Safety of the Kingdom: Government Responses to Subversive Threats


Since some of my blogs are devoted to discussing my writing and works in progress, I wanted to comment on my latest project. It is titled The Safety of the Kingdom: Government Responses to Subversive Threats. Carrel Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, will publish the manuscript later this year (2015).

The title comes from a quote by William Shakespeare:

Wherein you would have sold your king to slaughter,

His princes and his peers to servitude,

His subjects to oppression and contempt

And his whole kingdom into desolation.

Touching our person seek we no revenge;

But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender,

Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws

We do deliver you.

—William Shakespeare, King Henry V, Act II, Scene ii

This book is to some extent a sequel to my earlier book, Terrorist Attacks on American Soil: From the Civil War Era to the Present (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). The earlier work sought to understand the typology of terrorist attacks in the United States from the 1850s through the 9/11 episode and the lessons to be learned in preparing for future attacks. This book takes up the question of how the United States government typically responds to terrorist attacks and, in the absence of an attack, the fear of foreign and subversive elements that may harm the nation. In some cases, the government “overreaction” leads to a series of abuses that amplifies the severity of the original threat. The objective here is not to select every instance of government reaction to threats, but to examine representative cases.

The horrendous events of September 11, 2001, heightened awareness of terrorism unlike all but a handful of major catastrophes in American history. It is a date forever enshrined in our national memory. Just as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, are stamped on the American psyche, so, too, were the terrorist attacks on symbolic targets in New York City and Washington D.C. and the plane crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

After a terrorist episode occurs, the natural question arises: What should government do to eliminate or reduce the likelihood of a future attack? Often the initial reaction is supported at the outset but later becomes a matter of debate and recriminations. Within six weeks of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, for example, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, commonly referred to as the USA PATRIOT Act (USAPA). The USAPA provided the federal government with enhanced authority to prevent future terrorist attacks. The act allows agencies to request stored information from third party providers, including telephone companies and internet service providers, makes fundamental changes in the application and execution of search warrants, and authorizes agencies to share information that was restricted in the past. The statute was popular in 2001 as Americans struggled to make sense of the horrors they had witnessed. In subsequent years, the USAPA lost much of its political support.

I started the project two years ago. Events in 2013 — the Boston Marathon bombing and Edward Snowden’s disclosure of classified information related to the National Security Agency’s covert surveillance program — highlighted the continued salience of terrorism and subversion as political issues as well as the debate over an appropriate governmental response. At the heart of this debate is the perennial tradeoff between freedom and authority. The debate casts these concepts as antithetical values so that an increase in one value necessarily requires a corresponding decrease in the other.

At one end of the spectrum is absolute freedom, which can be defined as a complete absence of constraints on individual behavior. In a state of absolute freedom, no government exists. A person can do whatever he or she wants. At the other end of the spectrum, a totalitarian state can be created so there is no individual freedom whatsoever. Most U.S. citizens desire a balance — a middle approach. A mixed polity — that is, a regime where people, acting through their elected representatives, make some political decisions but unelected experts also make decisions within their areas of expertise — is the preferred form of government for a people who profess to love individual freedom but also desire a strong state that meets many needs, especially for national defense, protecting free markets, and ensuring equality of opportunity (although the definition of the latter term is highly contentious). The U.S. political system calls to mind Winston Churchill’s famous comment that a democracy is the worst form of government — except, of course, for all the others.

Since September 11, 2001, many books and articles have been published about terrorism and America’s response to the problem of “non-state actors” that engage in violence. Rather than focus on the initial acts that qualify as terrorism and subversion, however, this manuscript will focus on government responses to terrorism and perceived subversion. Sometimes the responses are effective and sometimes they trigger a backlash that leads to abuses at the hands of government agents.

Most books on terrorism focus on the acts themselves. Probably the best book to date on the history of terrorism, at least with respect to militant Islam, is Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Penguin, 2006), which traces the series of events that led up to the September 11th attacks. Although it discusses American policy and its defects, the book primarily traces the bastardization of Islam through the thinking of the men who influenced the development of al-Qaeda. Excellent books also exist on famous cases such as the Unabomber (Alston Chase’s Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist, Norton, 2003), Timothy McVeigh (Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck’s American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing, Harper, 2001), and Eric Rudolph (Maryanne Vollers’s Lone Wolf: Eric Rudolph and the Legacy of American Terror, Harper Perennial, 2007).

Books that discuss the broad concept of the U.S. reaction to terrorism tend to examine specific agencies and actors and how they operate within the institutional structure of American bureaucracy, but they do not examine the underlying laws, except in passing. For example, books in this field typically analyze America’s homeland security apparatus, why it sometimes fails, and where it continues to be vulnerable. Loch K. Johnson’s Bombs, Bugs, Drugs, and Thugs: Intelligence and America’s Quest for Security(New York University Press, 2002) is a prime example. Johnson’s book surveys the entire structure of American intelligence activities, ranging from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to the National Security Council (NSC), and it offers recommendations for improvement. In Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Defending the U.S. Homeland(Praeger, 2008), Anthony S. Cordesman also offers a range of recommendations for improving security and fighting terrorism, from reevaluating what constitutes a threat and bolstering homeland defense measures to improving resource allocation and sharpening intelligence. The list of books in this substratum of the field extends almost ad infinitum.

Other works focus on whether the Bush administration (and, to be fair, its predecessors) failed to combat terrorism effectively. Ron Suskind’s book The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11(Simon & Schuster, 2007) begins with former Vice President Dick Cheney’s assertion that if there is “a one percent chance” that a threat is real, “we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” From there, Suskind explores the mistakes made by America’s intelligence community in responding to twenty-first century threats to homeland security. Thomas E. Ricks has written several books on the mistakes made in fighting terrorism, especially in the flawed decision to fight the Iraqi war. Probably his best known work is Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (Penguin, 2006).

Other books explore terrorism in a broader context as a means of understanding the concept apart from specific failures in American public policy. Caleb Carr, a well-regarded novelist and military historian, provides another excellent exploration of terrorism in The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians (Random House, 2003). The book focuses on terrorism in general throughout the centuries. According to Carr, terrorism employed by national armies as well as extremists is ultimately self-defeating. Instead of prompting submission, it stiffens enemy resolve and never leads to long-lasting success.

A lengthy body of work exists about the government’s efforts to combat subversives. Most of those works, such as Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), Ivan Greenberg’s Surveillance in America: Critical Analysis of the FBI, 1920 to the Present (Lexington Books, 2012), and Shane Harris’s The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State(Penguin, 2011), focus on the efforts of the law enforcement community to implement counterterrorism measures. Even when a work examines legal efforts to handle subversives or terrorists, it usually examines only one specific episode. See as an example Martin Henn’s Under the Color of Law: The Bush Administration's Subversion of U.S. Constitutional and International Law in the War on Terror (Lexington Books, 2010). Once again, the literature in this field is voluminous. An especially trenchant analysis of the war against subversives can be found in Geoffrey R. Stone’s classic work, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime (W. W. Norton, 2004).

My book draws on these sources but it carves out a different niche. Rather than provide a narrative about specific terrorist attacks — as I did in Terrorist Attacks on American Soil: From the Civil War Era to the Present— this work examines government responses owing to fears concerning terrorism and subversion. Accordingly, the book discusses bureaucratic abuses while implementing counterterrorism measures or fighting internal subversives. Abraham Lincoln believed that Democratic “Copperheads” and pro-Confederate forces were undermining his efforts during the Civil War, so he authorized the suspension of the traditional American right of habeas corpus. Concerned about the menace of Communism and anarchism at the end of World War I, Congress enacted the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 to allow government agents to prosecute suspected spies and enemies of the state. Fearful of Japanese subversion in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the military to round up Japanese-Americans and dispatch them to relocation centers. These are a few of the government reactions to terrorism and subversion discussed in the book.

I will discuss more details in my next blog. Stay tuned.


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