Democracies that are under the threat of destruction face the impossible dilemma of either yielding to that threat by preserving the democratic niceties, or violating their own principles by curtailing democratic rights.
The Atlantic Monthly posed this question to its readers and posted some of the answers in the March issue: “What was the worst year in history.” One of the answers – ” 2001, the worst year in U.S. History; we lost our Constitution.”
The destruction of the two towers in New York in 2001 was certainly a catastrophe. Our nation was not “under threat of destruction” from terrorism and is not today, but our Constitution was and is. We have violated our constitutional principles, and since it appears that we are in an unending and undeclared war against terrorism we may never get them back. Take, for example, Amendment IV:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons,houses, papers, and effects , against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be Violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Can anyone read the Fourth Amendment and not come to the firm conclusion, regardless of what the courts and the executive branch say, that NSA surveillance is unconstitutional? Does NSA surveillance particularly describe the persons, places, or things to be searched? No.
The quote at the beginning of this post is by Richard J. Evans in The Coming Of the Third Reich, the first in a three-volume history of Nazi Germany. At the end of the book, he sums up the factors that paved the way for the coming of the Nazis. (Interestingly, Evans describes the twelve-year Nazi reign as a “permanent state of emergency that was more fictive than real”; not much different from our seemingly permanent war on terror.)
The death of democracy in Germany was part of a much broader European pattern in the interwar years; but it also had very specific roots in German history and drew on ideas that were part of a very specific German tradition. German nationalism, the Pan-German vision of the completion through conquest in war of Bismarck’s unfinished work of bringing all Germans together in a single state, the conviction of the superiority of the Aryan race and the threat posed to it by the Jews, the belief in eugenic planning and racial hygiene, the military ideal of a society clad in uniform, regimented, obedient, and ready for battle – all this and much more that came to fruition in 1933 drew on ideas that had been circulating in Germany since the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Some of these ideas, in turn, had their roots in other countries or were shared by significant thinkers within them . . . they came together in Germany in a uniquely poisonous mixture, rendered all the more potent by Germany’s preeminent position as the most advanced and most powerful state on the European Continent.