Recently I had the pleasure of viewing the new documentary about Benazir Bhutto’s life, entitled Bhutto. A theme in the movie and in Ms. Bhutto’s life was her belief that the threat from military dictatorships and extremism could only be defeated through democracy rather than the bullet. In the United States, this lesson should not soon be forgotten as the nation confronts the growth of global terrorism and begins to limit the civil liberties that made this a free nation. Indeed, there a question one must ask as we continue this fight: if civil liberties are being disregarded, are we truly winning the fight against terrorists who wish nothing more than to prohibit these same freedoms?
Although the fear spread after 9/11 sped up the devolution of American democratic principles, this has been a long-developing phenomenon. The Supreme Court had previously put limits on civil liberties during times of war based on a literalist understanding of the Constitution. These literalists believe no matter how much a society has altered over the course of its development, the government is permitted to do anything the Constitution allows for. In this case the US Constitution of 1776 is taken to be a static scripture to be read in literal only.
The most abhorrent example of America’s highest judicial body allowing for a massive injustice to occur was during World War 2. The internment, or imprisonment, of thousands of Japanese-Americans during this period was a policy pursued by the President through executive order. The President believed that anyone with Japanese heritage would give information to the enemy, and in Korematsu v. U.S., the Court upheld this seemingly racist conclusion. The Court looked to the Constitution and found that under the literal understanding of the War Powers of Congress and the President, could pursue this policy based on racism and violating the basic principles of democracy.
In many ways, the injustices carried out by the Supreme Court based on their literalism resembles, to a less violent degree, the brutal rule of extremists who also utilize a literalist understanding of their guiding document, the Koran. The brutality of Taliban rule has not been forgotten by the millions of Afghans and Pakistani who have suffered under this system over the last few decades. Much of this brutality was based on medieval-style punishments levied by Taliban-led Sharia courts whose understanding of the Koran was unfeelingly rigid. While the U.S. courts legitimized the illegal imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, the Taliban has maimed and murdered hundreds of thousands of people based on their limited understanding of the Koran.
The most ironic element to the War on Terror has been that the U.S. compromised the very principles that made it a free society in order to “defeat” the threat from extremists abroad. While the U.S. once guaranteed its citizens’ privacy from government intrusion and allowed for individuals to freely speak and exchange ideas, this changed after 9/11. In the aftermath of this devastating incident, the U.S. lost some of its democratic credibility by utilizing military courts, torture practices, and spying on citizens through the Patriot Act. All of this was supported by the literalist Court who found nothing wrong with limiting the very freedoms of our society which our enemies wish to attack and eliminate.
The implications for the U.S. to maintain its democratic way of life is even more important than during World War 2. The spread of non-state terrorism in poor nations across the Middle East and South Asia has created a far more dangerous foe than the state enemies of Japan and Germany during the Second World War. It has now become increasingly difficult to differentiate friend from foe, which is even more reason that the American reputation for protecting its citizens’ civil liberties is paramount. If there is any hope of success for the U.S. to stop the recruitment of terrorism and the growth of safe havens across the globe, it is to show the benefits of an open democratic system. This cannot be done through the bullet but by preserving freedoms at home just as Ms. Bhutto advocated during her lifetime.
There is a second school of thought amongst American legal minds that looks to the Constitution as a living, breathing document that develops over time. They believe that a static understanding of the text has led to injustices in the past including the continuation of slavery, and they thus look to the spirit of the Constitution to dictate how they preserve rights. Such an understanding in the Korematsu case would have led the Court to rebuke the President’s actions as incompatible with the principles of equality and freedom embedded throughout the Constitution.
However, the significance of this idea is more important now as the U.S. confronts extremists who use a literal understanding of the Koran to levy outdated punishments against the same public. Only by embodying the principles of justice and freedom at home can the U.S. truly defeat the ideology of extremists and have the last laugh.