A disturbing chain of events had occurred: war with a seemingly ubiquitous foe had caused the President to make unprecedented inroads into our civil liberties; those suspected of aiding the enemy were held without charges and without access to an attorney for an extended period of time; federal agents were secretly monitoring organizations and people that spoke out against the government, and a complacent Congress seemed ready to agree with the President on everything related to the war effort. Sound like post-9/11 America? You may be surprised to find that the description refers to a much earlier Republican occupying the White House, Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln, during the Civil War, set the precedent for the wartime Executive Branch. He was willing to do everything necessary to save the Union from disintegration, including bending the letter of the law set out in the Constitution. To cope with the dual threats of secession and Northern sympathy for the Confederacy, Lincoln undertook extreme measures. He suspended the almost-sacred writ of habeas corpus without Congressional approval and summarily arrested suspected Confederate spies and supporters, denying them legal representation and the right to appear in court to fight government charges. He closed newspapers that were "obstructing the war" and arrested their editors. The war itself was fought under the cloak of a murky legality; Congress had not approved the critical naval blockade of the South that was slowly choking off Confederate resources nor did it approve his arbitrary decision to increase the size of the military. Such actions are praised, or at least accepted, in historical hindsight because of the result: Lincoln won.
Fast-forwarding ahead almost 150 years, President Bush is faced with a quandary similar to Lincoln's: how to protect the United States from an enemy that threatens its very way of life while at the same time preserving civil liberties. Instead of secession, Mr. Bush must contend with terrorists who fly airplanes into buildings. Instead of the so-called "Northern Copperheads" who overtly supported the Confederate cause, Mr. Bush must deal with the realization that everyone is a potential terrorist, from a person attending flight school in Florida to a seemingly innocent group of people in upstate New York.
In his attempt to protect American lives, Mr. Bush is following a similar path to the one Lincoln took. He has taken measures to ensure that law enforcement officials have the tools at their disposal in their attempt to head-off another attack of 9/11 proportions. Unfortunately, these preventative measures do encroach on some civil liberties. Under the new USA Patriot Act, for example, federal agents can make much broader use of wiretaps. But, far from having "Big Brother watching us," Mr. Bush is simply taking a leaf out of his revered predecessor's book. He understands the necessity of curtailing liberties on a small scale in times of crisis. If we look to Lincoln as a guide, after the threat of terrorism recedes, the tide will roll back towards respecting civil liberties. In view of this, many of the most invasive powers granted to the government under the Patriot Act expire at the end of 2005; though extraordinary measures must be taken during wartime, Mr. Bush along with both Democrats and Republicans of Congress have the foresight to realize that, when the war is over, the increased powers of the Justice and Intelligence Branches must be rolled back.
The authority given to the government at the expense of civil liberties is minimal so far; Mr. Bush cannot summarily arrest dissenting newspaper editors as Lincoln did. However, there does come a point when actions taken in defense of national security can go too far, turning the United States into an Orwellian police state. While the existence of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba is a necessary evil in the fight to keep suspected al-Qaeda operatives off the streets of the civilized world, Camp-X-Ray-style prisons cannot become the next version of Japanese internment camps. Therefore, while we must accept some harsh measures in the pursuit of terrorists, we must not allow these measures to destroy the very values we fight for. In our struggle to preserve freedom from radical extremists, we must not become them, destroying the very freedoms that we wish to protect. Abraham Lincoln was successful in doing both; only time will tell whether George W. Bush can juggle the competing interests of national security and civil liberties as well as Lincoln could.