In the early days of the Obama presidency, the pledges to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and to end the “war on terror”—if only semantically—seemed to signal a moment in which the extraordinary executive powers claimed by previous administrations could be rolled back. So, when The Decline and Fall of the American Republic was published in 2010, outlining Bruce Ackerman’s proposal of serious measures to address the previous 50 years of constitutional affront, it was possible to imagine that this new centrist president could install the necessary checks on his own power. If only.
Now, at the book’s paperback publication, we see how truly prescient Ackerman’s been proven, with the book’s then-hypothetical power grabs having become all too real. In the excerpt below, Ackerman details a system for containing the urge to assert new powers after terrorist attacks—new powers that we’ve since seen asserted.
We are at a distinctive moment in modern history: the state is losing its monopoly over the means of mass destruction. Once a harmful technology escapes into the black market, it’s almost impossible for government to suppress the trade completely. Think of drugs and guns. Even the most puritanical regimes learn to live with vice on the fringe. But when a fringe group obtains a technology of mass destruction, it won’t stay on the fringe for long.
The root of our problem is not Islam or any ideology, but the free market in death. Smaller and smaller groups can obtain more and more lethal weapons at a lower and lower cost—creating a continuing risk of devastating attack. Even if Al Qaeda disintegrates, fringe groups from other places will rise to fill the gap. We won’t need to look far to find them. If a tiny band of native extremists blasted the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, others will detonate suitcase A-bombs as they become available, eagerly giving their lives in the service of their self-destructive vision.
The distinctive contours of this problem aren’t illuminated by standard war talk. Even the greatest wars in American history have come to an end: When Lincoln or Roosevelt asserted extraordinary war powers over American citizens, everybody recognized that they would last only till the Confederacy, or the Axis, was defeated. But the black market in weaponry—a.k.a. the “war on terror”—will never end: whatever new powers are conceded to the commander-in-chief in this metaphorical war, he will have forever.
A downward cycle threatens. After each successful attack, the president will extend his war powers further to crush the terrorists—only to find that a very different terrorist band manages to strike a few years later. This new disaster, in turn, will create a popular demand for more repression, and on and on. Even if the next half-century sees only two or three serious attacks, the pathological political cycle will prove devastating to civil liberties by 2050.