Life in American changed twenty years ago after the 9/11 attacks.
Many Americans became enraged at anyone who did not swear allegiance to President George W. Bush’s antiterrorism crusade. Anyone who denied “they hate us for our freedoms” automatically became an enemy of freedom.
Plenty of stalwart defenders of liberty quickly found themselves banished from polite company. At the time of the 9/11 attacks, I had been bashing government policies for twenty years. Conservatives relished my battering of the Clinton administration in books such as Feeling Your Pain (St. Martin’s, 2000). But past writing provided no indemnity for subsequent sins.
Regardless, nothing happened on 9/11 to make the government more trustworthy. Two years after the 9/11 attacks, St. Martin’s Press published my Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil, attacking the war on terror across the board. I scoffed, “The Patriot Act treats every citizen like a suspected terrorist and every federal agent like a proven angel.” When the Justice Department launched a PATRIOT Act propaganda website, lifeandliberty.gov, it included an attack on my writing. As one book publicist told me, I was in “the untouchable part of the intellectual caste system.” Luckily, some outlets did not go to the dark side, including the Mises Institute, the Future of Freedom Foundation, and websites like Antiwar.com and Counterpunch.
I soon recognized that the feds had more fans than I realized, especially among self-proclaimed friends of freedom. In February 2004, I spoke to a hundred folks at the best-known libertarian forum in New York City. Some of the attendees had followed my work for years, while others may have shown up simply to howl at a heretic.
Three minutes into the speech, a paunchy middle-aged guy leaped to his feet and denounced me: “You sound like an isolationist—and that means you are anti-Israel!”
What the hell?
I began to suspect that only people with unmedicated ADHD were permitted in the audience and I’d be lucky to speak three sentences in a row. Attendees were not considered to be hecklers unless they threw physical objects at the speaker. The scene quickly became akin to a political convention, with random people jumping up to make speeches, most of them bad. It is tricky to argue with self-evident truths that were established solely by echo chambers. Plenty of attendees had never recovered from their own high SAT scores.
As the evening progressed, I was accused of everything except advocating infanticide. Perhaps the biggest surprise that night was that many people objected to making fun of the government. A tall, elderly gentleman declared that comical pratfalls by the Transportation Security Administration and the FBI were irrelevant to the “big picture.”
“What’s the ‘big picture?’” I asked.
“The fact that there haven’t been any terror attacks since 9/11 proves the feds are doing a good job,” he declared, spurring loud assents from the audience. He insisted that hundreds of Muslim sleeper cells in the US were waiting for the signal to sow mass death and chaos. I was chagrined to see folks more fearful of alleged invisible Muslim perils than of rampaging federal agencies. I have always considered mocking the government as a trademark of a free citizen. And, as H.L. Mencken wrote, “One horse laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.” At the end of two hours’ sparring, the host gave me a check that was larger than I expected, so all’s well that ends well (or at least profitably).
That brawl was a bellwether on how the freedom movement had changed. A few months later, the Abu Ghraib photos and memos from the Justice Department authorizing torture leaked out. A top Justice Department official had assured the White House that the president was entitled to violate criminal laws (such as the Anti-torture Act) during wartime. That preemptive “get out of jail free” card unleashed interrogation methods such as waterboarding (simulated drowning), pummeling, and long-term sleep deprivation.
There was no way to deny the depravity of Bush’s war on terror after that, right? No such luck. When I spoke at the largest nationwide gathering of freedom activists in Las Vegas and at the national Libertarian Party conference in 2004, I was booed for my criticisms of Bush’s warring and torturing. I was also later booed for opposing torture at the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. Plenty of libertarians were no longer in favor of freedom—unless it included the freedom to torture terrorists. And how do we know who is a terrorist? That’s easy—because someone somewhere claims to suspect them of something.
A few months before the 2004 election, St. Martin’s Press published my book titled The Bush Betrayal, which flogged Bush’s secret arrests, “Total Information Awareness” surveillance schemes, and cult of presidential supremacy. The blog site the publisher created for the book included an email link so readers could send me their thoughts unimpeded by spellcheckers. Here’s a sampling of the fan mail which was reposted on LewRockwell.com in a piece headlined “Bush Supporters Vindicate the President”:
- “You are a communist bastard! … So don’t forget that there are those out here who put there lives on the line for assholes like you to have the freedom of speech—to say what you will—and so can I!”
- “Are you dilusional or just trying to make a buck?”
- “I think we should be torturing these SOB’s … Your concern over the so called ‘torture’ of the prisoners is ludicrous when one looks at how barbaric they are to begin with. What you are caling ‘torture,’ most people would call callege hazing.”
- “You are a very little man. Those of you who don’t appriciate the freedom our sons and daughters paid for make a mockery of their sacrifice. May God have mercy on your soul, you ignorate little person.”
- “You are one sick mother fucker. Why not just support the troops instead of criminilizing them. does history not teach you anything? Like John Kerry is a fucking liar/traitor.”
But maybe not everybody thought like that? Maybe folks would simmer down after Bush was reelected? Alas, as Shakespeare observed, “Hope is a curtail dog in some affairs.”
A few months later, I was flying from Washington to Dallas, two days after Bush’s second inaugural speech. The flight was overstocked with Texans returning after attending celebrations for their former governor. One frumpy lady loudly gushed to an acquaintance in the next row: “Laura looked so wonderful with that designer dress at the ball.” I had no regrets about not being invited to that shindig.
I was stuck in a middle seat between a chubby little fourteen-year-old boy and a tripwire-tense enlisted Air Force man who spent the entire flight watching reruns of bad situation comedies on his laptop. The kid devoted himself to paging through a school textbook and highlighting almost every paragraph with a yellow marker.
As the plane taxied to its takeoff position, the kid asked me, “Did you go to the inauguration Thursday?”
I smiled and said no, and asked if he had gone.
His eyes lit up, his face suddenly seemed cognizant, and he declared, “Yes!” He told me he was from Bush’s hometown, Midland, Texas.
“What did you think of the speech?” I asked.
“I loved every word of it!”
“So you think it is a good idea for the US to be spreading freedom?”
“Oh yes. We have to do that.”
“Are you concerned about going to war to spread freedom?” I asked nonchalantly.
The Air Force dude erupted: “DON’T LISTEN TO HIM! This guy hates America! This guy hates our president! Don’t listen to a single thing he says!” Maybe he didn’t like my beard.
This guy—mid-thirtyish with a semijarhead haircut—swore that the Bush administration never made any false statements on the road to war with Iraq.
I shrugged. “Cheney said Saddam had a reconstituted nuclear weapon.”
“HE NEVER SAID THAT! HE SAID NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAM!! THAT’S WHAT HE SAID!!!”
“Actually, it was on March 17, 2003—on Meet the Press—and …”
“THAT’S A LIE! THAT’S A LIE! SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE!!!”
“Well, if I had my book with me, I could show you.”
“THAT’S A LIE!” He was absolutely convinced that I was determined to smear the nation, the military, and Bush—of whom he proudly said: “He’s my LEADER!”
“You people are going to be proven all wrong next week!” he declaimed very fervently, for someone practically sitting on my elbow.
“Who is ‘you people?’” I asked.
“People like you that hate America and oppose the Iraq War!” Pounding his fist on the armrest, he declared that I was “one of those people who thinks that Arabs don’t want to be free—you don’t care about liberating the Iraqi people. Next week, when the Iraqis go out and vote and become a democracy, you and your kind will be proven totally wrong!”
At that time, the Bush administration was claiming that upcoming parliamentary elections would prove that Iraqis approved of the US invasion. On Election Day, US military convoys rolled through Iraqi neighborhoods shortly after sunrise with loudspeakers blasting orders in Arabic for people to go vote. The Bush administration also secretly and illegally delivered millions of dollars in cash to boost the political campaigns of its favored candidates.
As the flight crossed over the state of Mississippi, the boy proudly told me that he was president of his school class in Midland.
After I congratulated him, he declared that he planned to go into politics.
I asked: “Who is your congressman?”
He gave me a blank look. “I don’t know,” he said, followed by a momentary grimace. This kid was definitely not in the league of Lyndon Johnson, another ambitious Texan famous for coming to Washington as a youth and exploiting every human contact he ever made to maximize his future clout.
During the flight, I was hand editing printed chapters of a forthcoming book. As we neared landing, the boy asked a question or two about my political views. I said I admired the Constitution and favored leashing all politicians and federal agencies.
He squinted and said warily: “You sound like you hate the government.”
I laughed. “No. I don’t hate the government. I just think its power should be limited.”
My answer did nothing to placate his suspicions.
“What do you think the government should be doing? What is its main purpose?” I asked.
The kid paused, struggled briefly, and then replied, “Keep people under control?”
Since that was the new American vision of freedom Bush sought to impose at home and abroad, that boy was backing the right politician. Unfortunately, tens of millions of Americans also revered their ruler’s iron fist.
Whacked and Stacked?
I attended most of the major antiwar protests from 2002 onward. With each passing year, the police became more heavily armored and more aggressive.
In September 2005, hundreds of thousands of marchers protested the Bush administration’s Iraq war. The well-organized event included bevies of activist lawyers stationed along the main route with video cameras to document any police brutality against demonstrators. I walked my bike with the marchers as they passed the Treasury building on the east side of the White House, where I snapped my all-time favorite photo of an overfed, stupefied cop.
After hoofing for a mile with the crowd, I rode off to reconnoiter. There were metal sawhorses scattered all over the nearby streets, making it difficult to recognize what roads were open and which were restricted.
I zipped down the street between Lafayette Park and the White House and then swung down Seventeenth Street on the west side of the White House, heading toward the National Mall. That road was deserted except for two cops standing in the middle, twenty-five yards ahead of me. As I got closer to them, a fat cop suddenly raised his four-foot wooden pole over his head and began lumbering directly into my path.
I was puzzled until I heard the other cop mumble about how I wasn’t allowed on that street. His partner was getting ready to bust his stick over my head.
I sped up, veered left, and laughed at the G-man over my shoulder. The street closing was not marked, but cops were still entitled to assail any violators—as long as there was no one around to film the beating. Actually, if that cop had smashed me with that pole, I might have been arrested on ginned-up charges for assaulting a policeman. In the same way that cops routinely justify shooting motorists by claiming the driver was trying to run them down, so the pole dude might have claimed I was trying to run him over. Or maybe I would have been booked on “conspiracy to damage a federal pole” that he wanted to break over my bike helmet.
This struck me as a microcosm of what American society is becoming—more and more government agents waiting to whack anyone who doesn’t obey the latest secret rules.
After leaving those chumps behind, I swung down a side street away from the main action. But then I heard loudspeakers in the distance, perhaps coming from the Ellipse, in front of the White House. Was another demonstration busting out? Like a moth attracted to a flame, I bustled down a mostly empty street back in the direction of the White House. As I arrived within sight of the President’s Palace, a gnarly police commander with a burning cigar butt clenched between his teeth screamed at me: “How did you get here!?!”
“I rode down the street,” I replied.
“You’re not allowed to come down on this street!”
“I didn’t see any signs or anything prohibiting it,” I said.
“I had two policemen at the entrance of the street,” he raged. “How did you sneak by them?”
I said I hadn’t seen anyone.
The cop boss was tottering on the edge of arresting me. Another policeman, dressed in civvies, suggested to this cigar chomper that he just let me go through the opening of the metal sawhorses.
Not a chance. The boss cop insisted that I reverse course and ride back down that street. I did so and, at the end of that block, I saw four DC police officers lounging in the shade, perhaps yammering about the Washington Redskins’ latest loss. Regardless of his subordinates’ lethargy, that police commander took great satisfaction in compelling one bicyclist to reverse course. Maybe he even touted it as a “potential terrorist incident averted” in his official report on the day’s action.
New President, Same Vitriol
After Obama was elected, I thought folks might simmer down. Wrong, dude. While Obama unleashed plenty of policies that reasonable Americans could justifiably condemn, some of his loudest adversaries were hellbent on reviving Bush’s worst practices. After attending a Tea Party rally in Rockville, Maryland, in 2010, I wrote, “Many ‘tea party’ activists staunchly oppose big government, except when it is warring, wiretapping, or waterboarding.” Speakers bitterly complained that Obama gave orders to cease using “enhanced interrogation” torture methods on detainees. I was not charmed by folks clamoring for war with Iran and denouncing the president for finding his “inner Muslim.” That piece, published by the Christian Science Monitor, concluded: “America needs real champions of freedom—not poorly informed Republican accomplices.”
My ringside report was not universally appreciated. Tea Party zealots took to Yahoo.com with verbal pitchforks and torches:
Buzz: “Libs are traitors and should be treated as such. Traitors have very few rights. I can only think of 2, and they are more of a courtesy then rights. (blindfold,smoke).”
RAGNAR: “Just another dihonest bit of editorializing nothing new to see here just move on everyone”
RJ: “The first Liberal since the beginning of time, a Lier, a Thief and a Murder, satan.”
JH: “What make him a Nazi and not just a Liberal? Why a Nazi, as Nazi must defend and promote a position with lies and not stand on facts.”
Scott: “Its funny how WE stand up for our RIGHTS and BELIEFS and get attacked and told to shut up.. But we are subjected to your apathetic ideas by force of Gov’t. HOW VERY COMMUNIST OF YOU … ”
The Obama White House soon became as power crazed as the Bush administration. In May 2011, the Christian Science Monitor published another piece of mine, “Assassination Nation: Are There Any Limits on President Obama’s License to Kill?” I derided the Obama administration’s claim that the president possessed a “right to kill Americans without a trial, without notice, and without any chance for targets to legally object…. Killings based solely on presidential commands radically transform the relation of the government to the citizenry.”
Testy online responses confirmed the sea change in how absolute power was viewed. My article mentioned an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit pressuring the Obama administration “to disclose the legal standard it uses to place US citizens on government kill lists.” “Will R.” was indignant: “We need to send Bovard and the ACLU to Iran. You shoot traders and the ACLU are a bunch of traders.” (I was pretty sure the ACLU was not engaged in international commerce). “Jeff” took the high ground: “Hopefully there will soon be enough to add James Bovard to the [targeted killing] list.” Another commenter—self-labeled as “Idiot Savant”—saw a grand opportunity: “Now if we can only convince [Obama] to use this [assassination] authority on the media, who have done more harm than any single terror target could ever dream of … ”
What the heck—they haven’t taken me out yet.