Ivan's Place
In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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Ralph Peters: Confused Patriot?
Copyright © 2006 by Bill Becker

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer with 22 self-proclaimed years in the intel business. (Here "intel" refers to "intelligence gathering by various U.S. government agencies, both secret, and not-so-secret.") He is what I call a hyper-patriot; thus he is a member in good standing of the rightest of America's right-wing community. A hyper-patriot is one who considers a traitor any compatriot who even breathes a suggestion that there are rules of fair play in the defense of the nation. A hyper-patriot would consider "All's fair in war" to be the strategic guide of a wimp. The purpose of this essay is to suggest that the patriotism shown by Peters is anything but American in character.

I learned of Peters only recently, through an FYI e-mail forwarded by a friend, who had received it as an FYI. I know that my friend is not a hyper-patriot, and I hope that his friend is not one either.

The message contained the text of an article Peters had written for the right-wing New York Post: Intel, Lies & Treason. There, Peters takes aim at those who suspect a hidden agenda behind the Bush administration's purported "war on terrorism." He calls them traitors — members of the "Osama bin Laden Fan Club" — because they dare to criticize his government.

Specifically, what bothers Peters is criticism by Congressional Democrats of President Bush's plan for wholesale, warrantless spying on Americans. Peters does not dispute that such warrantless surveillance has indeed taken place, but he denounces as lies the Democrats's allegations that such surveillance does not pass constitutional muster:

"Stop lying. Show us the victims.

"Name one honest citizen who has been targeted by our intelligence system. Name one innocent man or woman whose life has been destroyed. Come on, Nancy [Pelosi]. Give it up, Howard [Dean]. Name just one."
Peters conducts something of a poll—not particularly scientific in method, but a poll nonetheless:
" Has a single reader of this column suffered personally from our government's efforts to defend us against terrorists? Have any of your relatives or even your remotest acquaintances felt our intel system intrude into their lives?"
"That's what I always ask the group-think lefties," says Peters. "Not one has ever been able to answer ‘Yes.'"

Well, now. Let's say that Peters asked me, for example, whether any readers of his New York Post column, or their relatives or remotest acquaintances "suffered personally from our government's efforts to defend us against terrorists." I must admit that I would be unable to say "yes," for two reasons at least: First, I do not know any readers of his column, much less their relatives or remotest acquaintances.

Second, readers of his column, by virtue of their rightward political leanings, are far less likely than I, say, to be targeted by our domestic spies. Indeed, if the experience of one administration critic is any guide, fans of Peters who might know of me might well be eager to pass my name along to the spooks. (I refer to the elderly fellow who averred in gym one day that while Osama bin Laden was indeed an asshole, he was not nearly as much an asshole as President Bush. Courtesy of his fellow muscle builders, the FBI paid him a visit shortly afterward. But, at least he was not taken to Guantanamo to have his genitals electrocuted, and he was even allowed to tell his story in Michael Moore's Farhenheit 9/11. )

Leaving aside Peters's apparent failure to recognize that concern for the abuse of a law cannot in itself be a lie, let us assume that the referentially challenged Peters is really asking us lefties about our experiences with Big Brother. In fact, Peters is seriously confused the real issue at hand: what it means to be an American patriot. I emphasize "American" because the generic meaning of patriotism applies across the board to anyone who loves his or her country, whether it is a democracy or a dictatorship.

To get a handle on what it really means to be an American patriot, let's go back to one of the earliest "group-think lefties," founding father James Madison. If he were with us today, Madison would make hash out of Peters's suggestion that just because no one may have been abused, so far, under a potentially repressive law, there is nothing to be concerned about. As Madison puts it so eloquently:
"The free men of America did not wait til [sic] usurped power strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and avoided the consequences by denying the principle."
In Madison's own day, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, overtly as protection of the new nation from domestic and foreign supporters of revolutionary France, but in reality as an attack on Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party, which was sympathetic to French egalitarianism. The Acts made it a crime to criticize the government, and virtually the only people prosecuted and convicted under them were journalists sympathetic to Jefferson. In response, Madison wrote the Virginia Resolution, which condemned the Acts as unconstitutional.

My bet is that Madison would also have approved of one of my own favorites: Carl Schurz, German-born Civil War General on the Union side, later Senator from Wisconsin. In the latter half of the 19th century, Schurz was attacked as being unpatriotic for opposing the same kind of American empire-building we see today. Ralph Peters would find it difficult to refute Shurz's "watchword of true patriotism":
"The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming ‘My country right or wrong.' In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right."
Peters, of course, would almost certainly conclude that the post-civil war peace had turned Schurz into a wimp. As the author of New Glory: Expanding America's Global Supremacy, Peters would not have lost a moment's sleep over the deaths, by starvation and disease, of tens of thousands of Filipino peasants in the aftermath of the Spanish American War. The Filipino freedom fighters made the mistake of believing Washington's promises that if they fought alongside American soldiers against their Spanish oppressors, they would win the sovereignty which they so desperately wanted. When the freedom fighters called in their chits, Washington sent the Army and butchered them.

Peters is blind to the many constitutionally acceptable ways of protecting the nation from terrorism. He would like us to believe that he is indeed an American patriot, but in reality he is a quintessential tribesman, no different in kind than the most illiterate Congolese boy-soldier or an Afghan warlord. In his article, Peters throws a sop to the Constitution:
Reasoned dissent is patriotic, but serving as propaganda agents for mass murderers is something else.
As a propagandist for those in Washington who wear the mass murderer profile like a glove, Peters has no need for the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. He is far more dangerous to our democracy than Osama bin Laden will ever be.

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Page updated March 18, 2006