Friday, November 02, 2007

The Dream that was America -- or -- Moscow on the Potomac

Robert F. Hawes Jr.

In Ridley Scott's film Gladiator, the ailing Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (portrayed by the late Richard Harris) travels from the comforts of Rome to the muddy battlefields of second century Germania on a mission. The Roman army, fighting under the capable leadership of General Maximus (Russell Crowe), has finally defeated the Germanic tribesmen, and Aurelius now longs to turn his attention from the maintenance of an empire to the restoration of a republic. The chief obstacle that stands in his way is his own failing health. Rome needs a young, strong and vigorous leader to take it down the path that Aurelius envisions. His son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is weak and spoiled, full of base ambition, not at all the man for the job of relinquishing power. Maximus is the man Aurelius wishes to succeed him to the imperial seat, but Maximus is tired of war and strife, and more than anything else he simply wants to return home. In the following lines of dialogue, Aurelius struggles to convince Maximus that Rome still needs its finest soldier:

MAXIMUS: "5,000 of my men are out there in the freezing mud. 3,000 are cleaved and bloodied. 2,000 will never leave this place. I will not believe they fought and died for nothing."
AURELIUS: "And what would you believe?"
MAXIMUS: "They fought for you and for Rome."
AURELIUS: "And what is Rome, Maximus?"
MAXIMUS: "I have seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark. Rome is the light."
AURELIUS: "Yet you have never been there. You have not seen what it has become. I am dying, Maximus. When a man sees his end he wants to know that there has been some purpose to his life. How will the world speak my name in years to come? Will I be known as the philosopher, the warrior, the tyrant? Or will I be remembered as the Emperor who gave Rome back her true self? There was once a dream that was Rome, you could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter."

Most of you probably know the story. Commodus learns of his father's intentions, kills Aurelius and tries to do the same to Maximus, who barely escapes with his life. Maximus is sold into slavery, becomes a gladiator, and eventually fights in the Colosseum under the eye of Commodus. At one point in the film, Maximus points toward the bloodthirsty crowd awaiting him and exclaims, "Marcus Aurelius had a dream that was Rome... And this is not it. This is not it!"

Say whatever derogatory thing you will about Hollyweird; chances are, I'll see your insult and raise you a little righteous indignation. But every once in awhile a film comes along with a message that rings true in a powerful way. Braveheart was such a film. And while Gladiator isn't quite on the same level (the story it depicts is fictional), it carries its own impact. The struggle it portrays, that of a good man battling against evil in high places, has universal appeal. The ideals behind the story rise above its historical setting.

And every time I hear Richard Harris speaking as Marcus Aurelius I can't help but think: there was once a dream that was America too, and I fear that it may not survive the next election.

For a moment, set aside your party affiliation and whatever special interest you might have and travel back in time with me. We won't need to go far; the seventies and eighties will do just fine. This was the era in which I grew up.

It was also the latter part of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was our great enemy. Why? Because the Soviets were communists, and communists were the sworn enemies of freedom. They were not merely authoritarians but totalitarians. The Soviets believed in absolute state control over every aspect of an individual's life, and they were intent on spreading their system throughout the world.

I clearly remember being taught that, in the Soviet Union, fear ruled with an iron fist. Government spies were everywhere. The secret police could listen in on your phone calls at any time. They could read your mail. They could search your home and other property and seize whatever they liked. You could never be certain that you weren't being watched, no matter where you were. You had to carry identification papers everywhere you went, and many times you had to have permission to travel very far at all. And it wasn't just government agents that you had to be concerned about; you also had to live with the fear that your own friends, co-workers or family members might report you for "suspicious activities" or "politically questionable statements," sometimes for no other reason than to endear themselves to the communist party bosses. You had no enforceable rights where the state was concerned. Government agents could kick your door down in the middle of the night, drag you away to a state prison, torture you and even execute you. Your family would never know where you were. More than likely, you would not have legal council or ever see the inside of a courtroom. You were the property of the state, which was free to do whatever it liked with you.

We called this oppressive, militaristic mega-state "the Evil Empire," and we prided ourselves on being everything that the Soviets were not.

In America, the common man had enforceable rights, even where the government was concerned. Americans were not the property of the state. You could travel where you wished, and most of the time the government didn't care about what you were doing. Americans could say what they wished, engage in whatever peaceful political activities they wished, with no fear of violent reprisal. Americans did not disappear into gulags. If the government accused you of illegal activities, it had to give you a day in court and prove its case before a jury of your peers. Sure, America had its problems; virtually everyone admitted that. But we were still the "land of the free," and our institutions and daily lives backed that claim to a high degree, certainly in comparison to the Soviet Union.

This is the dream that was America versus the nightmare that was the Soviet Union.

Now, fast-forward in time. As I write this, fewer than twenty years have passed since the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War specter lifted. The Soviet Union is gone, and America...well, if you had told us in the 1970s or 1980s what America would be like today, and where it seems to be heading, I don't think we would have believed you.

You see, today the American government tells us that it can spy on us whenever and however it likes. It can read our e-mail and postal mail, track our financial records, pry into our medical histories, force libraries to turn over lists of the books we read, force internet service providers to turn over records of our surfing habits, and tap our phones and record our calls. It can deny us the right to travel without certain government approved "papers". It can send its agents into our homes without warrant and remove whatever it wishes, without ever notifying us. The president claims that he can seize anyone, including American citizens, and turn them into non-persons. The government – the American government – can arrest you without warrant, put you into prison without charge, and hold you for as long as it pleases. It can deny you legal council and try you before a military court, where none of the regular rules of evidence and reasonable person standards apply, and where your guilt will be assumed. It can subject to you "enhanced interrogation techniques" (torture, by any other name – “Ve hev vays of making you talk"), and you will have no recourse. Your family may not be permitted to know where you are. President George W. Bush (a member of the party that once prided itself on being the "party of limited government," and that even now prides itself on being the party that brought down the Evil Empire) has decided that he can ignore whatever laws he chooses. He in fact is the law, in his own opinion. Further, he tells us that what he and the members of his administration do is not open to public scrutiny for "national security" reasons, that they are not accountable to anyone. In fact, they bristle if you question them at all, and suggest that maybe you don't have the best interests of the country in mind.

This is America, 2007; not the Soviet Union, circa 1980. Like it or not, we are, by degrees, becoming like the very thing we once hated. And we are becoming more like it all the time.

Some will call this unpatriotic nonsense. "We're nothing like the Soviets," they claim. "We're just changing to meet the changing threats of our time, and if you haven't done anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about."


So, we can do the same types of things that the Soviets did but not be like them? We can adopt their police state tactics, spy on people like they did, hold secret courts like they did, kick down doors and haul people away like they did, throw people into secret prisons like they did, torture people like they did, refuse to answer questions like they did, ignore the laws like they did, and criticize the opposition as being disloyal like they did...and yet be nothing like them? Notice that I'm not saying that we're the same as the Soviets; I'm saying that we're becoming progressively more like they were, that we're on a slippery slope here, and that we're desperately trying to rationalize our way out of confronting the obvious (torture isn't torture as long as we don't call it that, etc).

Tell me, how much evil do you have to do before you yourself become evil? Is there a certain magic number of people that we need to have in prison without charge before it becomes wrong? How many do we have to waterboard and stuff into cramped, freezing cells before it becomes un-American?

And as for not having anything to worry about as long as you haven't done anything wrong – please, don't tell me you've fallen for this! This argument assumes two things: 1) that the government is accountable to someone for what it does with you, and 2) that it has to prove that you've done something wrong before anything bad can happen to you. Neither one of these is necessarily true anymore. All the government has to do is classify you as a suspected "terrorist" and the legal niceties that we used to call "rights" suddenly vanish, along with all of their guarantees. If the president and his subordinates have the authority to ignore the laws of the land, then whether or not you've done anything illegal is a moot question by default, because the law no longer exists as far as you are concerned! You are no longer being judged by that standard; you are being judged by the whims of the powerful, whose motives and actions are not being judged by anyone. You cannot tie the hands of the law and then expect it to protect you.

Our Founding Fathers understood this. This is why they required an oath to support the Constitution on the part of our government officials, because they knew that the only way the common people can be safe from tyranny is if their government is restrained by the law. The Constitution isn't there to hinder us, it's there to protect us – because freedom is fragile. It must be guarded, handled delicately, cared for like the precious thing that it is.

Some will argue with the comparisons I've made to the old Soviet Union, because, like General Maximus, they refuse to believe that our country is caught up in corruption, that our leaders have anything but pure motives, and that our men and women in uniform are dying for nothing but the most honorable of causes. They too have seen much of the rest of the world, if only by way of CNN or Fox News, and they find it brutal and cruel and dark. America is their light in that darkness, and as long as it remains a bit brighter than what they see around them, they seem willing to overlook the fact that our "city on a hill" doesn't shine as brightly as it once did. Cruelty, brutality and darkness are creeping in here, but as long as we're not as bad as someone else, we're generally content with our illusions of safety and superiority. We find no contradiction, no hypocrisy in speaking the tyrannical language of the Soviet state with an American accent.

God forgive us. The men who froze at Valley Forge, who crawled up the beaches of Normandy into the murderous teeth of Nazi machine gun fire, who faced undreamed of horrors in steamy jungles thousands of miles from the comforts of home, did not fight so that we could let our country slip into the hands of those who would re-make us in the image of our enemies. Whether you agree with every cause that Americans have spilled their blood for or not, we can acknowledge that most of them believed that they were fighting for freedom, to protect the whisper-fragile American dream. They didn't sacrifice to give us Moscow on the Potomac. We owe them, ourselves, and the future generations who must live with the world we give them, more, much more, than to let this happen with so little struggle.

There was once a dream that was America. And friends, this is not it. This is not it.

Robert Hawes is the author of One Nation, Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution. This article, along with his past writings, can be found on his blog: He lives in South Carolina with his family.


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