Geoffrey Stone's Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime (2004) is a remarkable book, one of those all too uncommon historical tomes that hold the reader's interest throughout.
It's probably inevitable that writing about current events is more difficult than writing about events that happened decades or centuries ago, because with things going on right now we're always in the middle of a forest that obscures the precise contours of the individual oaks and hickories. Thus, I'm not surprised that my only significant disagreement with Professor Stone comes near the end of the book, when he discusses the War on Terrorism. On page 554 he takes the Bush Administration to task for characterizing 9/11 as "the first stage of a "war," rather than as a heinous crime."
The problem with this assertion is that Stone, no less than the President he criticizes, is acting as though there is a clear distinction between an act of war and crashing planes into the Twin Towers. To demonstrate the fuzziness of such categorization, I would pose the following question to Stone: what about the Holocaust? Was that an act of war or a heinous crime?
If you think that my linking of the Holocaust and September 11th is strained, perhaps that's because you have not thought of 9/11 as an act of genocide. But it clearly was, and I'm actually quite surprised that this point is almost never made.
In Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee (1992)--speaking of great books that really hold your attention--the Pulitzer Prize winning author defines genocide as group killing in which:
"The victims must be selected because they belong to a group, whether or not each victim has done something to provoke killing. As for the defining group characteristics, it may be racial... national... ethnic... religious..or political" (pp. 283-287).
Or, I might add, a combination of these characteristics; I would say the terrorists in those jumbo jet cockpits killed thousands of people for at least three of Diamond's five traits: national, religious, and political.
Unlike crime, in genocide the person or people being killed are not slain for the typical motives to murder--personal gain, revenge, jealousy, etc. They simply have a particular demographic taint that causes their attackers to feel justified in attempting to exterminate them from the planet. Islamic jihadists want Westerners, Jews, and Christians killed, and they've been working towards this goal at least since the 1972 Olympics, in a horrifying event that was in the news again recently due to the death of sportscaster Jim McCay, who reported the carnage.
What we are dealing with in the War on Terrorism is, I think, not quite a war as President Bush would have it, but also not quite a heinous crime, as Stone seems to maintain. Genocide really doesn't fit neatly into either of those categories. It's easy to see that the Battle of Gettysburg was war and Charles Manson's actions were a heinous crime; what's happening now in Darfur occupies a shade of gray between such simply distinguished events.
In any case, even if you believe as Professor Stone does that 9/11 was a crime rather than an act of war, I think it's important to recognize that such a distinction actually has little bearing on the constitutional authority the President has to respond to the crisis. It's a cliche' to point out that where military action is concerned "The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States" (Article II, Section 2) but one far less often hears it mentioned that the Constitution also requires the President to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed" (Article II, Section 3).
The September 11th terrorists violated a plethora of federal laws; it's the president's job to see that these laws are enforced and to do all in his power to see that they are never broken again. During his term in office, President Bush has observed this constitutional mandate and obeyed it well, thus we've had no additional days as sad as that fall morning in September nearly seven years ago. In other words, Mr. Bush has done a wonderful job keeping us from being victims of genocide.
Our next President, whether it is Obama or McCain, has an obligation to the American people to enforce the laws and thus keep us safe. We should hope he succeeds in this enormous duty as well as the current President has, and we as a people need to recognize that regardless of his political affiliation, our Chief Executive should be given great latitude in carrying out his constitutional commands.