We are the Patriots
by Gore Vidal
The Nation magazine, June
I belong to a minority that is now one
of the smallest in the country and, with every day, grows smaller.
I am a veteran of World War II. And I can recall thinking, when
I got out of the Army in 1946, Well, that's that. We won. And
those who come after us will never need do this again. Then came
the two mad wars of imperial vanity-Korea and Vietnam. They were
bitter for us, not to mention for the so-called enemy. Next we
were enrolled in a perpetual war against what seemed to be the
enemy-of-the-month club. This war kept major revenues going to
military procurement and secret police, while withholding money
from us, the taxpayers, with our petty concerns for life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness.
But no matter how corrupt our system became
over the last century-and I lived through three-quarters of it-we
still held on to the Constitution and, above all, to the Bill
of Rights. No matter how bad things got, I never once believed
that I would see a great part of the nation-of we the people,
unconsulted and unrepresented in a matter of war and peace- demonstrating
in such numbers against an arbitrary and secret government, preparing
and conducting wars for us, or at least for an army recruited
from the unemployed to fight in. Sensibly, they now leave much
of the fighting to the uneducated, to the excluded.
During Vietnam Bush fled to the Texas
Air National Guard. Cheney, when asked why he avoided service
in Vietnam, replied, "I had other priorities. 'Well, so did
12 million of us sixty years ago. Priorities that 290,000 were
never able to fulfill.
So who's to blame? Us? Them? Well, we
can safely blame certain oil and gas hustlers who have effectively
hijacked the government from presidency to Congress to, most ominously,
the judiciary. How did they do it? Curiously, the means have always
been there. It took the higher greed and other interests to make
this coup d'etat work.
It was Benjamin Franklin, of all people,
who saw our future most clearly back in 1787, when, as a delegate
to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, he read for
the first time the proposed Constitution. He was old; he was dying;
he was not well enough to speak but he had prepared a text that
a friend read. It is so dark a statement that most school history
books omit his key words.
Franklin urged the convention to accept
the Constitution despite what he took to be its great faults,
because it might, he said, provide good government in the short
term. "There is no form of government but what may be a blessing
to the people if well administered, and I believe farther that
this is likely to be well administered for a course of years,
and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before
it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic
Government, being incapable of any other. 'Think of Enron, Merrill
Lynch, etc., of chads and butterfly ballots, of Scalia's son arguing
before his unrecused father at the Supreme Court while unrecused
Thomas sits silently by, his wife already at work for the approaching
Bush Administration. Think, finally, of the electoral college,
a piece of dubious, antidemocratic machinery that Franklin doubtless
saw as a source of deepest corruption and subsequent mischief
for the Republic, as happened not only in 1876 but in 2000.
Franklin's prophecy came true in December
2000, when the Supreme Court bulldozed its way through the Constitution
in order to select as its President the loser in the election
of that year. Despotism is now securely in the saddle. The old
Republic is a shadow of itself, and we now stand in the glare
of a nuclear world empire with a government that sees as its true
enemy "we the people," deprived of our electoral franchise.
War is the usual aim of despots, and serial warfare is what we
are going to get unless-with help from well-wishers in new old
Europe and from ourselves, awake at last-we can persuade this
peculiar Administration that they are acting entirely on their
vicious own, and against all our history.
The other night on CNN I brought the admirable
Aaron Brown to a full stop, not, this time, with Franklin but
with John Quincy Adams, who said in 1821, on the subject of our
fighting to liberate Greece from Turkey, the United States "goes
not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy." If the United
States took up all foreign affairs, "she might become the
dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her
own spirit," her own soul.
Should we be allowed in 2004 to hold a
presidential election here in the homeland, I suspect we shall
realize that the only regime change that need concern our regained
spirit-or soul-is in Washington.
President Adams is long since dead. And
we have now been in the empire business since 1898: We had promised
to give the Filipinos their independence from Spain. Then we changed
our mind, killing some 200,000 of them in the process of Americanizing
A few years ago there was a significant
exchange between then-General Colin Powell and then-statesperson
Madeleine Albright. Like so many civilians, she was eager to use
our troops against our enemies: What's the point of having all
this military and not using it? He said, They are not toy soldiers.
But in the interest of fighting Communism for so long, we did
spend trillions of dollars, until we are now in danger of sinking
beneath the weight of so much weaponry.
Therefore, I suppose it was inevitable
that, sooner or later, a new generation would get the bright idea,
Why not stop fooling around with diplomacy and treaties and coalitions
and just use our military power to give orders to the rest of
the world? A year or two ago, a pair of neoconservatives put forward
this exact notion. I responded-in print-that if we did so, we
would have perpetual war for perpetual peace. Which is not good
for business. Then the Cheney-Bush junta seized power. Although
primarily interested in oil reserves, they liked the idea of playing
Last September Congress received from
the Administration a document called the National Security Strategy
of the United States. As the historian Joseph Stromberg observed,
"It must be read to be believed." The doctrine preaches
the desirability of the United States becoming-to use Adams's
words-dictatress of the world. It also assumes that the President
and his lieutenants are morally entitled to govern the planet.
It declares that our "best defense is a good offense."
The doctrine of pre-emption is next declared: "As a matter
of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such
emerging threats before they are fully formed." (Emphasis
added.) Doubtless, General Ashcroft is now in Utah arresting every
Mormon male before he can kidnap eight young girls for potential
Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution
says that only Congress can declare war. But Congress surrendered
that great power to the President in 1950 and has never taken
As former Senator Alan Simpson said so
cheerily on TV the other evening, "The Commander in Chief
of the military will decide what the cause is. It won't be the
American people.' So in great matters we are not guided by law
but by faith in the President, whose powerful Christian beliefs
preach that "faith is the substance of things hoped for,
the evidence of things not seen."
In response to things not seen, the USA
Patriot Act was rushed through Congress and signed forty-five
days after 9/11. We are expected to believe that its carefully
crafted 342 pages were written in that short time. Actually, it
reads like a continuation of Clinton's post Oklahoma City antiterrorist
act. The Patriot Act makes it possible for government agents to
break into anyone's home when they are away, conduct a search
and keep the citizen indefinitely from finding out that a warrant
was issued. They can oblige librarians to tell them what books
anyone has withdrawn. If the librarian refuses, he or she can
be criminally charged. They can also collect your credit reports
and other sensitive information without judicial approval or the
Finally, all this unconstitutional activity
need not have the slightest connection with terrorism. Early in
February, the Justice Department leaked Patriot Act II, known
as the Domestic Security Enhancement Act, dated January 9, 2003.
A Congress that did not properly debate the first act will doubtless
be steamrolled by this lawless expansion.
Some provisions: If an American citizen
has been accused of supporting an organization labeled as terrorist
by the government, he can be deprived of his citizenship even
if he had no idea the organization had a link to terrorists. Provision
in Act II is also made for more searches and wiretaps without
warrant as well as secret arrests (Section 201). In case a citizen
tries to fight back in order to retain the citizenship he or she
was born with, those federal agents who conduct illegal surveillance
with the blessing of high Administration officials are immune
from legal action. A native-born American deprived of citizenship
would, presumably, be deported; just as, today, a foreign-born
person can be deported. Also, according to a recent ruling of
a federal court, this new power of the Attorney General is not
susceptible to judicial review. Since the American who has had
his citizenship taken away cannot, of course, get a passport,
the thoughtful devisers of Domestic Security Enhancement authorize
the Attorney General to deport him "to any country or region
regardless of whether the country or region has a government."
Difficult cases with no possible place to go can be held indefinitely.
Where under Patriot Act I only foreigners
were denied due process of law as well as subject to arbitrary
deportation, Patriot Act II now includes American citizens in
the same category, thus eliminating in one great erasure the Bill
Our greatest historian, Charles Beard,
wrote in 1939:
The destiny of Europe and Asia has not
been committed, under God, to the keeping of the United States;
and only conceit, dreams of grandeur, vain imaginings, lust for
power, or a desire to escape from our domestic perils and obligations
could possibly make us suppose that Providence has appointed us
his chosen people for the pacification of the earth.
Those Americans who refuse to plunge
blindly into the maelstrom of European and Asiatic politics are
not defeatist or neurotic. They are giving evidence of sanity,
not cowardice, of adult thinking as distinguished from infantilism.
They intend to preserve and defend the Republic. America is not
to be Rome or Britain. It is to be America.
Gore Vidal page