I happened upon a 5-night miniseries of the BBC sci-fi series “Torchwood” last week.
This isn’t a blurb for the series but it raised an interesting scenario.
Aliens have come to earth (present-day England, to be specific). They cannot be stopped by force. In a secret communication to the highest levels of government, they demand a percentage of British children whom they will take for their own purposes (addicted to the rush of consuming them, it turns out).
So far so modern: children have replaced ‘women’ (except on the Lifetime and Oxygen channels, and such) as being ‘in trouble’. And the kiddies are in big trouble now. There are those aliens who want to eat them.
But that’s not their most immediate problem. The British government – whose homeland-security capabilities actually dwarf America’s – has decided that the only logical thing to do is to hoodwink the public into turning their kids over to the Army (for delivery to the aliens). And if the parents won’t give the kids up willingly, the Army (under the direction of a British government that has ceded command authority of the operation to an American general (a black general, as it happens)) has formulated a plan to take the kids by force, not only going into schools but even breaking into homes to get them – and authorized to use deadly force if need be. Not against the aliens, mind you, but against the parents. Even mere city police officers are out of the loop, and will be subdued if they attempt to protect their neighborhoods and citizens.
As the Framers so acutely saw – and hardly ‘quaintly’ – God save everybody from a government that considers that it has no other options in order to protect its own creds.
The government even issues blacklist execution orders for its marquis “Torchwood” unit, whose members have been – in the series’ scheme – successfully combating aliens for a century. And the team is almost wiped out by black-ops troops, except at the very end, when the survivors manage to come up with a plan that will eliminate the aliens. (Although at the price of sacrificing one kid, nephew of the head of the unit, who must be sacrificed in the scientific process of amplifying a sound wave noxious to the aliens … an easy-peezy good-vs-evil, feel-good American production this is not.)
So the kids are in mortal danger – and the government and its military forces … are the bad guys; the aliens, in their way, are merely making known their demands, and leaving it up to the human adults in the government as to how to meet the quota. I almost imagined a sequel in which the post-action investigation has the government and the military claiming that they were only following orders – but that’s just something an American might think about these days. And maybe a German.
The following thoughts occur to me.
First, having sat still while the government expanded the intrusive scope of its police (and military) authority domestically, the citizenry are pretty much defenseless against their own erstwhile ‘protectors’. The power that was amassed for the purpose of ‘protecting’ the citizens – and of course ‘the children’ – is turned against them.
Indeed, the Prime Minister and the American general have ensured the ‘loyalty’ of the troops by excluding their own children from the quota-lists, but warning them that if they refuse to obey orders then those children will be placed at the top of the list. A vivid example of how human ingenuity can turn not simply to ‘the dark side’, but to the genuinely diabolical.
I am reminded as well of some Beltway type who recently opined – in regard to one or another intrusive American law – that “It’s better to have the power and not need it, than to need the power and not have it”.
Which sounds kinda OK, until you stop and realize that the Framers, hardly less insightful than their organizational descendants, might have said the same thing. And yet they didn’t. And it could hardly have been an oversight on their part.
After all, there were ‘children in danger’, and ‘women’ too (as well, I suppose it needs to be said, as ‘men’) back in 1787. Yet the Framers did not provide for an easy amassing of government police power to extend itself into the very fabric of civil society, on the authority of the government’s illuminations as to what is and is not an ‘emergency’ against which ‘no other option’ exists.
The Framers seemed to have an abiding respect for the lethality of government police power when it is given too wide a scope. And they didn’t want it here (and probably wished that it didn’t exist anywhere on the planet, but they weren’t going to expand it here and then go and try to go to war against it everywhere else).
And worse, this modern-day government, inheritor of far too many baaad but somewhat effective examples such as Stalin and Mao and the German guy with the moustache, saw itself as the ultimate arbiter of what is and is not ‘good’ for its citizens. Goebbels said as much in regard to his propaganda efforts: “The truth is whatever the German government thinks it is good for the German people to believe it is” The Party ‘elites’, steeped in the latest cutting-edge ‘thought’, would lead the lumpen master-race to its grand historical destiny. Best not to stand in the way.
Tyrannical governments were once considered to be ‘monarchies’. And if George III and his predecessors were considered bad enough indeed, there were also the examples of Ivan the Terrible, the more outré Roman emperors, and thousands of smaller tyrants whose place in history was limited only by the small size of their territories and populations.
But the problem that has arisen in the last century cannot be ascribed to monarchy. The Communist revolution spawned a Party before it spawned a single boss-monster, and ditto Communist China. In both cases, I think the key that unlocked the Pandora’s Box of modern tyranny was the assumption that there was no power (no Power, I’d put it) above the government.
Yes, there was The People, but folks can be fooled, as Lincoln noted. If you can fool enough of the citizens into either supporting you, or just backing off and letting you get on with it, then for all practical purposes the Citizenry poses no real threat.
Thus the danger to modern democracies. A government is a government is a government – whether headed by a Monarch or a Party or a bunch of folks ruling ‘in the name of’ the whole population. And the Framers saw that – that they were in effect creating yet another instance of the old Leviathan, Government. Hence, like the villagers in an old vampire movie, they took huge and careful pains to create a structure that would prevent the monster from getting loose.
The history of democracy since the Framers’ times follows the movie script: after a while the young and the city-folk came to disbelieve in vampires, and considered the rules about garlic and cavorting outside after sundown and following a whole book-full of other careful procedures to be just so much primitive and ‘quaint’ superstition.
And the Thing once caged has returned. And multiplied. And taken advantage of all the apparatus of a modern civilization and its technology, and of all the weaknesses of human beings saturated by the blandishments of modernity (and post-modernity).
And of course, as even the government and Beltway honchos admit nowadays, if a ‘database’ is there, it’s going to be used – even if the authorities have to invent new ‘needs’. Governments do not leave their ‘power’ unused. Hitler said that about his armed forces, mocking the quaintly hesitant generals: Why do you think we have built this great Army – for parades? Or, as Madeleine Albright paraphrased it decades later in the service of yet other ‘emergencies’ and ‘good causes’: “Why do we have this wonderful military if we’re not going to use it?”
The rise of what is called “preventive law” is thus anti-Constitutional, and profoundly so*. With a decline in the belief in God, and the models of totalitarian governments stuck in the minds of even the most high-minded modern elites, the modern ‘democratic’ State is now trying to satisfy its citizens while simultaneously increasing its control over them. It is doing so by taking over the tasks formally ascribed to God: omniscient, omnipotent, beneficent Protection.
But the only way for any human agent or government to prevent crime (or sin) is to assume the authority of God – its scope and depth. And this can only lead to a police state – whether ‘benevolent’ or otherwise (and no police state in history has remained ‘benevolent’ for very long; indeed, the Nazis defined ‘benevolence’ as applying only to the ‘master race’, on whose behalf the elimination of undesirables – as that classification was continuously expanded – became the primary preventive benevolence that the government could bestow upon its citizenry, those who were by definition ‘pure’).
The Framers would not risk their government having power ‘just in case’. All that power lying around is an invitation to disaster; an ‘idle power’ is the Devil’s workshop, they might have said. It will seduce the Leviathan back into the world of human affairs.
Instead, they would create a government that would “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution”. The People, as have all human beings, would accept that it is a grossly imperfect world and take their chances. Better that, the Framers saw, than to most surely wind up back in the claws of tyranny, however nicely draped and prettied up.
The Constitution was a pact to prevent tyranny; it was not designed to substitute for the wisdom or power ascribed to God. To consider the Constitution as indeed justifying a God-State (even if a secular, liberal one) is indeed to make a suicide pact of the Constitution, because any government trying to exercise THAT much authority is going to have to be Godding around with a very heavy hand indeed – and since the task is impossible, then for a democratic Republic only catastrophe can result. Oy.
But the Framers’ thoroughly modern enlightened organizational descendants, the ones who ‘get it’, have no such reservations about government power nor give a moment’s thought to the darker consequences of so much power (and can you say Iraq War?).
Strangely, since he was such a bloviator, Mussolini saw and said it clearly: nothing against the State, nothing outside the State, nothing above the State.
And this was thrown in the face of both Italian democracy and the Church. He would brook no opposition from ‘The People’. And he most surely wouldn’t brook any interference from God.
The State would not be answerable to any power – or Power – beyond or above itself.
In the postwar era this absolutely non-negotiable government position was buttressed by the assorted deconstructionist philosophies that ‘reasoned’ their way to the conclusion that God was just a societal bad-habit, a superstition, or to put it in a more ‘modern’ and ‘scientific’ way, a ‘construct’ that had only as much power as weak-minded folks were willing to give it. The truly enlightened and the genuinely independent human being refused such ‘training wheels’.
And government refuses such restraints, such boundaries, such limits.
The monarchs refused limits because they held themselves to be anointed of God and thus held the Divine Right to rule. The governments of the modern democracies refuse limits because they hold themselves to be, in the absence of any God at all, the sole Rulers and Protectors of the lives of their citizens.
One way or the other, you wind up with governments, some possessed of truly awesome power, that acknowledge no authority beyond themselves.
Limits are curious things. On the one hand they do indeed – well – limit.
On the other hand, they also shape. Without them, power simply bursts loose destructively, like water that bursts through a dam or overflows its banks.
Thus in the Biblical imagery the great Flood that almost destroyed human existence. Human existence lost is shape. Worse, it lost its Shape, that natural contour of being that was assigned to it by the Source of Being.
Powerful and Shapeless, the Flood consumed (almost) everything.
In the journal ‘First Things’, one George Cardinal Pell of Australia makes** the point that “conscience” is now being dictated by government policy and regulation, sometimes even in contravention of that government’s own stated ideals and founding vision and laws.
He is referring specifically to abortion, which in the Western Australian State of Victoria is now a service that every medical professional is by law mandated to provide, regardless of the professional’s own conscience. This, in spite of Victoria’s statutory Charter of Rights that guarantees freedom of conscience.
Thus the eagerness of politicians (in this case the Parliament of Victoria) to pander. Not even their own constitutive laws and visions will stop them, will not be allowed to shape or limit their efforts to please voters.
You don’t have to be a ‘believer’ to realize that when a government – especially by act of public law – overrides deliberately its own founding principles, then a dangerous frontier is being crossed.
But it also seems to me that this brings matters back to the days of Mussolini, and – more encouragingly – of the Catholic political philosopher John Courtney Murray.
Mussolini, as noted above, saw no use for the Church as representing any power over his State, any authority that might judge its actions. Nor did he accept that the conscience of any individual Italian could object legitimately to his State.
Murray, writing in the heady American days of the late 1950s, saw the citizen Grounded in an authority Beyond the State as a healthy corrective to, and participant in, the political affairs of the government. And after all, an individual who can by definition have no serious corrective input into the affairs of the State is not really a Citizen at all – but only a passenger ‘along for the ride’.
Which is pretty much what all ‘elites’ – Communist, Fascist, Nazi, nationalist, or the more recent kinder-and-gentler sort – presume the general mass of the citizenry to be.
Murray – whose insight was far ahead of Church practice, but hardly out of sync with the depth of the tradition – insisted that you can’t have a democracy without a Citizenry who, given their ultimate authority over their government, had to have a Ground from which to judge their government.
And more : had to have a Ground that would enable them to judge not only how that government ‘delivered’ for their own interests, but also how that government went forth into the world – on their authority – and involved itself in the lives of so many others.
The whole idea of a Beyond that has some authority to judge the doings of this world, that can and indeed must stand in judgment to limit and shape the doings of government, that must Shape the lives of the individual citizens so that they as Citizens might collectively bring their government’s actions into conformity with the Shape of humanity’s best interests … these are principles that no self-respecting Communist or Nazi or Fascist or nationalist could accept.
Ominously, they are not principles that any self-respecting ‘postmodern liberal’ accepts either.***
I am not going to make the following point: when the troops come for the children, breaking into homes and grabbing the kids out of the arms of parents who are being beaten back with truncheons, the British citizens – the film has them as working-class, maybe the types who would raise all hell at a soccer match – in the neighborhoods are unable to meet them with anything except bricks and sticks. It might be suggested that private ownership of guns would have stopped the plan then and there.
I’m not so sure. The best route would be for The People to ‘man up’ beforehand, remind their government that there is indeed a People in this country, and thus prevent it from even thinking about getting so invasive. A shootout between citizens and troops, while it may enjoy a momentary tactical success, isn’t going to end well for the citizens (unless, of course, there is a coordinated, nation-wide uprising). Troops will be killed as well as parents, and perhaps not a few kids caught in the crossfire.
And at the end of the day, Constitutional government will not be strengthened by such a cataclysm. Indeed, a People that has let its government get so out of hand that resort to gunplay is the only option left can pretty much be said to have failed its role in the Constitutional vision in the first place, and possibly has lost its own grasp of the Constitutional vision and its own Constitutional competence and skills.
Best, I would say, to start Peopling and so make shooting unnecessary. We need – may I say? – to People-Up.(How’s that? Gets the Constitutional sense across and avoids the genderist darkness of ‘man up’.)
Still, the thought that there are a lot of weapons ‘out there’ would give any government pause if it were to start daydreaming of ‘sending in the troops’ in order to quickly and efficiently impose some ‘emergency’ change. The film reflects accurately the vulnerability of modern Britain’s population.
Apparently, Dick Cheney was daydreaming in just such a way – We have just recently found out – so let’s not think that this is all science-fiction. Indeed, in terms of Constitutional integrity, I suppose it’s valid to call Dick Cheney a true ‘alien’, and his saucer-full of flying whackjobs and hackjobs with him: Yoo, Bybee, and the list goeth on.
And lastly, let Us not be deterred by those who would impugn Our motivations rather than face up to the problems. Consider, if you will: the bridge of the Titanic in that eternally doomed moment after the collision with the berg, the watch officer turning to the Captain as he arrives on the bridge to say “Captain, we’ve hit a berg”, only to have the Captain turn to him with a gimlet-eyed postmodern glare and respond “I question your motivation, saying something like that. Are you trying to make me look bad, you hateful person you?”
You see the problems We face nowadays. (And maybe can see how it was - as John Maynard Keynes observed in the 1950s - that the Brits went from being Romans to being Italians in just one generation.)
And We’d better face up to them quickly. God or no God, We are closer to eternity than anybody among the elite wants to admit. Let Us try to do better than they have.
*See: Eric S. Janus, “Failure to Protect: America’s Sexual Predator Laws and the Rise of the Preventive State”: Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; 2006.
**See the article ‘Intolerant Tolerance’ in “First Things”, Number 195, August-September 2009, pp. 9-12.
***Being an equal-opportunity skeptic, I would class current ‘conservatives’ as really being nothing more than Rightist-nationalists. Neither bunch is really willing to accept any Shape or limit to ‘government’, though they are both wrassling to get control of the unfettered power of government for their different purposes. No genuine Citizen will benefit from this frakfest. Nor will the Republic.