Over the decades, both sides of every major policy debate in our democracy have used the time-honored phrase, “a slippery slope”. Whether the issue was abortion, guns, speech, or business regulations, the argument has been counted on by both the intellectual and the intellectually lazy.
Most of the time, the slippery slope argument is cover for the avoidance of reasonable compromise. For this paradigm to add weight to an argument, it is necessary to believe oneself to be on a firm summit, where a step down the slope would be treacherous. In reality, avoiding the slope in our front opens our democracy up to the precipitous fall behind us. In the whole despicable business of Osama Bin Laden and all he wrought, the head over heels fall down the backside of the mountain has been the hallmark.
There simply aren’t any easy answers for any of these issues; no path exists that leads to either complete safety or the moral high ground. The operation carried out by SEAL Team 6 and the Nightstalkers has stirred up a wealth of follow up. Setting aside the silly conspiracy arguments and juvenile claims of credit coming from the general direction of the Cheney Cabal, many in our democracy are now writing eloquent criticism of President Obama and the operation he ordered into action.
The arguments coming to the for are sound and deserve reflection:
- The United States, despite extensive investigation, was never able to commit to the direct statement that Bin Laden was a material part of the 9/11 Conspiracy.
- The United States did not have permission to enter a sovereign nation (namely Pakistan) for any reason involving the capture and/or killing of a foreign national.
- The operation, code name Geronimo, appears to have been drawn up as a mission to kill, rather than capture. It appears, when considering the phrase, “wanted dead or alive”, that “dead” was the clear preference. The United States has not convicted Bin Laden of a capitol crime and so, committed an assassination of a foreign national.
I must be clear about my feelings on this subject; I believe the actions taken to be both justified and appropriate. Conversely, I also firmly believe them to have been taken in extremis, creating dangerous precedents which we the people should endeavor never to follow again. Over these last ten years, our great nation has spoken often of liberty, but thought little of the notion when security was the conversation. The United States must reestablish a consistent vision of itself, as both a nation of liberty and global neighbor.
The conversation must start with a moment of clarity. One cannot have absolute security and absolute liberty…the two concepts are mutually exclusive. One must struggle, claw, and accept sub-optimal solutions while searching for a balance. Our democracy has largely struggled and clawed to win the intransigent “other side” over to “our” point of view. We have either been entrenched and irate civil libertarians like Keith Olbermann and Jonathan Turley, or we have been entrenched and irate security hawks like Sean Hannity and Liz Cheney.
I spent much of the last ten years pointing out that the Cheney’s and Hannity’s of the world were well-advised to buckle up and display some courage, lest our freedom go the way of the Soviet Gulag. Treasured conservative friends countered often by reminding me of the innocents without number often lost in the rush to courage. Last weekend, a president elected by those in favor of courage and civil liberties, took an action that was, in every way, emblematic of the security hawks. Part of my motivation in writing this column, is to make public my personal conflict in the hopes of inspiring honest debate.
I don’t believe we can allow organized groups of people, be they nation/states, criminal groups, or terrorist factions, to inflict loss of life and property damage on our nation with impunity. Osama Bin Laden, without question, was a principal figure in the organization of and funding of activities that caused both loss of life and property. But he and others (like American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki) should represent the exceptions that prove the rule. They should be that one-tenth of one percent for which 4th Amendment precision is not required.
Whether it be religious terrorists, foreign drug lords, or rogue leaders of foreign nations, we the people must know three things:
- When we are on the slippery slope.
- How far down the slope we are willing to go.
- The existence of a clear path back to the top of the mountain.
Simply demanding adherence to American principles is not a recipe for safety or harmony in an uncertain world. Simply screaming the name of “liberty” and “freedom”, or singing patriotic songs, is not sufficient to make the promise of our Constitution a reality. We must work, we must question, we must accept dangerous compromise, we must demand uncomfortable accountability. America’s promise demands these tasks of us; the killing of Bin Laden puts them into stark relief.
On either side of this peak is a fall we cannot survive. We are indeed on that most slippery of slopes…how nimble shall we be?
The Rational Middle is listening…