Elaine Scarry on citizenship, war and terror

The Founders of the United States rejected the idea of a monarch with power to take a nation into war on his own sole decision.  Let a single individual have this power, they thought, and all other power would flow to him.  That is why the Constitution gives the Congress, not the President, the authority to declare war.

In the Atomic Age, this is thought to be obsolete.  Decisions about peace and war must be made in minutes, which means that it must be done by a single individual, not a deliberative body or the people as a whole.

Harvard professor Elaine Scarry, in an article published in the Boston Review in late 2002, pointed out that this theory was put to the test during the 9/11 attacks, and found wanting.  The military, despite ample warning, failed to stop American Airlines Flight 77 from crashing into the Pentagon.  But ordinary American citizens on board United Airlines Flight 93 were able to figure out on their own what was happening, discuss it, take a vote and act to prevent the airplane from crashing into the Capitol or White House.

Elaine Scarry

The military was unable to thwart the action of Flight 77 despite fifty-five minutes in which clear evidence existed that the plane might be held by terrorists, and despite twenty minutes in which clear evidence existed that the plane was certainly held by terrorists.  In the same amount of time—twenty-three minutes—the passengers of Flight 93 were able to gather information, deliberate, vote, and act.

September 11 involved a partial failure of defense.  If ever a country has been warned that its arrangements for defense are defective, the United States has been warned.  Standing quietly by while our leaders build more weapons of mass destruction and bypass more rules and more laws (and more citizens) simply continues the unconstitutional and—as we have recently learned—ineffective direction we have passively tolerated for fifty years.

We share a responsibility to deliberate about these questions, as surely as the passengers on Flight 93 shared a responsibility to deliberate about how to act.  The failures of our current defense arrangements put an obligation on all of us to review the arrangements we have made for protecting the country.  “All of us” means “all of us who reside in the country,” not “all of us who work at the Pentagon” or “all of us who convene when there is a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

This is the true meaning of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, she wrote.

When the U.S. Constitution was completed it had two provisions for ensuring that decisions about war-making were distributed rather than concentrated.  The first was the provision for a congressional declaration of war—an open debate in both the House and the Senate involving what would today be 535 men and women.  The second was a major clause of the Bill of Rights—the Second Amendment right to bear arms—which rejected a standing executive army (an army at the personal disposal of president or king) in favor of a militia, a citizen’s army distributed across all ages, geography, and social class of men.  Democracy, it was argued, was impossible without a distributed militia: self-governance was perceived to be logically impossible without self-defense (exactly what do you “self-govern” if you have ceded the governing of your own body and life to someone else?)

Now it is not possible to literally replace the professional U.S. army with a militia, which would be National Guard and Reserves.  Nor is it possible to do without an air defense system.  But I hope it is still possible to get out of the mind-set which says that the only way to be safe is to surrender to Big Brother the power to make decisions about peace, war and national security.

The size and scope of our Homeland Security bureaucracy is comparable to the old Soviet KGB.  Yet the real terrorist plots—the ones that weren’t sting operations or somebody’s delusions—were thwarted by the actions of alert citizens noticing that something was wrong, and acting.

Scarry’s article is still relevant, and worth reading in full.

Click on Citizenship in Emergency here or my “Interesting Articles” in my links menu my Archive of Good Stuff page to read her whole article.  It is still relevant, and worth reading in full.

Click on The ideas interview for a 2005 interview of Elaine Scarry in The Guardian newspaper on the Second Amendment and other subjects.

Click on Rule of Law, Misrule of Men for a review of Elaine Scarry’s 2010 book of that name in the Ludwig Von Mises Institute’s Mises Review.

The movie “Flight 93” recreated the events very well, and thereby illustrated Professor Scarry’s point.

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