Heather Wokusch revisits a different "War on Terror" and draws some interesting parallels


Here's the situation: The nation's leadership is taken over by a secretive group of elitists who profess democracy while dragging the country into a totalitarian nightmare. Confusion and fear take hold, civil rights are eroded in the name of fighting a terror war, and impersonal governmental bodies with names like "Committee of General Security" start labelling dissenters as enemies of the state. Secretive courts with limited accountability punish civilians who object. Tightening its grip on power, the government creates public crises it can later be seen as solving, and military service is made mandatory for young men. The ongoing terror war drains the country's resources, foreign relations hit rock bottom, and the economy slides even further. But since fear is the government's most effective weapon against its own population, the terror war is expanded.

Sound familiar?

The Reign of Terror, in late 18th century France, lasted only one year but left the country in chaos and ripe for Napolean's despotic rule soon after. Unless we learn from history, we could suffer the same fate.

Confusion and hardship characterized France in the 1790s, making citizens more inclined to tolerate increased military build-up and a leadership with strengthened executive powers. Robespierre, a key figure in the Reign of Terror, argued that civil liberties were less important in times of crisis than eliminating enemies of the state, both domestic and foreign, and it was under this guise that citizen dissent eventually became a capital crime. Robespierre also used the ongoing terror war to justify his regime's secretive excesses, exploding military budget, and eventual fondness for the guillotine.

Fast forward to 2003, and America is a nation on edge; 9-11, anthrax attacks and colour-coded danger alerts have seen to that. Few have questioned the Bush administration's unprecedented increase in military spending or why social programs were cut to fund it. Even fewer realize our government has considered - in the name of fighting a war on terror - provoking attacks against Americans. No surprise that mandatory military service is once again a hot topic. Meanwhile, the Land of the Free has been usurped by Big Brother nightmares like the Pentagon's "total information awareness" program, and citizens have become enemy combatants, shorn of legal rights. The economy is tanking, taking the once-enviable Bush poll numbers with it, but our government has a secret weapon - fear. With the war on terror described as "endless" and dozens of countries on the "evil" list, fear can be transformed into rally-around-the-flag support for a dubious government and its dubious wars.

By the time the Reign of Terror ended, France had grown so used to an iron hand and a secretive, militaristic government that Napolean could easily pick up the pieces and impose another dictatorship. People had forgotten what freedom was. Patriotism had become a
tool for social control, rather than social justice, and civil liberties were a thing of the past.

So how different are we today? The issue isn't Iraq, the Patriot Act, or Bush. The issue is freedom: if we want it, we'd better let go of fear, the ultimate Weapon of Mass Distraction. We'd better confront the hysteria-inducing tactics asking us to equate freedom with corporate pork for defense contractors. We'd better think twice about tossing aside fundamental constitutional rights in the so-called pursuit of liberty. Because if we don't, what's coming next could be even worse.

Heather Wokusch is a free-lance writer. She can be contacted via her web site: