Glenn Greenwald, as he tends to do, nails it. In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Greenwald attacks the Manichean worldview that structures conservative discourse on war and terror:
One of the principal dangers of vesting power in a leader who is convinced of his own righteousness -- who believes that, by virtue of his ascension to political power, he has been called to a crusade against Evil -- is that the moral imperative driving the mission will justify any and all means used to achieve it. Those who have become convinced that they are waging an epic and all-consuming existential war against Evil cannot, by the very premises of their belief system, accept any limitations -- moral, pragmatic, or otherwise -- on the methods adopted to triumph in this battle.Greenwald's critique is tremendously important. Right-wing Manicheanism has taken over the national debate on security matters, operating as a literally totalitarian thought system, in that it subsumes all discourse into its own unanswerable internal logic. We've become familiar with the notion of framing in political discourse: well, this is the meta-frame. It quashes every attempt by liberals and moderates to raise rational points and does tremendous damage to constitutional liberties, the national interest, and global well-being.
Efforts to impose limits on waging war against Evil will themselves be seen as impediments to Good, if not as an attempt to aid and abet Evil. In a Manichean worldview, there is no imperative that can compete with the mission of defeating Evil. The primacy of that mandate is unchallengeable. Hence, there are no valid reasons for declaring off-limits any weapons that can be deployed in service of the war against Evil.
Equally operative in the Manichean worldview is the principle that those who are warriors for a universal Good cannot recognize that the particular means they employ in service of their mission may be immoral or even misguided. The very fact that the instruments they embrace are employed in service of their Manichean mission renders any such objections incoherent. How can an act undertaken in order to strengthen the side of Good, and to weaken the forces of Evil, ever be anything other than Good in itself? Thus, any act undertaken by a warrior of Good in service of the war against Evil is inherently moral for that reason alone. [...]
These principles illuminate a central, and tragic, paradox at the heart of the Bush presidency. The president who vowed to lead America in a moral crusade to win hearts and minds around the world has so inflamed anti-American sentiment that America's moral standing in the world is at an all-time low. The president who vowed to defend the Good in the world from the forces of Evil has caused the United States to be held in deep contempt by large segments of virtually every country on every continent of the world, including large portions of nations with which the U.S. has historically been allied. The president who vowed to undertake a war in defense of American values and freedoms has presided over such radical departures from the defining values and liberties of this country that many Americans find their country and its government unrecognizable. And the president who vowed to lead the war for freedom and democracy has made torture, rendition, abductions, lawless detentions of even our own citizens, secret "black site" prisons, Abu Ghraib dog leashes, and orange Guantánamo jumpsuits the strange, new symbols of America around the world.
But our entire system of government, from its inception, has been based upon a very different calculus -- that is, that many things matter besides merely protecting ourselves against threats, and consequently, we are willing to accept risks, even potentially fatal ones, in order to secure those other values. From its founding, America has rejected the worldview of prioritizing physical safety above all else, as such a mentality leads to an impoverished and empty civic life. The premise of America is and always has been that imposing limitations on government power is necessary to secure liberty and avoid tyranny even if it means accepting an increased risk of death as a result. That is the foundational American value.Because it is a totalitarian framework of logic, the only way to defeat it is to attack it at its foundations, to root out its very premise, as Greenwald is doing. Conservatives have often gained the advantage in American public discourse because they build and re-enforce these meta-frames with great care; for liberals to bring reason back to the debate we'll need to do a considerable amount of foundational work of our own. This means, in the present case, repeatedly making the argument that Manicheanism is foolish and destructive, that we cannot afford to make policy according to a worldview defined by a simpleminded division of Good v. Evil.