President Obama's Rejection of American Cowardice

For the first time in nearly a decade, we have a chief executive who isn't a raving coward.

And not a second too soon. President Obama made it clear on Tuesday that America is no longer in the business of selling-out the legacy of our Founders and the mandates of the Constitution for the sake of a little bit of extra security. From the president's inaugural address:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. [...] Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

In short: the national security of the United States is no longer going to be conducted by raving cowards. Not anymore. Contrast those historic words against the viral cowardice -- the frightened pee-pants dance of the men who somehow infiltrated our highest levels of political power:

"You have no civil liberties if you are dead." --Senator Pat Roberts, R-KS

"None of your civil liberties matter much after you're dead." --Senator "Big John" Cornyn, R-TX

"Our civil liberties are worthless if we are dead! If you are dead and pushing up daisies, if you're sucking dirt inside a casket, do you know what your civil liberties are worth? Zilch, zero, nada." --Rush Limbaugh

Never mind that you can't "suck dirt" if you're dead, either. But we'll let that one slide because it was a figure of speech, and because Limbaugh was probably stoned at the time and hallucinating a trio of dirt-sucking zombies named "Zilch", "Zero" and "Nada" wandering through his studio in search of brains. Regardless of how the remarks came about, they fully exemplify the national security policy of the old crowd: the guiding theory that a frightened population will and should acquiesce to the slow dissolution of civil liberties in the face of ambiguous threats from faceless (and mostly brown-skinned) villains.

As we've all observed, the most irrationally "expedient" solutions, as the president underscored in his inaugural address on Tuesday, are the most despotic ones. One of the most disturbing trends of the Bush years was the pervasive willingness at all levels of American life to abandon not just our liberty, but also our national reputation, in exchange for the illusion of safety.

Not surprisingly, the solutions for "expedience's sake" were the most popular. How could they not have been? Two of our favorite things are: 1) anything that doesn't take too long, and 2) not being killed by terrorists. As for the latter, we really, really don't like the idea of being killed by terrorists -- so much so that federal spending for counterterrorism is nearly double the federal spending for disease prevention.

Thus, invading Iraq in order to prevent a mushroom cloud in Zanesville, Ohio was hugely popular. It had to be done by yesterday, or else! Likewise, the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act passed with only one nay vote in the Senate. After all, it was a law designed to protect us at any and all cost -- plus, it carried the bonus of having both "patriot" and "U.S.A." in the title. Try running for Congress one year after September 11 with the stigma of having voted against the U.S.A. and patriotism. Such a confluence of events combined to form a degree of magnificent cowardice and stupidity seldom rivaled in the American narrative.

To that point, John Adams wrote in Thoughts on Government that anyone who governs by the "sordid and miserable passion" of fear is both "stupid and miserable." Later in his career, of course, Adams would sign into law the Alien and Sedition Acts. But these temporary yet irrevocable lapses in judgment don't render his initial observations any less accurate. What he understood about fear at the outset of the Revolution -- the philosophy which he would later betray as president -- was that there are, in fact, ways to provide for the common defense while also preserving the liberties for which he and his fellow patriots risked their lives.

Nevertheless, it was explained to us in many ways for many years, oftentimes with cry-baby tears (I'm looking at you, Mukasey and Boehner), that the full power of the United States government and all of the very serious people therein were totally and hopelessly unable to figure out ways to keep us safe while simultaneously protecting our liberties. So the only solution, we were told, was to hack away at liberty in spite of the Constitution, in spite of the rule of law, in spite of American values and in spite of basic human morality. The only way to ultimately keep us safe, they said, was to create policies that fell outside the boundaries of the founding documents. You can have liberty if you're dead.

But from his inaugural dais, President Obama reminded us that there are indeed ways to have both an acceptable level of security while preserving liberty. Shocking, isn't it. It turns out that smart people with good intentions can, with the right leadership, be successful in this endeavor.

Naturally, however, there aren't any guarantees of absolute safety. And there shouldn't be in a free society. If you insist on 100 percent foolproof protection from acts of terrorism, you should probably go ahead and lock yourself in an underground bunker and leave the rest of us alone.

Patriotism should never again be defined as the speed and vigor by which our liberties are abandoned. Rather, the perpetual rejection of the "false the choice between our safety and our ideals" is the sort of heroic patriotism our Founders intended. At long last, we have a president who's smart enough and wise enough to get it.

Order my book: One Nation Under Fear, with a foreword by Arianna Huffington. Also available in stores.