Over the years, I have come around to the view, expressed by many of my opponents, that we started that war at least in part for the same reason we imposed pointless security theater at airports and enacted very real, very intrusive new government surveillance powers: The terrorists had punctured the sense of invulnerability that America’s two oceans have always provided, and we were struggling to regain our emotional equilibrium. As often happens in such cases, we lashed out. We wanted to show the world the price of ticking us off.
When others said, “Wait a minute, slow down, is this really a good idea?” my side frequently dismissed them as naifs, terrorist-sympathizers and even traitors. Objectively, they certainly were suggesting we should let vicious Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein continue his brutally corrupt reign.
They were right.
My side “won” that debate, and then bungled into Iraq, getting a lot of Americans, and many more Iraqis, killed in the process. We cost ourselves a fortune and destabilized a region that was none too stable to begin with. We found no nuclear program of any note.
That colossal failure wrecked the Bush administration, and America’s reputation. Arguably, it also planted a seed of division within the conservative movement that later blossomed in the form of Donald Trump.
And so I learned to inherently suspect the radical things I want to do when I’ve had an unprecedented shock — like the one we experienced on Jan. 6.
I am especially self-suspicious when my side rejects caution as apology for terrorism, and insists we cannot settle for minimizing a threat, but must do whatever it takes to smash every last remnant of our foes. Which brings me to Parler, the conservative alternative to Twitter.
I’m not surprised Parler could be shut down because Apple, Google and Amazon decided not to do business with it any longer, but I am troubled that the tech behemoths actually took this dramatic step after Twitter closed the president’s account. Closing businesses for facilitating problematic activity is the kind of thing the government usually does, not private corporations — and the government, at least, has some constitutional restrictions on and democratic oversight of its powers.
Companies have every legal and moral right to do what they wish with their property, of course. But one can acknowledge that while also asking whether what they do is wise, or good for America, or even good for the companies themselves. A handful of executives made another business go away, while signaling that corporate America has chosen a political side and that it’s not afraid to go further than our government. That’s unprecedented, and I’m frightened of setting that precedent now.
As with the “War on Terror,” short-term victories seem certain, and enticing; Big Tech made it harder for Trump to disrupt the inauguration, which is great. But in the longer term, we may radicalize people who were previously neutral, and thereby empower even worse foes than the ones we vanquished. The other day I heard from a never-Trump friend, a Biden voter, who is convinced that eventually, after we all get comfortable with what Big Tech has done, it will come for conservatives like him. If that happens, he — and others like him — are not going to ally with their censors, public or private.
But those of us who opposed Trump should also be cautious about such alliances. The right-wing fringe is about to discover what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the anti-terror surveillance state it supported so enthusiastically. Perhaps we could learn from their example and ask what sort of society we want to live in before we start authorizing sweeping new powers.
I still think Twitter was right to block Trump, who cannot be allowed to whip up further insurrection from the Oval Office. But, in its shock, will blue America resist the urge to overreach, or will it try to confine Trump’s voters with him? Eventually, 74 million people are likely to crash through any boundary their opponents can throw up — and when they do, other terrible things may be set free, even if we can’t yet see exactly what.