We are all too familiar with the mantra that "those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it"; unfortunately, the human species is notoriously poor at learning from history and preparing for the long-term (we are, however, quite good at adapting to short-term contingencies - which fits much better with evolutionary processes than with intelligent design, but I digress). In a wonderful essay in Saturday's New York Times, Robert Harris draws a prophetic parallel between two nation-states, one two thousand years old, the other more modern, and their respective responses to dramatic events of terrorism. How far the parallels will play out remains to be seen, but thus far the similarities are striking:
IN the autumn of 68 B.C. the world’s only military superpower was dealt a profound psychological blow by a daring terrorist attack on its very heart. Rome’s port at Ostia was set on fire, the consular war fleet destroyed, and two prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff, kidnapped.
The incident, dramatic though it was, has not attracted much attention from modern historians. But history is mutable. An event that was merely a footnote five years ago has now, in our post-9/11 world, assumed a fresh and ominous significance. For in the panicky aftermath of the attack, the Roman people made decisions that set them on the path to the destruction of their Constitution, their democracy and their liberty. One cannot help wondering if history is repeating itself.
Can't help wondering indeed. Harris goes on to show that, like Al Quaeda, the pirates terrorists were able to spread such fear and havoc that the Roman populace complacently allowed its leaders to assume new, unlimited power to deal with the threat. There liberties and process of law to this time were very, well...American:
Over the preceding centuries, the Constitution of ancient Rome had developed an intricate series of checks and balances intended to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual. The consulship, elected annually, was jointly held by two men. Military commands were of limited duration and subject to regular renewal. Ordinary citizens were accustomed to a remarkable degree of liberty: the cry of “Civis Romanus sum” — “I am a Roman citizen” — was a guarantee of safety throughout the world.
Terrorism, however, began to unravel the democratic process as people were willing to swap liberty for perceived safety; and there were plenty of power-hungry politicians waiting in the wings to take advantage of the fear. Pompey the Great prevailed at getting his supporters into power, who then proposed new laws that would limit citizens' rights and consolidate power among those like himself who would ostensibly use it to "fight terrorism". Harris writes:
By the oldest trick in the political book — the whipping up of a panic, in which any dissenting voice could be dismissed as “soft” or even “traitorous” — powers had been ceded by the people that would never be returned. Pompey stayed in the Middle East for six years, establishing puppet regimes throughout the region, and turning himself into the richest man in the empire.
For those of us who are citizens of the United States, the continued erosion of constitutional rights by the Bush administration, all under the guise of fighting terrorism, strkes an uncanny resemblance to Roman reactions 2074 years previous. For those of us too blinded by American patriotism, Harris (a British citizen) walks us through the connection:
Those of us who are not Americans can only look on in wonder at the similar ease with which the ancient rights and liberties of the individual are being surrendered in the United States in the wake of 9/11. The vote by the Senate on Thursday to suspend the right of habeas corpus for terrorism detainees, denying them their right to challenge their detention in court; the careful wording about torture, which forbids only the inducement of “serious” physical and mental suffering to obtain information; the admissibility of evidence obtained in the United States without a search warrant; the licensing of the president to declare a legal resident of the United States an enemy combatant — all this represents an historic shift in the balance of power between the citizen and the executive.
An intelligent, skeptical American would no doubt scoff at the thought that what has happened since 9/11 could presage the destruction of a centuries-old constitution; but then, I suppose, an intelligent, skeptical Roman in 68 B.C. might well have done the same.
But the parallel does not end there; and Roman panic offers us a potential vision of our own destiny:
In truth, however, the Lex Gabinia was the beginning of the end of the Roman republic. It set a precedent. Less than a decade later, Julius Caesar — the only man, according to Plutarch, who spoke out in favor of Pompey’s special command during the Senate debate — was awarded similar, extended military sovereignty in Gaul. Previously, the state, through the Senate, largely had direction of its armed forces; now the armed forces began to assume direction of the state.
It also brought a flood of money into an electoral system that had been designed for a simpler, non-imperial era. Caesar, like Pompey, with all the resources of Gaul at his disposal, became immensely wealthy, and used his treasure to fund his own political faction. Henceforth, the result of elections was determined largely by which candidate had the most money to bribe the electorate. In 49 B.C., the system collapsed completely, Caesar crossed the Rubicon — and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.
It is, of course, doubtful that many Americans see the long term danger of adopting laws counter to the Constitution, instead opting to address the immediate contingency of fighting terrorism "over there". (Harris notes that the pirate threat turned out not to be nearly as real as Romans were led to believe - another striking parallel with today). One can now only hope that history does not, in fact, repeat itself.