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Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Richmond, the city where I reside, had been put under martial law because of the war. Not only that, but the President had also suspended the writ of habeas corpus. Some readers may assume this has something to do with President Bush's recent visit to Richmond, but I am referring to a different President, a different war, and a different nation.

The nation was the Confederate States of America, the war was the Civil War (known locally as the "recent unpleasantness"), and the President was Jefferson Davis. Abraham Lincoln was then the President of the United States of America. He was also the first dictator to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and the first to fight a bloody war of choice for empire and to enrich his mercantilist backers.

Contrary to current public opinion, the Civil War was not fought over slavery (emancipation didn't become an issue until later). It was about secession. It was about money and power. The war was fought between white racist northerners (with their industrial based economy) and white racist southerners (with their agricultural based economy). It was a war fought to continue taxing the southern slave economy. It was a nasty affair that left over a half million dead and many more physically, emotionally, and/or spiritually crippled - not at all unlike modern wars.

All wars produce casualties. Soldiers and civilians alike are killed and wounded. Wealth is squandered and economies are devastated. Homes, factories, stores, and places of worship are destroyed along with the lives of those subjected to wars which are invariably fought over power and money. Another effect of war is the loss of liberty. Freedom is stripped away, often never to be fully regained. The loss of liberty is the political effect of war.

Virginius Dabney, editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch for 33 years, summarized some of the politcal effects of war in the excerpt below. These effects included conscription, martial law, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, internal passports, prohibition, and government corruption.

The following excerpt is taken from page 170 of Dabney's book, Richmond: The Story of a City (Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1976):

The spring of 1862 found the Confederacy's fortunes at low ebb. Since Manassas, there had been a succession of Confederate defeats. President Davis rammed a conscription bill through Congress over violent opposition. The measure also provided for holding in the army men who had enlisted for twelve months and whose enlistments were expiring.

In Richmond, the atmosphere was depressing. Added to the losses in the field was the fact that rowdyism, drunkeness and crime were widespread. The City was crowded with soldiers on leave, plus questionable characters of all sorts. The situation was symbolized by a near-riot in the gallery of Metropolitan Hall, involving a brawl between "brazen women" and "unprincipled men" who yelled, cursed and discharged firearms.

Anticipating the need for drastic action, the Confederate Congress, on recommendation of President Davis, passed a bill in secret session, authorizing martial law in Richmond. It included suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and Davis put it into effect March 1. Passports were required for persons leaving the city. General John G. Winder took charge of administering military rule in Richmond and outside it for a distance of ten miles. There was much complaining against the arbitrary actions of his agents. His first general order forbade sales of liquor, except with a physicians prescription, and closed all saloons and distilleries. "It was not long," writes one historian, "before Winder's detectives were forging prescriptions for brandy, drinking the brandy, and then arresting the unfortunate apothecaries who had sold it to them."

Lincoln had already suspended the writ of habeas corpus in 1861. He did so again in 1862, along with imposing martial law. Habeas corpus was restored by the Supreme Court in 1866, after the Civil War had ended.

Jefferson Davis probably felt justified in declaring martial law and suspending habeas corpus as the Capital of the Confederacy was in chaos and under threat. Hundreds of dead and wounded Confederate soldiers loaded into wagons rolled into Richmond along with profiteers and northern spies. Davis looked out his window and saw an emergency. He may have even heard cannon shots in the distance. A very real war was taking place and many battles took place in Virginia to keep Union forces from taking Richmond.

Contrast this situation with the current Global War On Terror (GWOT). Bush recently signed the Military Commissions Act which, among other things, suspends the writ of habeas corpus for anyone he (or his agents) decides is an illegal enemy combatant.

The GWOT has already brought about the PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretapping, databases on citizens, spying on peace activists, sweeps to round up innocent Muslims in America, CIA renditions, secret prisons, and torture. The GWOT has cost America as much as a trillion dollars as well as the respect of much of the world. The GWOT has arguably made America less safe from future terrorist attacks. Thousands of American troops have died, hundreds of thousands of Afghani and Iraqi civilians have died, and thousands more Americans, Iraqis, and Afghanis are permanently disabled.

Now, the President and Congress have decided that an integral part of martial law, the suspension of habeas corpus, is required. As Juan Cole correctly observes:

Article 1, Section 9 of the US Constitution says, "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it."

I look out my window. I don't see a general Rebellion or an invasion by a foreign power. The conditions, under which the right of the imprisoned to demand that a court establish whether there are genuine grounds to hold him is suspended, are absent.

The law is unconstitutional.

Once again we witness the loss of liberty because of war. The current war may last 20 years - possibly longer if it is escalated. Will Americans regain this lost liberty when the last evil-doer is eliminated in Bush's war against evil? Many of us will not be alive to know the answer to this question.

The Civil War resulted in the loss of federalism as envisioned by the founders and set forth in the U.S. Constitution. The freedom from the control of a strong central government was never regained after the Civil War and has actually been diminished further. This would not be the last time that liberty was a casualty of war.

The intervention known as World War I led to World War II. World War II led to the Cold War which, in turn, led to interventions in Asia, South and Central America, and the Mideast. Each of these wars and interventions has led to a further degradation of liberty in America, massive debt, and further wars and interventions.

Millions of people have died, billions of lives have been ruined, and trillions of dollars have been spent since the Civil War. It can be argued that some of these wars and interventions were necessary to rid the world of evil dictators, but it can also be argued that the evil dictators would not have existed but for previous interventions and the support given to the dictators by America.

The emergency high income tax rates to fund World War I never went down to pre-war levels. The emergency withholding tax imposed during World War II became permanent. The surveillance state has blossomed since World War II. Covert wars have increased since the Vietnam War, increasing the chances of blowback or retaliation. Since the Vietnam War, the national debt has increased every single year. American interventions in the Mideast since 1953 have only resulted in further interventions and several wars.

It certainly doesn't take a genius to determine that war and freedom are incompatible. I can think of only two reasons why wars should be fought - when attacked and when a tyrant takes your freedom away. Wars of choice and preventive wars are crimes against mankind. Wars to increase power, influence, and wealth are also indisputably criminal in nature.

It is bad enough when freedom is temporarily suspended during legitimate wartime emergencies, but when freedom is never again restored or when freedom is taken during a war which is of a criminal nature, it is inexcusable. A government that places the liberty, lives, property, and well being of its citizens at risk is of no benefit to anyone other than the tyrants that use government to satisfy their lust for power and wealth.

It is often said that war is the health of the state. It is also the tool of the tyrant. But, I digress. This is an article about a component of martial law - the suspension of the ancient writ of habeas corpus. However, that the suspension of said writ occurs during wars of choice is no mere coincidence. It is further evidence that those who control powerful central governments should never be trusted. It is also an indictment against powerful centralized government.

The Declaration of Independence reminds us:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Consider that in light of what Henry David Thoreau had to say about the nature of government:

I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe - "That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

Then consider that if you value peace, prosperity and freedom, and you are aware of the hell unleashed on mankind by strong central governments over the past 145 years, perhaps it is time to abolish the federal government of the United States of America and replace it with a government that governs not at all. Or, abolish the federal government and replace it with absolutely nothing. The experiment with constitutionally limited government has proven to be a failure and America is that proof.

Richmond was under martial law 145 years ago and now, under the Military Commissions Act, it is once again subject to martial law. Even if this Act is ruled unconstitutional or repealed, Richmond (and your city or county) will remain under the threat of martial law so long as Americans tolerate a federal government that invokes dubious emergencies and engages in wars of choice. I fear the freedom lost under the current regime will never be restored until Americans realize they are better off without the federal government than they are with it.


THE BRIGHT SIDE OF MCA 2006? - Karen Kwiatkowski
ARE YOU THE ENEMY? - Joe Wolverton
THE HORRIFIC TORTURE ACT - Christopher Ketcham
SHAME ON US ALL - Robert Parry

This article contributed by Tom Blanton of Richmond, Virginia.