The upside of terror

Maybe a period of stark repression will be a rich and rewarding experience for all of us. Who needs habeas corpus anyway?

Published October 25, 2006 10:30AM (EDT)

We are engaged in a struggle between freedom and the forces of terror, my little macacas, and mostly I side with freedom, such as the freedom to look at big shots and stick out your tongue and blow, but of course terror has its place too. The dude strolling down our street at night does not break into our house to see what's available because he is terrified that if he's nabbed, his girlfriend Janine will run off to Philly with her ex-boyfriend Eddie who's been hanging around. She's the best thing in Benny's life right now. So he walks on by and leaves our stereo be.

The terror of everlasting hellfire kept me away from dances until I was 12 years old and away from smoking cigarettes until I was 15. So that's good. Dancing was briefly thrilling, and then I caught sight of myself in a mirror and I haven't gone to a dance since. Fear of ridicule is powerful too.

A lack of terror may encourage crooks to operate brazenly, knock over the candy stand, trip the nuns, hurl garbage over the balcony, and that's why you have cops, and also to keep the college kids from getting sick in our shrubbery.

But now the federal government is extending the frontiers of terror with the Military Commissions Act, legalizing torture and suspending habeas corpus and constructing a loose web of law by which you and I could be hung by our ankles in a meat locker for as long as somebody deems necessary. "Any person is punishable..." the law states, "who knowingly and intentionally aids an enemy of the United States" and when it comes to deciding what "knowingly and intentionally" might mean or who is the enemy, that's for a military commission to decide in secret, with or without you present. No Fifth Amendment, hearsay evidence admissible, no judicial review.

People came to America to escape this sort of justice. The midnight knock on the door, incarceration at the whim of men in shiny boots, confessions obtained with a section of hose, secret trial by star chamber. One is reminded of Germany, 1933, when the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act to give the Chancellor the power of summary arrest and imprisonment, a necessary tool for the defense of the homeland against traitors, Jew-lovers, terrorists.

Not that this is a bad thing. Who am I to say? Maybe we've been too lenient with enemies of the state. A period of stark repression might be a rich and rewarding experience for all of us. But when the Current Occupant signed the Act last week, the difference between freedom and terror did suddenly shrink somewhat. It makes you wonder: What if Mr. Cheney does not wish to give up power two years from now? Maybe he has other priorities. If an enemy of the United States -- a Democrat, for example -- appeared to be on the verge of election, perhaps Mr. Cheney, for the good of the country, will be forced to take the threat seriously and head for an undisclosed location and invoke his war powers and shovel a few thousand traitors into camps and call up his friends at Diebold and program the election results that are best for the country, or call the whole thing off.

OK by me if it's OK by you. I don't imagine that coffee sales will be affected or that Paris Hilton will be, like, "Whoa, this is so not cool," and, like, text-message her buds to join her on a hunger strike. The greeters at Wal-Mart will still smile and the football season will go on. They might flash a bulletin at halftime, "Terror Threat Forces Postponement of Election," and most people would be OK with that. If Mr. Cheney thinks it necessary to suspend the Constitution for a while, surely he has his reasons. The man inspires trust.

They won't have to torture me to get a good confession. I am a professional writer of fiction, my little monkeys, and if they turn the bright lights on yours truly, beans will spill by the bushel, names will be named, and dates, and stories will be told one after the other. Everybody who ever done me wrong, I am going to implicate them up to their dewlaps. A trial with hearsay evidence allowed and no cross-examination is tailor-made for a novelist. Throw me into that briar patch, Br'er Bush.

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(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)

(c) 2006 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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