Al-Qaedibus

Empires are always successfully attacked by loosely organized groups, since an empire can easily control other organized governments through the use of armies and economic pressure. Ancient Rome had a very similar attack to 9/11 – and the consequances were startlingly and depressingly familiar. Read the whole editorial by Robert Harris in the International Herald Tribune with this link, but my edited summary appears below.

http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/10/01/opinion/edharris.php

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.

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.

The perpetrators of this spectacular assault were not in the pay of any foreign power: No nation would have dared to attack Rome so provocatively. Like Al Qaeda, these pirates were loosely organized, but able to spread a disproportionate amount of fear among citizens who had believed themselves immune from attack.

What was to be done? 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. 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.

But such was the panic that ensued after Ostia that the people were willing to compromise these rights. The greatest soldier in Rome, the 38-year- old Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known to posterity as Pompey the Great) arranged for a lieutenant of his, the tribune Aulus Gabinius, to rise in the Roman Forum and propose an astonishing new law, the Lex Gabinia (read: Patriot Act).

“Pompey was to be given not only the supreme naval command but what amounted in fact to an absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone,” the Greek historian Plutarch wrote. “There were not many places in the Roman world that were not included within these limits.”

Pompey eventually received almost the entire contents of the Roman Treasury to pay for his “war on terror,” which included building a fleet of 500 ships and raising an army of 120,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Such an accumulation of power was unprecedented. Once Pompey put to sea, it took less than three months to sweep the pirates from the entire Mediterranean.

Even allowing for Pompey’s genius as a military strategist, the suspicion arises that if the pirates could be defeated so swiftly, they could hardly have been such a grievous threat in the first place.

But it was too late to raise such questions. 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 (read: Dick Cheney).

The vote by the American Senate 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 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.

It may be that the Roman republic was doomed in any case. But the disproportionate reaction to the raid on Ostia unquestionably hastened the process, weakening the restraints on military adventurism and corrupting the political process. It was to be more than 1,800 years before anything remotely comparable to Rome’s democracy – imperfect though it was – rose again.

The Lex Gabinia was a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences: It fatally subverted the institution it was supposed to protect.

Concerted effort on all our parts will be necessary to prevent going down the exact same road. History may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.

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