(Authors note: I originally wrote this story immediately after the Orlando Club Attack. I purposefully sat on it for some time to make sure it wasn’t a knee jerk reaction. After doing so, my feelings remain unchanged.)
“Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges”
“In time of war, the law falls silent.” Cicero. So, is that what we have become – a 24th century Rome, driven by nothing other than the certainty that Caesar can do no wrong!” – Dr. Julian Bashir (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)
It’s not often I get to tie together my favorite Star Trek series (Sisko is the best Captain, never let anyone tell you differently) with Roman history and contemporary politics so when I saw my chance I ran with it. Unfortunately the huge endorphic pay off I reaped from this opportunity doesn’t outweigh my dismay over the last week and change. Obviously the forefront of my dismay is simple continued despondency that 50 of my fellow Americans were gunned down but on a more abstract and theoretical level I’ve seen what might be an even more disturbing trend long term.
This is not a strictly Republican or Democrat problem either; I’ve seen it from people claiming both red and blue. This is a time of fear, this is a time of (sometimes righteous) anger, and this is a time when people want a solution. Seeking a solution for appalling acts outside of our understanding is not only understandable it is human. We want to create a world that makes sense and for many people this means picking up the biggest and bluntest object to hand and swinging with gusto. Unfortunately what this has taken the form of a recurring phenomenon throughout history: a frightened citizenry looking eagerly for the proverbial ‘strong man’ to protect them and being willing to turn over hard won freedoms in exchange for that security (or often the illusion of it).
Rome, as in so many cases, can provide us with an excellent example of what can come of this sort of thing. Julius Caesar, the de facto first Emperor of Rome though he never officially claimed that title, began his career as a duly elected representative of the people of Rome. His meteoric rise to the top of the Roman state makes for extremely interesting reading and is a real testament to what an extremely talented and ambitious man can accomplish in a lifetime. The important part for our purposes is that in a very real sense it was the S.P.Q.R who enabled the rise of the man who would one day be Dictator.
As the world around them became more and more chaotic (and thus less understandable) the people of the Republic looked desperately for any source of stability and ‘safety’. Caesar seemed to provide these things and thus ever increasing honors and powers were voted the champion of the Rome. Eventually, after a bloody civil war, he was voted dictator for life. Roman liberty was not seized by a foreign aggressor but handed over voluntarily. And he is merely the most prominent example of this phenomenon. Over and over again the impulse of scared people has been to cede hard won liberties to ‘strong men’ for the promise of safety. And it’s happening here now.
Look, there is no denying it, government by the people is difficult. It requires constant vigilance (shout out to Mad-Eye Moody), individual responsibility, and the understanding that your society WILL be more vulnerable and more chaotic than others. Living under Caesar is easy, you are given your orders, you execute them, and you receive your state defined ‘reward’. Responsibility for your safety and protection is out of your hands, Caesar will provide.
But who am I indicting? Hilary Clinton? There are Caesar like tendencies there most definitely. Convincing a populace that surrendering it’s arms and depending solely on the Emperor for it’s safety is a classic play. But no not her specifically. Donald Trump? He too has some extreme Imperial tendencies and in particular seems to overestimate the power of the executive. But no this is not an attack on the Donald. The parties themselves? Over the last week or so I have heard calls to repeal or dramatically curtail the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th amendments to the constitution from prominent members of both parties, but no they are not the ones who are wearing the purple. I’m afraid Americans of both stripes have largely succeeded in enthroning not an individual but the concept of the state or government.
Our Caesar is not one conspicuously gifted individual (and honestly I would have an easier time understanding the mind set it if it was) but instead the mere concept of overarching governance. Everyone from President Obama down to the person staffing the desk of the DMV is Caesar. And Caesar knows best! Caesar will keep us safe and happy! And if all the Emperor requires in exchange is that we give up our checks on government and a few freedoms here and there then there seem to be many who are happy to pay that price. And if indeed we have reached the point where Americans have grown weary of the burden of self government and would rather simply look to a throne (literal or otherwise) for leadership then perhaps our experiment in self government is done. 200+ years is not too shabby all things considered.
“So this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause…”– Padme Amidala (Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith)
To answer the question on many people’s tongues, yes that makes one Star Wars and one Star Trek quote in this article (I’m an equal opportunist). But the quote is very poignant. Will we, as a people, cheer our invisible Emperor as Liberty is replaced with control. Will American’s sing praises to Caesar as they eagerly let fall their arms, trusting in the knowledge that his will will be ever benevolent and his wisdom unassailable? Will we raise our voice in adulation as walls are erected around us and groups of our countrymen are turned into scapegoats, confident in the belief that Caesar can do no wrong? Will our own liberty be cast aside for placebo of the ‘right kind’ of authoritarianism?
I for one still believe in in the idea that uncomfortable freedom is infinitely preferable to a gilded cage. Security and order lie back inside those glittering bars (or at least the comforting illusion of them), but I prefer to live free with all it’s extreme peril. It’s the primary reason why our present ‘Authoritarian A vs Authoritarian B’ presidential election vexes my terribly. And why I refuse to ‘fall into line’ and just accept how things are. I will not be driven forward, but I am very willing to be lead. I will ignore the command to ‘go’ but will readily listen to the invitation to ‘come along’.
The price of American, and all other, liberty is and will continue to be high. Both in terms of responsibilities entailed and actual cost paid. Fifty of our fellow Americans (and that is the correct way to view them) were killed recently because of the actions of a madman. Trading our checks on government or our Liberal (note the capitol L) traditions away will not bring them back, but it could mean the end of our way of life. Once these powers and prerogatives are surrendered history tells us they are never returned. Vain were the hopes of those who thought on the death of Julius Caesar his powers would revert to the people and their representatives.
Every one of us needs to practice brutal self reflection as we decide as individuals if we are willing to pay the price of freedom. Or if we are content to live placidly under the strong arm and ever watching eye of Caesar. I will leave you with a quote from a personal hero of mine (and one that will do nothing to break the 1-1 Wars/Trek tie I’ve created) Marcus Tullius Cicero:
“Do not blame Caesar, blame the people of Rome who have so enthusiastically acclaimed and adored him and rejoiced in their loss of freedom and danced in his path and given him triumphal processions. Blame the people who hail him when he speaks in the Forum of the new wonderful good society which shall now be Rome’s…”