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Stanford Report, March 6, 2002

Wresting decision-making from the citizenry

Harvard professor Elaine Scarry sees a usurping of executive, military powers


U.S. military and executive structures have moved dangerously -- and unconstitutionally -- outside the arena of public consent, Harvard literature Professor Elaine Scarry asserted last week during this year's first Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and Arts.

Before a faculty-studded audience that included President John Hennessy, Provost John Etchemendy and former President Gerhard Casper, Scarry argued that citizens and Congress, as opposed to the executive branch and military, are responsible for decisions about the country's use of "injuring power." She said that people's authority in this province has been eroded by the advent of weapons of mass destruction and the contention that democratic machinery works too slowly to respond to national threats.

In developing her argument, Harvard's Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value ranged far and wide over a vast legal and philosophical landscape, stringing together ideas from John Locke's Second Treatise on Government, Justice John Marshall Harlan's dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson and the Second Amendment, among other sources. On the whole, Scarry's lecture, "Nine One One: Citizenship in Emergency," probably raised more questions than it answered, but this is typical of her expansive and provocative scholarship.

"Scarry is an intellectual polymath, a literary scholar whose work spans torture, the beauty of flowers and reading, nuclear weapons and a series of papers on the causes of several airline crashes," Debra Satz, an associate professor of philosophy, noted in her introduction to the lecture.

Scarry contends that the United States has difficulty protecting itself. "Defending this country is an obligation we all share," she said. "It may be that you'll conclude that the best way of defending the country is not to notice that on Sept. 11 we could not defend ourselves. But it may be that the best way to defend the country is, as painful as that is, to actually look at that subject and see if there's something that we need to take into account and revise."

The strategic policy of presidential first-use of nuclear weapons, which licenses the commander in chief to act alone in aggressively launching a nuclear attack, is in "stark violation" of the Second Amendment and of Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, which requires congressional approval to declare war, Scarry said. Her innovative reading of the Second Amendment posits that authority over "injuring power" in the United States must be distributed equally among the whole population.

Both Congress and the ordinary citizen, however, have become excluded from executive and military structures, whose leaders justify the centralization of military power by asserting that the Constitution was written in "a period of slow time, and that speed today does not permit the cumbersome and distributive forms of deliberation," she said.

"This argument always seems profoundly wrongheaded to me," she added, explaining that if an act is illegal, performing it quickly does not make it any more legal.

A "matter of minutes" vocabulary can be found everywhere in military and legal literature dealing with weapons, weapons-delivery systems and U.S. governmental structures: For example, decisions to launch nuclear weapons must be made in "a matter of minutes"; missiles must leave their silos in "a matter of minutes"; and so on. Even the names of military weapons -- such as the Minuteman missile -- reflect the idea of speediness, she said. "Our forefathers, so the argument goes, simply could not have conceived of a world where there are only minutes or only seconds to respond," she said.

Yet with a relatively generous amount of time to respond to American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, the military was still incapable of defending against it, Scarry said. "On Sept. 11, the Pentagon could not defend the Pentagon, let alone the rest of the country," she added.

More than 80 minutes went by between the time that Federal Aviation Administration controllers learned that multiple planes had been hijacked and the Flight 77 crash. Fifty-eight minutes passed between the first crash at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon crash. "For 58 minutes the military knows that the hijackers have multiple planes and that those hijackers have no intention to land those planes safely," she said.

Meanwhile, it was the citizens who saved the day in the case of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh after passengers appeared to have cast a vote to rush the hijackers. They were able to respond quickly because "they were on the ground to be defended," Scarry said. In other words, the passengers were not making decisions or trying to coordinate a defense from a distant military base or the White House. And they were able to act in a way that accorded, at least in spirit, with constitutionally condoned military action, Scarry said. They performed like a small legislative body. Over roughly 40 minutes, many were able to use cell phones to report what was happening to them and apprehend the fate of the other planes. Armed with this knowledge, they were able to vote among themselves on a course of action.

It is exactly this kind of informed consent that is absent in the policy governing the presidential first-use of nuclear weapons, Scarry said.

"The consent of the governed by self-governance is required," she said. "That is why you need in the country to eliminate the kind of nonconsensual weapons."

The next Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and Arts is scheduled for April 8 and will feature Lynn Hunt, the Eugen Weber Professor of Modern European History at the University of California-Los Angeles. Hunt will give a lecture titled "The Novel and the Origins of Human Rights: The Intersection of History, Psychology and Literature." A discussion with Hunt is scheduled for the following day at the Humanities Center.

The Presidential Lectures are held under the auspices of the Presidential and Endowed Lectures in the Humanities and Arts, a series organized by the Humanities Center.

Harvard literature Professor Elaine Scarry gave a talk titled "Nine One One: Citizenship in Emergency" last week during this year's first Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and Arts. Photo: L.A. Cicero