Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Name, Interrupted

Vote for James H. 'Jim'
Funny Business
by Niranj...
My son is taking a class on 'Elements of Comedy' at his school this quarter. Hearing him talk of distinctions between 'ridiculous' and 'ludicrous', 'preposterous' and 'absurd', all of which we had in our ignorance hitherto classed as 'funny', our household has lately been awakened to a heightened appreciation of why, specifically, we have been laughing at various things all these years. A Moliere within a Moliere, as it were. Now that would be an irony, I should think. Or is it a case of circular logic? I give up. His headache, not mine.

But can any number of comedy studies classes prepare one for something like this?
Some Voting Machines Chop Off Candidates' Names
Computer Glitch Affects Voters in 3 Jurisdictions; Error Cannot Be Fixed by Nov. 7

By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006; B04

U.S. Senate candidate James Webb's last name has been cut off on part of the electronic ballot used by voters in Alexandria, Falls Church and Charlottesville because of a computer glitch that also affects other candidates with long names, city officials said yesterday.
<stuff omitted...>
Thus, Democratic candidate Webb will appear with his first name and nickname only -- or "James H. 'Jim' " -- on summary pages in Alexandria, Falls Church and Charlottesville...

There, but for the grace of God... was my first thought as I read the report. If the machine deemed "James H. 'Jim' Webb" too long, I could only thank my luck that I had firmly turned down all requests to run for the Senate from Virginia this year.

I scanned the Post quickly to see if a similar fate had attended George Allen, Webb's incumbent opponent in the race. A quick tally revealed that George Allen had more letters in his name than James Webb -- and even more, if you added recently-acquired middle names like 'Macaca' and 'Stock Option'.

Actually, Allen did pretty well in what might be termed Great Ballot Massacre of 2006. The report goes on to say George Allen is one of the few whose names appear in full, although his party affiliation has been cut off. Fortune finally appears to be shining on Allen. What a godsend, in a time when according to every poll, the presence of the letter 'R' after the candidate's name is tantamount to electoral cyanide!

Diebold has really outdone itself this time, I said to myself as I read the story. Except the company in charge of messing up elections in Virginia is, it turns out, not Diebold but another called Hart InterCivic, whose name appears in full in the WP report. Was it Tolstoy who wrote that happy families are all alike, while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way? One type of mess in Florida, another in Ohio, yet another in Virginia... Who says originality is dead in America?

Hart InterCivic and Virginia's Secretary of Elections were both assuring the public, (per the Post report on Page B4) in rather chirpy terms, that Hart InterCivic intends to install the newer system version before the next election in 2007.

In an brilliant article (The Evening of Empire) in Counterpunch recently, the analyst Werther set out a grim view of our situation, drawing parallels between the mendacity, authoritarianism and unrelieved bungling that will forever mark America in the Bush years, with identical trends which characterized the last years of the Roman Empire.

Ah, but was Rome ever this funny?

Niranjan Ramakrishnan can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com. His blog is at http://njn-blogogram.blogspot.com.

Monday, October 23, 2006

A Rome Reprise

From Counterpunch:

October 23, 2006

Hubris, Bravado and Hypocrisy

The Evening of Empire


When the admirable Tiberius upon becoming emperor, received a message from the Senate in which the conscript fathers assured him that whatever legislation he wanted would be automatically passed by them, he sent back word that this was outrageous. "Suppose the emperor is ill or mad or incompetent?" He returned their message. They sent it again. His response: "How eager you are to be slaves."

-- Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Amid the onrush of Caligulan sex scandals, suspension of the Constitution, depressing bulletins from the Babylonian front, and all manner of bogus "events," a recent news item has passed with remarkably little public stir, despite being featured above the fold on the front page of The Washington Post, a bulletin board as eagerly read by the capital city's strivers as Pravda in its day by the fellow-traveler, or Osservatore Romano by the untramontanist Catholic.

The article [1] informs us that the President has signed off on a "National Space Policy." The cornerstone of this new policy is the administration's intention to "oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interest."

The document adds elsewhere that the new policy must "enable unhindered U.S. operations in and through space to defend our interest there." Note the unctuous use of the modifier "our"--as if the interests of parasitic contractors, government placemen, and neoconservative scribblers constituted the res publica.

If the English language means anything, the plain intent of the policy is to assert that the United States (or rather its governing clique) can do anything it likes, and treaties be damned, including the Outer Space Treaty currently in force. This conclusion would be consistent with the administration's treatment of other judicial impedimenta, such as the Geneva Convention or the late Constitution. Similar to the Senate's craven grant of plenary power to the Roman Emperor, a supine legislative branch has encouraged the administration to believe its own whim is law--to make war, to torture, to "unsign" treaties.

Yet the Post journalist, in the idiot-savant manner made famous by Bob Woodward, stenographically quotes a "senior government official who was not authorized to speak on the record" as saying "This policy is not about developing or deploying weapons in space. Period."

Ah, just as the Military Commissions Act was not about torture! How like the administration to assign one of its "senior" functionaries to pretend to speak without authorization in order to add verisimilitude to an assertion that it plainly wanted to disseminate--an assertion at odds with the plain text of its policy. And the Post's reporter fell for it like a yokel at the Barnum circus. Thus the rest of the article becomes a fraudulent "debate" between the administration's allegations and those of its critics; thereby lending weight to the presumption that there are legitimately "two sides" to any issue involving the administration.

While the Establishment press (other than the Post) gave little attention to the space policy story, the blogosphere (to the extent it paid any attention) behaved in a predictable fashion: the usual hand-wringing about the militarization of space, the unilateralism of the Bush administration, and forecasts of dark tidings generally. There is some truth to these assertions, but they are subsidiary to a more significant point.

The space policy document is not so much a blueprint as a symptom. But of what?--of fiendish Machiavells, plotting to storm the very heavens? Perhaps that is the intent of these laptop Flash Gordons, but between the desire and the fulfillment falls the shadow: the shadow of utter incompetence.

What is to be said about an administration which dreams of policing outer space, when for three and a half years its legions have been stalemated in their occupation of a broken-down country with a pre-war GDP less than that of Fairfax County, Virginia? The Iraq war has been such a riot of fecklessness as to take one's breath away.

One is hard put to find a more badly fought war in our history. The United States, remember, entered the war with its defense expenditure already nearly equal to that of the rest of the world combined. Vastly increasing the regular military budget since then, as well as piling on the $100+ billion annually for Iraq supplemental spending that "doesn't count" against fictitious Congressional spending limits, has not improved matters.

Since the imperial court, and particularly its War Minister, Donald Rumsfeld, is so fond of World War II analogies, perhaps it is fitting to point out that the tone for the Iraq debacle was set by the establishment in the spring of 2003 of the Coalition Provisional Authority, a repository of more political hacks, shrieking poseurs, and ideological zealots than at any time since Hitler and Goering "cut up the giant cake" of the Ukraine by offering it to the administration of Nazi Party lay-abouts known derisively as "golden pheasants."

The soldiers are now paying the price. Scanning the casualty lists, one is struck by the number of enlisted reservists over the age of 50. In a past war such hexagenarians would, for example, be cannon fodder for the Volkssturm's last-ditch defense of Berlin. One also hears of a veteran of one Iraq deployment, who had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and placed on suicide watch, being ordered back to Iraq. [2]

If this is an imperial army, it smacks of late imperial Rome, plugging the gaps in its vast, ramshackle conquests with too few troops to stem the barbarian hordes. As if on queue, the Post's op-ed page saw fit to air a solution to the troop dilemma on the day after its space policy story: neocon fanatic Max Boot and Establishment weathervane Michael O'Hanlon teamed up to advocate recruiting foreigners (including undocumented aliens) into the military as a step to citizenship. [3] Shades of the Germanic volunteers in the Legions of Rome!

It is sufficiently ironic that a coterie which dreams of Zeus-like control of the heavens comes a cropper in a minor imperial project on terra firma. But what are we to say about the pretensions of a class that asserts such omnipotence, when the very borders of the country in whose name it rules are as permeable as cheese cloth?

One almost feels sympathy for the dilemma of our rulers. The mob that helped put this clique on the imperial throne is demanding that this southern invasion across the imperial limes be halted forthwith. And the proles know whereof they speak: their living standards are at risk, and while they can be mollified with television entertainment and sports spectacles, they, like the mob at the Circus Maximus, can be fickle in its loyalty to the imperial purple.

At the same time, the money barons who sustain the emperor and his retinue profit handsomely from the chaos on America's southern border. The hordes who swarm across it work the latifundia of the great, E Coli-ridden corporate farms, pluck the chickens, and construct the houses of the luxuriating class. If one were a betting man one would lay odds the money barons will win and the borders will remain porous, the nascent totalitarianism of Homeland Security and the fury of the mob notwithstanding.

If the geographic situation of the United States, in the sense of the contrast between its far-flung (if futile) imperial ventures and its utter breakdown as a sovereign nation-state, is reminiscent of late Rome, then the economic basis of the empire completes the picture. The United States is no longer a producer, it is a ravenous consumer, now with an annual trade deficit of three-quarters of a trillion dollars (an unimaginable figure even ten years ago).

China, the favorite nation-state "national security threat" of the imperial gang, is a prime beneficiary of our governing class's addiction to arbitraging labor. A war with China, while not an impossibility, is far-fetched. War would instantly empty the shelves of Wal-Mart; where would the people who earn Wal-Mart wages shop, other than Wal-Mart? One could foresee serious social instability (read: riots) as a result. Even if our rulers were competent enough to construct a space denial program to discomfit the Chinese, they could finance it only if the Chinese Central Bank remained strangely passive, and did not dump U.S. Treasury bills.

Thus it was with Rome:

"Rome lived on its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo." [4]

Seen in the historical perspective of an Edward Gibbon or a Winwood Reade, the Bush administration's National Space Policy bears out neither the vain hopes of its authors nor the nagging fears of its critics. Rather, it is a gesture of bravado characteristic of empires in the evening of their existence. Logic might suggest that such empires would hive to the status quo, and avoid adventures that could drain their power. Logic, however, can be deceiving.

Just as the Emperor Valens embarked on a disastrous campaign against the Goths in 376, the Austro-Hungarian Empire rolled the dice in 1914, and the British embarked on the feckless Suez campaign of 1956 (significantly, when their finances were in terrible shape), so the American Empire doubles its bets at the casino of history. It would vault the firmament to bring its purported enemies to heel, when the very basis of its power is ebbing away.

It is the expression of late imperial hubris, not just of a mad emperor, but of a whole governing system.

Werther is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.

[1] "Bush Sets Defense as Space Priority," The Washington Post, 18 October 2006, p.A1.

[2] "Troops With Stress Disorders Fit For Duty?" CBS News, 19 October 2006

[3] "A Military Path to Citizenship," The Washington Post, 19 October 2006, p. A29

[4] The Martyrdom of Man by Winwood Reade (1871)

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Pat Tillman's brother Writes...

After Pat’s Birthday
by Kevin Tillman

It is Pat’s birthday on November 6, and elections are the day after. It gets me thinking about a conversation I had with Pat before we joined the military. He spoke about the risks with signing the papers. How once we committed, we were at the mercy of the American leadership and the American people. How we could be thrown in a direction not of our volition. How fighting as a soldier would leave us without a voice… until we get out.

Much has happened since we handed over our voice:

Somehow we were sent to invade a nation because it was a direct threat to the American people, or to the world, or harbored terrorists, or was involved in the September 11 attacks, or received weapons-grade uranium from Niger, or had mobile weapons labs, or WMD, or had a need to be liberated, or we needed to establish a democracy, or stop an insurgency, or stop a civil war we created that can’t be called a civil war even though it is. Something like that.

Somehow America has become a country that projects everything that it is not and condemns everything that it is.

Somehow our elected leaders were subverting international law and humanity by setting up secret prisons around the world, secretly kidnapping people, secretly holding them indefinitely, secretly not charging them with anything, secretly torturing them. Somehow that overt policy of torture became the fault of a few “bad apples” in the military.

Somehow back at home, support for the soldiers meant having a five-year-old kindergartener scribble a picture with crayons and send it overseas, or slapping stickers on cars, or lobbying Congress for an extra pad in a helmet. It’s interesting that a soldier on his third or fourth tour should care about a drawing from a five-year-old; or a faded sticker on a car as his friends die around him; or an extra pad in a helmet, as if it will protect him when an IED throws his vehicle 50 feet into the air as his body comes apart and his skin melts to the seat.

Somehow the more soldiers that die, the more legitimate the illegal invasion becomes.

Somehow American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation, has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground.

Somehow those afraid to fight an illegal invasion decades ago are allowed to send soldiers to die for an illegal invasion they started.

Somehow faking character, virtue and strength is tolerated.

Somehow profiting from tragedy and horror is tolerated.

Somehow the death of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people is tolerated.
Somehow subversion of the Bill of Rights and The Constitution is tolerated.

Somehow suspension of Habeas Corpus is supposed to keep this country safe.

Somehow torture is tolerated.

Somehow lying is tolerated.

Somehow reason is being discarded for faith, dogma, and nonsense.

Somehow American leadership managed to create a more dangerous world.

Somehow a narrative is more important than reality.

Somehow America has become a country that projects everything that it is not and condemns everything that it is.

Somehow the most reasonable, trusted and respected country in the world has become one of the most irrational, belligerent, feared, and distrusted countries in the world.

Somehow being politically informed, diligent, and skeptical has been replaced by apathy through active ignorance.

Somehow the same incompetent, narcissistic, virtueless, vacuous, malicious criminals are still in charge of this country.

Somehow this is tolerated.

Somehow nobody is accountable for this.

In a democracy, the policy of the leaders is the policy of the people. So don’t be shocked when our grandkids bury much of this generation as traitors to the nation, to the world and to humanity. Most likely, they will come to know that “somehow” was nurtured by fear, insecurity and indifference, leaving the country vulnerable to unchecked, unchallenged parasites.

Luckily this country is still a democracy. People still have a voice. People still can take action. It can start after Pat’s birthday.

Kevin Tillman joined the Army with his brother Pat in 2002, and they served together in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pat was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. Kevin was discharged in 2005.

Copyright 2006 TruthDig.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Toadies and Timid Men

October 3, 2006

From Counterpunch

How Empires Die


"When Government undertakes a repressive policy, the innocent are not safe. Men like me would not be considered innocent. The innocent then is he who forswears politics, who takes no part in the public movements of the times, who retires into his house, mumbles his prayers, pays his taxes, and salaams all the government officials all round. The man who interferes in politics, the man who goes about collecting money for any public purpose, the man who addresses a public meeting, then becomes a suspect. I am always on the borderland and I, therefore, for personal reasons, if for nothing else, undertake to say that the possession, in the hands of the Executive, of powers of this drastic nature will not hurt only the wicked. It will hurt the good as well as the bad, and there will be such a lowering of public spirit, there will be such a lowering of the political tone in the country, that all your talk of responsible government will be mere mockery ...

"Much better that a few rascals should walk abroad than that the honest man should be obliged for fear of the law of the land to remain shut up in his house, to refrain from the activities which it is in his nature to indulge in, to abstain from all political and public work merely because there is a dreadful law in the land."

--Rt. Hon. Srinivasa Sastri, speaking in the Imperial Legislative Council, at the introduction of the Rowlatt Bill, Feb 7, 1919

It was bad enough, when the bill doing away with habeas corpus and adherence to the Geneva Conventions was being discussed this week, that its supporters actually said that only those who had done wrong need worry. It is further testament to our standard of political discourse that the rebuttal was often equally pathetic -- we can't trust this president to exercise good judgement! Few statesman in today's debate can capture the issue as succinctly as did Rt. Hon. Sastri nearly a century ago.

All of this is moot, in another sense. This is just one more slide, albeit a huge one, in a long list of slippages our people and politicians have allowed over the last decade, always with the exhortation to 'put it behind us'.

We set out to make Iraq in America's image. We have succeeded splendidly in achieving a certain mutual resemblance. Today there is no difference between disappearing in Iraq and disappearing in America. In one place you might be held incognito by a militia, in the other by the government. Until yesterday, the difference was that in America, the governent was obliged to produce you before a magistrate, to let you have a lawyer, to allow your family to know.

The mobs in the middle east may raise a million cries of, "Death to America", but it is George W. Bush and his pocket Congress that are carrying out their wishes.

'Na Vakeel, Na Daleel, Na Appeal', was the slogan raised by Indians against the imposition of the Rowlatt Act in 1919. Translation "No lawyer, No Trial, No Appeal".

"The Rowlatt Act was passed in 1919, indefinitely extending wartime "emergency meaures" in order to control public unrest and root out conspiracy. This act effectively authorised the government to imprison without trial, any person suspected of terrorism living in the Raj." (From Wikipedia)

There was anger in India -- and shock. Whatever one's dislike of British rule, it had the perceived merit of standing fast by notions such as open trials, prisoner's rights, appeals, due process, impressive in a country which had mainly known princely whim for justice in earlier times. The Rowlatt Act tore the veil of moral superiority from the public face of British rule.

Indian opposition to the Act, voiced by many well-meaning and eloquent legislators such as Sastri, was ignored. Public outrage was widespread, but unfocused. Gandhi was then a relatively fresh face in India, having returned from South Africa less than four years before. His exploits in South Africa and more recently in Bihar had won him fair renown, but he was by no means yet pre-eminent.

Though on unfamilar political terrain and younger than many other leaders in a country where age equated to deference, Gandhi had two attributes that set him apart from most other leaders --daring and faith. Only he could have had the nerve to call for a general strike throughout India, as he did. Only he could have grasped that a draconian law was an insult to the country, and that to not counter it in the fullest measure was to betray an article of faith. He was in Madras, at the home of his host Rajagopalachari (later to be the first Indian Governor General), when, as he writes in his autobiography, "The idea came last night in a dream that we should call upon the country to observe a general hartal (strike)". On April 6, without any formal organization, in an era without phones, photocopiers, or computers, word spread, and the entire country came to a standstill!

If Gandhi found a law permitting detention without trail by a foreign government abhorrent enough to launch a nationwide general strike, what is America doing when similar laws are being passed by its own government?

Answer: Not even a filibuster. Are there political leaders holding town hall meetings (electronic and otherwise) telling the people what this draconian legislation means? They are far too busy trying to dodge the accusation of being 'soft on terror'. As in 2002, this will not save them. Tony Snow warned today that their statements of doubt during the debate can and will be used against them in the campaign (proof that Miranda at least still lives, after a fashion). They are, in Sastri's words, "Toadies, Timid Men".

Following the hartal, in Punjab (where the Lt. Governor would shortly impose indignities such as a crawling lane where Indians could not walk, but only crawl), people assembled in a park in Amritsar on Baisakhi Day (the Punjabi New Year) on April 13, 1919, to protest the arrest of two activists. Known to history as Jallianwalla Bagh, the garden was enclosed all around by a wall. Gen. Reginald Dyer, head of the army in Punjab, said he wanted to provide Indians a "moral lesson", and had his troops fire into the enclosed space, resulting in the death of 379 people (by official count).

The rest (no pun intended) is history. After the Rowlatt Act and Jallianwala Bagh, the English lost any moral hold they had over the minds of Indians. The Great Hartal also signified the beginning of the Gandhi Era. Within thirty years, the Empire was finished. As a booklet on Jallianwalla Bagh says, "If at Plassey the foundations of the British Empire were laid, at Amritsar they were broken".

In our times, having already disdained the law and being caught out by the Supreme Court, our Emperors are trying to rewrite the statute retroactively, assisted by a conscience-free Congress. That a reportedly sick man hiding in a cave in Waziristan has brought about the abolition of habeas corpus in America is the clearest verdict on who is winning the War on Terror.

In India, in 1976, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi passed a similar law, abolishing habeas corpus and setting herself unpunishable for any crimes committed before or during her office (it was repealed, lock stock and barrel, when a new government came to power). But before she could do so, the entire opposition had been arrested, the press had censorship clamped on it, and the jails filled with a hundred thousand dissenters picked up in midnight sweeps. India's parliament does not have a filibuster. The Democrats and Republicans who sold the country down the river have no similar defense, other than to say it has become a habit.

Where is the Martin Luther King today to call for civil disobedience? Where are the crowds outside the White House and Congress? The fight is no longer against the Bush administration or its minions in the other estates. Their Empire is headed for the abyss. The question, is, will it take the Republic along?

Gandhi wrote in his Satyagraha in South Africa (whose 100th Anniverary fell on 9-11-2006!), that people came to him saying, "We are ready to follow you to the gallows". He replied, "Jail is enough for me." If the Republic is to be saved, those who love it must ask themselves what they are ready to give up in return. As for the rest, Samuel Adams (yes, the beer guy) had this answer:

"If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude than the animating contest of freedom, " go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!"

Niranjan Ramakrishnan can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com. His blog is at http://njn-blogogram.blogspot.com.

Pirates of the Mediterranean

(from the NY Times, Sep 30, 2006)

Kintbury, England

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.

The incident, dramatic though it was, has not attracted much attention from modern historians. But history is mutable. An event that was merely a footnote five years ago has now, in our post-9/11 world, assumed a fresh and ominous significance. For 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. One cannot help wondering if history is repeating itself.

Consider the parallels. 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. They were, rather, the disaffected of the earth: “The ruined men of all nations,” in the words of the great 19th-century German historian Theodor Mommsen, “a piratical state with a peculiar esprit de corps.”

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. To quote Mommsen again: “The Latin husbandman, the traveler on the Appian highway, the genteel bathing visitor at the terrestrial paradise of Baiae were no longer secure of their property or their life for a single moment.”

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. Military commands were of limited duration and subject to regular renewal. 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.

“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 — 144 million sesterces — 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, and there was literally a riot in the Senate when the bill was debated.

Nevertheless, at a tumultuous mass meeting in the center of Rome, Pompey’s opponents were cowed into submission, the Lex Gabinia passed (illegally), and he was given his power. In the end, once he 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.

Those of us who are not Americans can only look on in wonder at the similar ease with which the ancient rights and liberties of the individual are being surrendered in the United States in the wake of 9/11. The vote by the Senate on Thursday 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 admissibility of evidence obtained in the United States without a search warrant; 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.

An intelligent, skeptical American would no doubt scoff at the thought that what has happened since 9/11 could presage the destruction of a centuries-old constitution; but then, I suppose, an intelligent, skeptical Roman in 68 B.C. might well have done the same.

In truth, however, the Lex Gabinia was the beginning of the end of the Roman republic. It set a precedent. Less than a decade later, Julius Caesar — the only man, according to Plutarch, who spoke out in favor of Pompey’s special command during the Senate debate — was awarded similar, extended military sovereignty in Gaul. Previously, the state, through the Senate, largely had direction of its armed forces; now the armed forces began to assume direction of the state.

It also brought a flood of money into an electoral system that had been designed for a simpler, non-imperial era. Caesar, like Pompey, with all the resources of Gaul at his disposal, became immensely wealthy, and used his treasure to fund his own political faction. Henceforth, the result of elections was determined largely by which candidate had the most money to bribe the electorate. In 49 B.C., the system collapsed completely, Caesar crossed the Rubicon — and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.

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. Let us hope that vote in the United States Senate does not have the same result.

Robert Harris is the author, most recently, of “Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome.”