- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Jim Gourley
Best Defense all-star commenter
New Jersey’s governor has never been one to test the political waters before diving in. If anything, he owes much of his popularity to his reputation for taking cannonballs off the party platform with wild abandon. His unabashed candor has always brought him back to the surface unscathed, even when going so far as to praise the incumbent Democratic president mere weeks ahead of the GOP’s effort to unseat him. While many still blame him for sinking Romney’s hopes, his fearless honesty seemed to come up more buoyant than ever. But his most recent plunge into straight talk provides a disturbing window into the unspoken beliefs of a potential future commander in chief.
The remarks in question were issued during a forum at the Aspen Institute last month. On the subject of domestic surveillance and recent revelations of the extent of the government’s data collection, Christie fired off candidly at Republicans such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, labeling their beliefs a "dangerous strain of libertarianism" and calling their arguments "esoteric." He laid a rhetorically-jeweled capstone on his comments by literally bringing the point home:
Listen, you can name any number of people and [Paul is] one of them…. These esoteric, intellectual debates — I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation. And they won’t, because that’s a much tougher conversation to have.
The lynchpin of Christie’s rhetoric is the fundamental assumption that is ironically best characterized by more esoteric remarks issued by President Obama when he responded to the initial reports of government surveillance after the Snowden leaks broke.
But I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have a hundred percent security and also then have a hundred percent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.
Christie takes the hard line on the issue, taking security over both privacy and convenience every time. The subtle overtones of "never again" in his mantra are eerily reminiscent of Dick Cheney. It’s a majestic leap for a man who would be president of the United States.
But it finishes with a belly flop for a guy who’d go stand in front of the armed forces. The final "go tell the widows and orphans" jab is profane not as much for its overt melodramatic invocation of bereaved innocents as for the implicit devaluation of servicemembers. The core ideology is that we must not sacrifice the lives of innocent American citizens in the interest of "esoteric" things like privacy or a rationally measured approach to homeland security. Due process and habeas corpus cannot be allowed to stall the swift hand of justice when countless lives are at stake. Anyone who disagrees is a lofty-minded theorist who fails to grasp what’s at stake.
Christie wants us all to understand that we are fighting for security, here. Not freedom. Not honor. Not some abstract concept in a Lee Greenwood song or whatever enigmatic principles Article VI of the Code of Conduct might possibly be referring to. There are already too many dead American civilians. Whatever freedoms must be sacrificed to prevent more, so be it.
Perish the thought that a single American civilian should die because we hesitated to curtail their freedoms. But where does that leave the servicemember who is repeatedly told that they advance into the jaws of death for the express purpose of defending freedom? What are the people who suffered grievous injury supposed to feel if the day comes that President Christie further encroaches on civil liberties heretofore held as sacrosanct? For one who gave their legs to the cause of freedom, is this not a second amputation?
Governor Christie gathers his army of innocents behind him and challenges his libertarian detractors to muster the gall to "say it to their face." If Senator Paul is either unable or unwilling, then I would like to personally take Governor Christie up on his offer to discuss the issue. However, please allow me the small indulgence of choosing the venue for the debate. I would like for him to come to 1 Memorial Drive in Arlington, Virginia. You see, if the standard I must meet is to be able to make my arguments to his friends with a straight face, then it is only fair that the governor do the same before my friends. I’m sorry if this is too much of a stretch for him, but as the president said, we have to make some tough decisions as a society about convenience, security, and freedom. I hate to inconvenience the orphans and widows, but my friends were forced to make some hard decisions, and they no longer have the freedom to travel beyond that address.
Jim Gourley is a frequent contributor to Best Defense.