A Simple Guide to ‘War and Liberty’

“There are those who say that the war on terrorism has led to the most repressive period in American history. Those who say this know nothing of American history,” University of Chicago constitutional law professor Geoffrey R. Stone writes in his latest book, “War and Liberty, An American Dilemma: 1790 to the Present.”

Stone’s work chronicles the repression of personal freedoms during periods of war throughout American history, from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the Patriot Act of 2001.

Stone uses the first periods he describes to acquaint the reader with the background of the tension between civil liberties and wartime necessity. As Stone covers each age, he connects earlier incidents and lessons learned to issues today. Surprisingly enough, although history often repeats itself, governments seem to learn their lesson—sometimes. Though the U.S. infamously forced Japanese Americans into internment camps during Word War II, for example, President Bush encouraged fair treatment of American residents and citizens of Muslim and Middle Eastern descent following September 11, 2001.

Each chapter of the book covers a different war, and as Stone works his way through time, he starts sounding less like a textbook and more like an editorial, a progression that culminates in the sections on the “War on Terrorism,” where his views are most clearly articulated.

By the end, not only does Stone give more commentary, but he also offers solutions. He advocates for protocols requiring deliberation on any wartime acts made by Congress, which would cut down on the effects of hysteria. Other protocols would set short time limits on laws that may potentially infringe on the rights of civilians. Stone also stresses the importance of judges with life tenures when it comes to protecting citizens’ civil liberties. Since they are not faced with the pressures of reelection, Stone argues, they are better equipped to protect American freedom.

Stone’s work is full of interesting snippets of information that are perfect for the casual reader, the main audience of this book. “War and Liberty” often seems like “War and Liberty for Dummies,” the abridged and simplified version of a much-lauded book Stone previously published on the same subject. Consequently, his writing style is much simpler than one would expect, and everything is broken down into laymen’s terms. While not summertime reading, “War and Liberty” is nonetheless relatively straightforward.

As Stone reminds us, while we’ve come a long way from the Sedition Act in 1798, there are still questions that must be answered. Where does the government stop? Can it when the country is in trouble? As James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1788, “Experience proves the inefficacy of a Bill of Rights on those occasions when its control is most needed.” Stone eloquently warns us that even in modern America, where the government supposedly protects the many freedoms we hold dear, we must always be vigilant.