INDIVIDUAL LIBERTIES CONTINUE TO BE COMPROMISED AS FEW AMERICANS ACKNOWLEDGE THE ANNIVERSARY OF A MAJOR EVENT IN AMERICAN HISTORY
by Nat Hentoff
This nation did not have a complete Constitution from September 17, 1787— when the document began awaiting ratification by the states—until December 15, 1791, when the first ten amendments—the Bill of Rights— were added. On December 15, 2011—220 years later to the day—there were scarcely any mentions in the media regarding that historic event, let alone celebrations. With so many schools eliminating civics classes, few members of the New Generation have even learned about our fundamental individual liberties protecting us against government overreaching.
And since there are no crusades for educational reform to combat adult learning deficiencies, how many young Americans remain aware that few of these guarantees of a self-governing citizenry are still being honored?
Ah, but on December 18, 2011, President Barack Obama did issue, about Bill of Rights Day, a Tele- PrompTer-like proclamation glorifying, he said, “these fundamental liberties [that] have shaped our national character and stirred the souls of all who dream of a freer, more just world.” Have you heard any such stirrings for quite a while?
Intent on securing a second term as our leader, Obama pledged “to pass to our children an America worthy of our Founders’ vision…that we can have both liberty and security.”
The President, of course, ignored his administration’s continuing disembowelment of the Bill of Rights’ most crucial guarantees as he keeps extending—and even deepening—Bush-Cheney’s destructive blueprint. Their regime’s legacy was cemented by the erroneously titled USA PATRIOT Act, which has so reshaped America that it would be unrecognizable to our Founders.
The Fourth Amendment’s unmistakable “right of the people to be secure…against unreasonable searches and seizures” is continually and eagerly violated by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, other intelligence agencies and the police (at both the local and state levels).
Unmanned drone aircraft aren’t just being flown in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other nations harboring suspected terrorists and those “associated” with them. Predator drones are also now keeping track of us right here. Oh, the planes aren’t firing Hellfire missiles at us on our own land, but they are keeping a record of those of us involved in what the government believes are disloyal or suspect associations. As you look up to the sky, you may be a “person of interest” to these tireless digital investigators as they add to the nests of hidden cameras in our midst.
Remember the Fifth Amendment? “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” But what does that mean these days? The also-useless Sixth Amendment tells you and your kids that every American shall enjoy the right to a “speedy and public trial” and “be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation [and] to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”
Do you enjoy how that vital part of the Bill of Rights is disappearing when citizens are held in preventive detention without having first been allowed to see a judge, let alone even know who the witnesses against them are—or if they even exist?
Meanwhile, the military personnel controlling killer drones being operated in other lands are authorized to assassinate even U.S. citizens deemed a threat to our national security without their first being given an opportunity to defend themselves in an American courtroom. Worse yet, in December 2011—while the National Defense Authorization Act was debated— a bipartisan Congress voted for the executive branch’s power to indefinitely imprison citizens with alleged ties to terrorism. What hope do we have for a regeneration of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments under a Republican President after Congressional Republicans vigorously joined in that desecration of the Bill of Rights?
How did we get to this travesty—allowing those we elect to serve and protect our Constitution to disown the Bill of Rights? Or is that why we elect them?
Here is the naked truth from attorney John Whitehead, a tireless guardian of the Constitution whom I have described as the Paul Revere of our time: “Those responsible for the demise of the Bill of Rights are none other than the schools, the courts, the politicians and ‘We the People.’”
On April 18, 1775, Paul Revere warned of an impending advance by British troops in the New America. On December 15, 2011—note the chilling date—Whitehead’s article “Bill of Rights Day: Are Our Freedoms in Jeopardy?” was a warning posted on Rutherford.org. Whitehead—founder and president of The Rutherford Institute—rang the tyranny bell when he grimly declared that “if Americans don’t soon confront this stark reality about the state of their Constitutional rights, they will soon find themselves in an entirely different America.”
Actually, in real-time and real-life America, we are increasingly on the edge of that land of darkness. Here’s another key passage from Whitehead’s timely article: “Sadly, when all the glibly patriotic gestures and jargon are stripped away, I’m not even sure Americans really want freedom. What they really want is to be left in peace with their shopping malls, flat-screen TVs, cell phones and mindless entertainment. After all, how many Americans during the course of a day—even when they see fellow citizens under attack— ever think about their rights? If they did, surely there would be more resistance.”
As Occupy Wall Street has garnered so much attention from sea to shining sea with the movement’s hollow, self-ennobling, directionless rhetoric, it has said nothing to the 99% it is courting about our disappearing Bill of Rights.
What are you going to do? Get after your members of Congress? Take action—as Samuel Adams’s Sons of Liberty did during the Boston Tea Party? This is “a republic, if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin proclaimed. As truth-telling Justice William O. Douglas warned: “The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were designed to get Government off the backs of the people—all the people. … But that guarantee is not self-executing.”
Nat Hentoff is a historian of the Constitution, a jazz critic and a columnist for the Village Voice and Free Inquiry. His incisive books include The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America; Living the Bill of Rights; and the forthcoming Is This Still America?