Most Americans agree on the importance of safeguarding basic freedoms protected by the constitution. But here’s where it gets a little murky. Do we have to give up certain of these freedoms to be safe and secure? The current and past presidents, one Democrat and one Republican, think that there are tradeoffs, and that individual freedoms have to be compromised for the sake of security. In order to combat crime and terrorism, they say, it is necessary for the government to take away certain freedoms and civil rights.
In the realities of the 21st Century, is our constitution “out of date?” Both parties in Washington would have you believe so.
In the opinion of a majority of both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, freedom has to make way for safety concerns. That disturbing view manifested itself in the recent passage of the so-called Patriot Act. In the name of fighting terrorism, members of congress drove a stake through the heart of the Bill of Rights.
Here is what members of congress did in their Patriot Act vote. As listed by Constitutional scholar Judge Andrew Napolitano, they authorized and empowered federal agents on their own, “in violation of the Constitution, and without you knowing it, to obtain records about you from your accountant, bank, boat dealer, bodega, book store, car dealer, casino, computer server, credit union, dentist, HMO, hospital, hotel manager, insurance company, jewelry store, lawyer, library, pawn broker, pharmacist, physician, postman, real estate agent, supermarket, tax collectors, telephone company, travel agency, and trust company, and use the evidence thus obtained in any criminal prosecution against you.”
Congress, both Republicans and Democrats alike, at the behest of President Trump, tightly embraced the less-freedom-equals-more-security false prophecy. So here’s the tragic irony. We regularly celebrate and ballyhoo how we fought a war with the British, and over the past 230 years continued to fight wars to protect our freedom from foreign governments. But nevertheless, now, we have no choice but to let our own government compromise these same freedoms that we have sacrificed so much to maintain and protect.
Judge Napolitano hit the nail on the head when he said on Fox News recently: “President Trump argued frequently and forcefully that his first job was to keep us safe. He was wrong. The Constitution tells us that his sole job is to enforce the Constitution: and that means keeping us free. Free from tyrants who sought and claimed power from thin air: free from prince-like federal agents who could behave without constitutional or legal restraint: free to live with a government that obeyed its own laws. Any president who keeps us safe but unfree is rejecting his oath to the American people.”
When we hear all this talk of our members of congress fighting to protect American freedoms, a paraphrase of George Carlin’s observations comes to mind. “Crime fighters fight crime, fire fighters fight fire, so what do our supposed government freedom fighters fight?”
When I was studying at the University of North Carolina back in the early 1960s, poet Robert Frost came to speak. He talked a good bit about individual freedoms and the challenges of speaking up to protect constitutional liberties. “Don’t leave it to the politicians,” he said. “Freedom is just too important.” He went on to say that protecting freedom from within is hard work. “You have freedom when you’re easy in your harness.”
So, is there some nefarious plot by congress and the president to undermine basic constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of the American people? No. But as is often the case, we allow a fictitious notion to grow that the government is only looking out for our own good. C.S Lewis, in his essays on theology entitled God in the Dock, addresses the issue head on:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims’ may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity many at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
Your congressman will no doubt protest that he or she is seeking the worthy goal of keeping you safe. The reply of the true patriot is, “Yes, but at what cost?” Is the benefit of some perceived (but often unproven) measure of safety worth, in this constitutional tug of war, the sacrifice of the basic liberties that American citizens have enjoyed for the past two centuries? Thomas Jefferson would argue no. Principals matter. The Bill of Rights matter. The Constitution matters. The best way to keep us safe is to keep us free.