Friday, February 22, 2013

Erosions of Liberty

The world has changed. America has changed.

I’m not talking about a rise in violence or mass killings or terrorism. In fact, that sort of stuff has been going on for centuries. Each decade has its share of stories. The Pottawatomie Massacre, the Haymarket Affair, the Los Angeles Times Bombing, the Bath Massacre, the University of Texas Tower shootings and more. All events that happened in the United States well before I became an adult and all just as bad as events that have happened since then, like the Oklahoma City bombing or the Columbine shootings. But statistically, with the rapidly rising population, the actual percentage of lives lost to these sorts of events is actually going down.

Part of what has changed is our ability to hear about them. Our technology has allowed us to become a part of events happening half way across the country. On September 1st, 2001, my then fiancé (now wife) and I awoke in a Las Vegas hotel room to a ringing phone. On the other end was my best friend, whom we were in Vegas visiting with.

“Turn on the TV,” he said. “The World Trade Centers have been blown up.”

“What?”, I replied, incredulous. And so we turned on the TV and watched the South Tower collapsing.

For the next three days, as we all tried to enjoy ourselves in Las Vegas in the midst of a national tragedy, we were bombarded with images of the events that had and were transpiring in New York. I don’t know how many of you have ever seen a Las Vegas sports book area, but for the duration of our stay, they were a media hub for the story in New York. With dozens of TVs, every channel could be watched at once. At the time, there was probably no better place outside of New York or Washington to learn about the events of 9/11.We felt connected.

Since that fateful day, we have become even more connected. Almost every cel phone has a camera, and with the internet and social media, anyone can become a reporter. Stories are reported on within minutes, and updated continuously. We don’t have to sit in a sports book in Las Vegas to see news coverage from across the world – the internet brings it all to our desk. Social media connects us to each other when we learn of these events, even if we are home alone, or traveling across the country by automobile. And so, when the Batman theater shootings happened, we were all there in Aurora, CO; just as we were in Newton CT when so many little lives were senselessly taken from us.

We are connected now.

This connectedness has a benefit and a price. As a benefit, it makes us more empathetic. A story about a tragedy halfway across the country is more personal when it comes at us through a friend on social media than it is when it’s a dry black and white story in a newspaper. And unlike the newspaper, or the television, there is an instant community of feedback.

The price is one of emotions. That is, that we will react emotionally, without rational thought in order to do anything to prevent feeling that sort of helplessness and sense of loss when senseless tragedy does strike.

Empathy is good. Acting without rational thought under the duress of emotions is not.

And that brings me to the second big way that America has changed. We often let our emotions overrule our good sense, and our politicians have used that against us, though mostly with good intentions. Since 9/11 Presidents Bush and Obama, our Congress and the National Security Agency have proven to be some of the biggest threats to American liberty we’ve had since the internment camps of World War 2.

The Patriot Act, particularly section 505 and 215 which heavily undermine the 1st, 4th and 5th amendments were not only passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush, but the provisions of this “temporary measure” were extended by Congress, and approved by President Obama – even after the Supreme Court ruled several sections to be unconstitutional.

The FISA Amendments Act is another affront to our Bill of Rights, heavily undermining the 4th and 5th Amendments.

And most recently, the Senate has passed the 2013 NDAA bill, which has a provision within it that allows the military – not the police – to detain any American on the mere suspicion of supporting a terrorist group. This should chill you because it allows detention without any sort of Due Process guaranteed to us by the Fifth Amendment, and doesn’t require any evidence – just suspicion. And if that wasn't enough, now we have the debates over the constitutionality of the drone strikes.

And now, once again, the subject of gun control comes up, with politicians vowing to “remove them from our streets” and “make us safe”, the provisions of the 2nd Amendment be damned. Biden and Obama are talking about the White House using Executive orders, not only bypassing the Constitution, but Congress as well.

While none of these things actually affect me nor the majority of my friends and family personally, they are of great concern to me. And no matter which side of the gun control debate you come down on, all of these things should concern you. Alone, in isolation, these various laws really aren't a big deal. But they're not being done in isolation. They're being done with “good intentions” that are basically ignoring the eventual cumulative effect they'll have. And that really should concern you because you know what they say about good intentions and the road it leads down.

While all of these things are being passed with the best of intentions – that of the safety of our nation – they are keys to the very tyranny that our founding fathers fought against. I am reminded of the last years of the Weimar Republic – a parliamentary democracy that ended being plagued by hyperinflation, political extremists, political deadlock, increased violence towards the government and economic depression. The leaders of the final years of the Republic became increasingly willing to invoke emergency legislation as a substitute to the principles of democracy in the name of national safety and security.

Sounds familiar to our current situation, doesn’t it?

Then it should really chill you to learn that their legislation led to the rise of a new political party, one that eventually suspended all civil rights, took away it’s citizens ability to defend themselves and subjected the world to some of the worst horrors it has ever seen.

Those of you who know your history probably know exactly what I’m talking about. For those of you who don’t, shame on you. History is important. I invite you to go to Wikipedia or Google or the Library and search for information on the Weimar Republic. Yes, I could simply tell you, but I’m also a big proponent for people learning things on their own, and doing their own critical thinking.

While the United States doesn’t have precisely the same situation the Weimar Republic did, and a much longer history dedicated to the principles of democracy and civil rights, the parallels we do have with it should be enough to concern any intelligent American citizen. As I’ve said before, the words of George Santayana should not be lost to us. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The history of the Weimar Republic can and should be a lesson to us, a warning of the bad that can happen if we let the status quo continue.

These erosions of our liberty are troubling. Yes, they are intended to keep us safe. But at what point do they stop keeping us safe, and become the very tools that a tyrant uses to enslave us? I’m sure the leaders of the Weimar Republic never saw the horrors they enabled coming either. Nor did the people who welcomed those changes. So I ask again – at what point do they stop keeping us safe, and become tools that a tyrant uses against us?

The time to speak up against these erosions and demand that our liberties be restored is now, while we still have some of them, while we can still do so without bloodshed. We cannot afford to wait 10, 15, 25 or 50 years from now to stand up when a tyrant uses these laws to seize control. By then it will be too late, and bloodshed will be unavoidable.

Over 25,000 American Citizens were killed during the American Revolution to obtain our liberties. Another 20,000 were killed during the War of 1812 to maintain that Freedom. The Civil War claimed another 625,000 lives extending those liberties to a population who had been denied them. These deaths are but a part of the price of our freedoms and liberties. To allow the erosion of the liberties is to dishonor those who died fighting for what they believe in.

Remember that the men who founded this country lived under an oppressive king and fought a bitter war to gain those liberties. They wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights knowing full well the horrors of war, and death. They lived under no illusion of safety, but were determined to ensure future generations had the same liberties they fought for and the tools to keep them.

The history of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is an interesting one. Many of the original thirteen state legislatures only ratified the Constitution with the provision that the Bill of Rights be added to it. So even though they are amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights are pretty much an integral part of it. To dismiss any of the first ten amendments lightly, or for “reasons of safety” is to put our very liberties at stake.

Fight for those liberties now, with words. Or fight for those liberties later, with blood.

The choice is yours…but I urge you to stand up and be counted as someone who will not let tyranny prevail, no matter how reasonable it seems.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

What the Constitution means to me.

Thirty years ago, I was a 17 year old high school senior trying to sort out the direction my life would take, when I made a fateful decision. After much research, I had decided to enlist in the United States Navy and get trained as an Electronics Technician. Armed with my decision, but still a couple of months from my 18th birthday, I went to my parents and asked them to sign the waiver allowing me to join as a minor.

To my dismay, my parents said "No" and refused to sign. While I was upset with them at the time, it didn't take me too long to be glad they said "No". It gave me the opportunity to see that joining the Navy was more than an educational decision, but a commitment to the value of personal responsibility my parents struggled to instill into me my entire childhood. By the time I turned eighteen, I was more certain than ever that I wanted to enlist, and so on my 18th birthday, I spent the day at the Military Entrance Processing (MEPS) Center in Denver going through all the tests and signing a Delayed Entry Program agreement to enlist after I graduated high school. My future was set.

Eleven and a half months later, I stood back at that same MEPS Center, and took my oath of enlistment. I was a US Sailor. Many times throughout my six and a half year enlistment, I regretted my decision to join, for military life and I didn’t always agree, but for the most part, I was proud of my time as a member of the US Navy. To this day, I am thankful to my parents that they forced me to make this decision on my own - it remains one of the best decisions I've ever made, and everything about it still defines much of who I am today.

While I took my oath of enlistment seriously during my time in the Navy, sadly, I didn't really come to realize how important and serious it was until after my enlistment was over. It was during the Bush Sr administration, while attending college part time and taking my required business law and political science classes for my business degree that I became an informal student of history. And as a student of history, I began to realize the depth of meaning behind that oath of enlistment. I realized that though my obligated term of service to the United States Navy was well and truly over already, that much of the oath I took back then should and would carry through for the rest of my life.

"I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same..."

When I took that oath I knew the text of the Constitution and its amendments. I knew the basic history of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War that all led to the Constitution. I knew what I was supporting and defending, and I honored it.

But until I began studying the history of the Constitution and the men who wrote it, I don’t think I truly understood the depth of the oath I'd given. And the more I read, the more fascinated I became. I read the writings of several of our founding fathers like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, James Madison, etc, in the form of the Federalist Papers and the papers of the anti-Federalists. I read the early Supreme Court rulings that truly began defining our government. I read the various State Constitutions of the original 13 states, and of several states that came after. The changes the Civil War brought to our nation. The hundreds of years worth of legal and common law precedents from England and Europe that our nation’s laws are balanced upon. Twenty years later, and I’m still finding interesting things to read and re-read.

What I learned changed my political views. It made me more aware of that oath I took. Made me aware of the significance of the US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Made me more aware of the probable intentions and mindsets of the framers of the Constitution. I went from being a republican on paper to being what I would call a Constitutionalist, but what mostly aligns with the libertarian viewpoint in modern terminology.

For the last eleven years, since that fateful September day in 2001, I have become more and more painfully aware that many of my fellow Americans don't understand the Constitution. Oh, sure, they know the text. But they conveniently interpret things to their own meaning, paying no attention to the history behind it. Paying no attention to the little erosions that don’t affect them personally, but that they should be alarmed by. Worse still are my fellow Americans who do understand and should pay attention, but don't care. Particularly those who are our elected representatives.

What's really troubling is that these elected Federal Officials are in the less than 20% of Americans who have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States.

The Congressional Oath of office is very similar to the oath I took:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter..."

The Presidential Oath of Office also confirms the duty to uphold the Constitution:
"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

So does that of the Supreme Court:
"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as [TITLE] under the Constitution and laws of the United States.

Every Federal Official has to take an oath, and every one of those oath's refer to their duties to the Constitution of the United States. And yet, the bulk of our career politicians don't seem to care.

Just as troubling is when you see the attitude that our Military, Representatives and Senators are there to serve the people. They are not. There is nothing in any of our oath's to serve the American people. Our oath is to the Constitution. The Constitution is what protects the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness of the American people. It is the Constitution that defines what rights are unalienable, that limits what government can and can't do for or to us in regards to those rights.

Congress is not there to serve us, to cater to our whims and needs. They are there to see that the government runs according to our Constitution, and to represent - represent, not serve - our interests when it comes to matters of government, like taxation. There may seem to be a subtle difference between the verbs represent and serve, but it is a big difference.

Represent (V) - Be entitled or appointed to act or speak for someone

Serve (V) - Perform duties or services for another person

Let me reiterate that, so you can absorb its importance. The oaths that our elected Congressmen take are not about what you, your neighbor, the American public or some corporation want, but are to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

The Constitution. Not the people. Not lobbying groups, not corporations.

Yes, it’s that important. And yet it’s often being disregarded by the very elected officials who swear to uphold it. In the name of safety.

We are at a time in this country where people are clamoring for safety. Many appear to be willing to give up the very freedoms the Constitution attempts to guarantee them for that safety. And this is very disturbing. Inscribed on a plaque in the stairwell of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty is something Ben Franklin once said:

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

It was true when Franklin said it in 1755. It was true when Lady Liberty took her place on Bledsoe Island in 1886 and it is true now.

With Freedom and Liberty come Risk and Responsibility. There are a great many quotes from our founding fathers that represent this, but my personal favorite is from a much more contemporary man – Robert Heinlein.

“You can have Peace. Or you can have Freedom. Don’t ever count on having both at once.”

You can have both at once, but it is a fragile balance. Sometimes the peace will have to be broken to maintain freedom. And all too often trying to guarantee peace leads to loss of freedom. And usually without accomplishing a long lasting peace.

And to voluntarily give up your freedoms only means that someone, somewhere down the line will probably use what you gave up voluntarily to take from you something you don’t want to give up. Is that something you really want? A risk you're willing to take?

You may think it is worth it, but as most parents know, sometimes what you think you want or a risk you're willing to take isn’t really in your best interests. What parent among us hasn’t denied our child something they've declared they “will just die without” knowing full well that something else is more important to their well being, no matter how much they don’t like it? And what child hasn’t at some point in their life thought they knew better than their parents, and done something anyway, only to have things go wrong – sometimes horribly wrong?

Our Constitution is like that for us as a people, a culture and a society. Our politicians and two major political parties appear to have forgotten that.

I understand quite well that there have been numerous tragedies and horrible things happen out there in recent years. They are regrettable, and often horrific and terrible to contemplate. But as horrible as they may be, making decisions and enacting laws to protect us while we are emotionally fragile from those events is exactly the wrong response. Especially if those laws are not in the spirit of, or even in direct contradiction to our Constitution.

The framers of our Constitution deliberately made it hard to change. They wanted careful consideration of every change we make to it. They wanted it to protect us against the tyranny of our own government. And history has shown time and time again that they were right to do so, because even after careful consideration, what’s supposed to protect us doesn’t always do so.

Take a look, if you will, at the 18th Amendment, which was intended to deliver our society from the evils of Alcohol. It was well intentioned, and after decades of effort by the temperance movements, this “progressive amendment” was finally enacted in 1920. Shortly after the enactment of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, liquor consumption dropped, arrests for drunkenness fell and the price for illegal alcohol rose higher than the average worker could afford.

A success, right?

Not so fast. See that last part, where it’s noted that the price of illegal alcohol rose? Since there was still a demand for alcohol, even though it was illegal, it became attractive to many people, including criminals, as a way to make easy money. And the result was criminals evolving into sophisticated and often violent syndicates to control the illicit trade of alcohol. The birth of the modern Mob. Along with bootlegging, other criminal enterprises took root, too – prostitution and gambling were often found hand and hand with alcohol in speakeasies and other venues where alcohol could be found. Violent crimes rose, as criminals vied for control and profit. Alcohol consumption began to actually rise to higher than pre-Prohibition levels.

After thirteen years of Prohibition, and some of the most violent times in US history, America came to our senses, and the 21st Amendment repealed, in its entirety, the 18th Amendment. The first and only time in our history that we have repealed an Amendment in its entirety.

This is not just my opinion of what happened during Prohibition. The rise in violence and crime during the 1920s is well documented by a variety of sources both inside and outside of government. History shows us quite clearly that this well intentioned law designed to protect us from ourselves and the evils of an inanimate object had exactly the opposite effect.

Almost all of the emotional issues facing our country today have historical parallels we can look at. And as the philosopher George Santayana once said, and has been often repeated and paraphrased - “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And yet way too often in my adult lifetime, we as a nation do fail to consider the past when contemplating the future.

There is a good reason that the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights stand as some of the most important documents the world has ever seen, alongside writings like the Bible, Hammurabi’s Code of Laws, the Koran and the Magna Carta. It has served us well as a nation, and no effort to override it should be taken lightly, and especially not during times of duress or emotion.

Our country currently faces crisis. Emotions are high, and the people demand action. That is fine, and there is nothing in our Constitution that says we cannot act. But what it does do is require us to not think lightly about the actions we do take. Every right the first ten amendments, or Bill of Rights guarantees us are rights that we must take seriously and not overrule lightly.

The oaths of service for US Military and Federal officials are clear. To defend the Constitution against all enemies, be they foreign OR DOMESTIC. Any citizen or federal official who knowingly proposes to overrule the Constitution and Bill of Rights without doing so through the Constitutional amendment process is, in a sense, declaring themselves a domestic enemy. And as a veteran, it is my obligation to stand up against that person, and defend our Constitution. It is the duty of every soldier, sailor, and Federal official to do so. It should be the obligation of every American citizen to do so, whether or not you’ve taken the oath.

I have never had to defend the Constitution with more than words. I hope I never to have to do so with any more than words. But I will never forget that it is because of the First Amendment I am not afraid to speak my words, and because of the Second Amendment that I feel my words have power.

You shouldn’t either.

(I originally wrote this essay around Christmas 2012.  It was the feedback I received from posting this essay on Facebook that inspired me to start this blog, and therefore it is only fitting that the first post is this essay.  For those of you who read it when I first posted it, yes, it has been slightly edited - consider that original the rough draft, and this the published version.)