The Founders challenged the most powerful military
on earth, the British army, all the while knowing that defeat would send
them to the gallows. The American colonists spurned their relative
comfort as British subjects for a chance to be citizens of a Republic
dedicated to the vision that some rights are “unalienable” and that no
man should be king.
Since then, despite some ups and downs, the course
of the American nation has been to advance those ideals and broaden
In the early years of the Republic,
African-American slaves resisted their bondage, often aided by white
Abolitionists who defied unjust laws on runaways and pressed the
government to restrict slave states and ultimately to eliminate slavery.
With the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s
emancipation of the slaves, the United States underwent a painful
rebirth that reaffirmed the nation’s original commitment to the
principle that “all men are created equal.” Again, the cause of freedom
trumped safety, a choice for which Lincoln and thousands of brave
soldiers gave their lives.
In the latter half of the Nineteenth Century and
into the Twentieth, the Suffragettes demanded and fought for extension
of basic American rights to female citizens. These women risked their
reputations and their personal security to gain the right to vote and
other legal guarantees for women.
When fascist totalitarianism threatened the world
in the 1930s and 1940s, American soldiers turned back the tide of
repression in Europe and Asia, laying down their lives by the tens of
thousands in countless battlefields from Normandy to Iwo Jima.
The march of freedom continued in the United States
in the 1950s and 1960s, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other
civil rights fighters – both black and white – risked and sometimes lost
their lives to tear down the walls of racial segregation.
For two centuries, this expansion of freedom always
came with dangers and sacrifices. Yet, the trade-off was always the
same: safety for liberty.
Only in this generation – only on our watch – has
the march reversed.
Instead of swapping safety for liberty, this
generation – traumatized by the 9/11 attacks and under the leadership of
George W. Bush – has chosen to trade liberties for safety.
Instead of Patrick Henry’s stirring Revolutionary
War cry of “give me liberty or give me death,” this era has Sen. Pat
Roberts’s instant-classic expression of self over nation. “You have no
civil liberties if you are dead,” the Kansas Republican explained on May
18 before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which he chairs.
Roberts’s dictum echoed through the mainstream
media where it was embraced as a pithy expression of homespun common
sense. But the commentators missed how Roberts’s preference for life
over liberty was the antithesis of Henry’s option of liberty or death.
Roberts’s statement also represented a betrayal of
two centuries of bravery by American patriots who gave their own lives
so others could be free.
After all, it would follow logically that if “you
have no civil liberties if you are dead,” then all those Americans who
died for liberty were basically fools. Roberts’s adage reflects a
self-centeredness, which would shame the millions of Americans who came
before, putting principle and the interests of “posterity” ahead of
If Roberts is right, the Minutemen who died at
Lexington Green and at Bunker Hill had no liberty; the African-Americans
who enlisted in the Union Army and died in Civil War battles had no
liberty; the GIs who died on the Normandy beaches or Marines who died at
Iwo Jima had no liberty; Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights
heroes who gave their lives had no liberty.
If Sen. Roberts is right, they had no liberties
because they died in the fight for liberty. In Roberts’s view – which
apparently is the dominant opinion of the Bush administration and many
of its supporters – personal safety for the individual tops the
principles of freedom for the nation.
This security-over-everything notion has emerged as
the key justification for stripping the American people of their
“unalienable rights,” liberties that were promised them in the
Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution and the
Bill of Rights.
But the American people are now told that the
President is exercising “plenary” – or unlimited – powers as long as the
indefinite “war on terror” continues. Bush has been ceded these
boundless powers with only a meek request from the populace that he make
life in the United States a little safer from the threat of another al-Qaeda
So, Bush holds discretion over the constitutional
guarantee of a fair trial, the right to know the charges against you and
to confront your accuser, the protection against warrantless searches
and seizures, the delicate checks and balances designed by the Founders,
the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, the power to wage war,
even the right to freedom of speech.
In claiming “plenary” powers as Commander in Chief
and arguing that the United States is part of the battlefield, Bush has
asserted that all rights are his, that they are given to the people only
when he says so, that the rights are no longer “unalienable.”
Like before the Declaration of Independence, the
American people find themselves as “subjects” reliant for their rights
on the generosity of a leader, rather than “citizens” possessing rights
that can’t be denied. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The
End of Unalienable Rights.”]
As a trade-off for accepting Bush’s unlimited
powers, the American people have gotten assurances that Bush will make
protecting them his top priority. Yet, the presidential oath says
nothing about shielding the public from danger; rather it’s a vow to
“preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Since George Washington first took the oath, it has
been the Constitution that is paramount, because it enshrines the
liberties that define America.
Within that presidential oath and within the
nation’s historic commitment to freedom, there is no assurance against
risk or danger. There is no government guarantee of safety, nor is there
a promise that harm might not come to American citizens.
Indeed, it has been assumed by all previous
generations of Americans – dating back to the beginning of the Republic
and ending only with today’s fearful generation – that risk and danger
were part of the price for maintaining and spreading freedom.