Sunday, February 21, 2010

Less than full faith and credit

  • The freedom of speech
  • The freedom of the press
  • The freedom of religion
  • The freedoms of petition and assembly
  • The right to keep and bear arms
  • No quartering of soldiers
  • Protection against unreasonable search and seizure
  • Probable cause for warrants
  • The right to a grand jury
  • Protection against double jeopardy
  • Protection against self incrimination
  • The right to due process
  • Protection against property seizure without just compensation
  • The right to a speedy and public trial
  • The right to an impartial jury of peers
  • The right to be confronted with witnesses
  • The right to counsel
  • The right to trial by jury
  • Protection against excessive bail or excessive fines
  • Protection against cruel and unusual punishment
  • The enumeration of Constititutional rights
  • Other rights to the people and to the states
  • The right to privacy (implied by others)
  • The right to citizenship for all persons born or naturalized in the United States
  • The right to life, liberty, and property through due process
  • Protection against the State infringement of the rights and privileges of citizens of the United States
These are the civil liberties guaranteed to the people by the Bill of Rights (plus that sticky 14th amendment). In my Law, Science, and Society seminar last week our professor asked us which of our civil liberties we would be willing to give up in the name of "security." I put security in quotes because it is such a relative term. It is one of those things that you can only really be sure of when the worst happens. But I digress.

Civil liberties. It's a very politically charged phrase. The funny thing is, how many of us can really say that we even know what our civil liberties are? When my professor asked the class to start naming them we came up with the first amendment (speech, press, religion, petition, assembly; they roll off the tongue quite nicely in that order. I figured that out when memorizing them for AP Gov). One or two more got put on the table. In typical Columbia fashion, someone tossed out "The right to bear arms," snidely and pompously. But really, those of us with an internet connection were furiously googling the Bill of Rights to find the decent portion of them that we had forgotten.

I thought to myself, "It's pretty great to have so many rights so ingrained in the system that functioning citizens studying American politics (there are several poli sci majors in my class) at a top tier university in this country don't even feel the need to know them offhand." A part of me died inside knowing that there was no way I could name all of the rights enumerated in the first ten amendments. Past number three they get a little fuzzy. Just because I've never needed the luxury that is due process doesn't mean that I shouldn't have my civil liberties down pat. So I listed them above.

Now on to the fun part. The question we were given on which to ponder this week was which ones we would be willing to give up, even a little bit, for the promise of enhanced governmental security. My initial gut reaction was none of them. Someone decided to get smart and threw out "quartering of soldiers." But would you really? What's the definition of a soldier? How would you like to be forced to board FBI agents in your home? Or soldiers traveling between bases? I treasure my right to live in privacy.

Other liberties get even more philosophical. Part of this question goes back to another question, which our professor asked us closer to the beginning of class, "How many of you trust government?" I was amazed at the amount of hands that shot up into the air; at least half of the class. On a side note, I don't think any of those hands were the poli sci majors...

Me, I am a registered Democrat. It's not a secret. I like Obama. I voted for him. I traveled hours and stood in sub-zero (Celsius) temperatures for hours on end to see him speak at his inauguration. But do I trust government? Absolutely not. Sure, I believe that it has a function, and I believe that it's a necessary establishment, and that it can do good things, and that some governments are better than other governments. But I in no way would use the word trust. Government is too big to trust. I don't trust bureaucracy. And I don't think that there is anything wrong with that. It wasn't made to be trustworthy. 5th grade social studies vocab word: checks and balances. Our government was designed to be too bulky to function properly. That is what keeps our Constitution in place.

But my distrust of government stems not only from its bulk, but also from its extensive history of stepping over the line and denying its own citizens their rights. The historical record isn't so kind to the US government. Just looking at the history of the last century I don't see how anyone could possibly trust our government. There was the first Red Scare, the second Red Scare, Japanese internment camps, McCarthyism, Cuba and the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Watergate, the Smith Act, Iran-Contra, the list goes on. I understand that this is a country of 300 million people. When something threatens the security of the nation in one way or another, it is politically advantageous for those in power to take action. They need to look like they are handling the situation. Unfortunately, "handling" the situation in the past 100 years has involved putting a lot of innocent people in jail for doing things as innocent as throwing Communist leaflets out a window on the Lower East Side of New York. It has criminalized simply advocating support for political enemies or ways of thinking that run counter to our particular brand of democracy.

The more that I study, the more that I realize that America is not about right and wrong. It's not about morals or evils or righteousness or even the people. It's about the legal process. That is what has kept the country together for 200+ years. The Constitution and the common law. So as I think about giving up rights, I think about the blow to the legal process that it represents. And that to me is the greater security threat than any terrorist attack that I could ever imagine.

No comments: