THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 349, January 8, 2006
Two Thousand Six. Golly!
Are We Giving Away the Greatest Gift?
Special to TLE
I recently sent a congratulatory note to a young woman about to have a birthday. In part, I wrote, "Never forget we are all born free. The question is whether or not we can live that way." Freedom is among certain rights to which we are all entitled, merely by virtue of being born. Our Founding Fathers codified that notion when they wrote a list of some of what they called "unalienable rights."
While the young woman in question celebrates her birthday with her friends and family, it occurred to me that millions around the world are celebrating other recognitions of birth. On Christmas Day, Christians honor their belief that their savior was born some 2,000 years ago. With the Winter Solstice, pagans look to the shortest day of the year as being the one that signals a turning point toward longer days and the rebirth of the sun god. Those who mark Hanukkuh not only commemorate the anniversary of an event believed to be miraculous, but more symbolically the birth of religious freedom for Jews in that place and time. Even the recently invented Kwanzaa points in part to matters of harvest, one of the earliest and most obvious symbols of birth, growth, and death that there is.
Unfortunately, there are several other events that are marring the otherwise celebratory time of the year, and they have far more to do with endings than with beginnings, and they relate more to slavery than to freedom. For example, consider the recent revelations that, after 9/11, President Bush authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on American communications originating in the United States without benefit of a warrant. According to The New York Times story:
"Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible 'dirty numbers' linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications."
The National Security Agency has been barred in the past from spying on American soil with very limited exceptions involving foreign nationals. But in the name of theWar on Terror, the NSA was given an expanded mission that didn't include any recognition of unalianable rights. Since The New York Times broke the story, many other media outlets have picked it up, and condemnation of the executive order has been widespread. Law enforcement could, said most, have gotten warrants if there was suspicion.
On the December 18 presentation of Meet the Press, guest Condoleezza Rice was asked about the matter. The Secretary of State repeatedly said that she wasn't a lawyer, but that the President had exercised legal and constitutional authority in doing what he did. When the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was mentioned and Rice was asked why the president seek warrants under its auspices, Rice claimed that the foreign nationals FISA was established to deal with were "different." When reporter Tim Russert asked her why the authority Rice said the president had wasn't cited, Rice ducked. And when Russert noted that Richard Nixon had gotten in a good deal of trouble for monitoring American communications, she tap-danced elsewhere.
As always, the War on Terror is not merely an excuse, but a plausible one. There is danger, and none of us who recall 9/11 vividly even four years later are keen to see another similar attack occur. Yet even accepting that there are good reasons for surveillance means that warrants would immediately be issued if requested. So why not get the warrants and honor the Constitution and liberty while defending the Constitution and liberty?
Then, too, there is the matter of "mission creep." That has proved all too convenient in the War on Terror. In the case of the PATRIOT Act, we were promised when it was originally passed that it was a measure that would be used to protect America and Americans from more terror attacks. Since the law's original passage, however, it's been used for everything from drug to money laundering investigations. The fact the provisions have been and will be used for far more than terror-related investigations was first covert, and now overt. In fact, when the Act was being debated in Congress in recent weeks, the federal Drug Czar himself piped up and suggested the PATRIOT Act would do great things to help control the manufacture and sale of methamphetamine.
It gets worse. Now, despite the fact that the War on Terror is supposedly focused on the Middle East and the dangers represented to the Western world by militant Islam, it seems we could be facing something not seen in this country in fifty years: investigations into "un-American activities." Just this fall, a perfectly innocent research project turned chilling for a college student who requested a copy of a book from the library. His request, complete with the proper paperwork, was for a translation of Mao Tse-Tung's "Little Red Book." It resulted not in his getting the book but in a visit from federal agents.
His professor now worries about teaching courses on Communism, fascism, or terrorism because he fears his other students might be subjected to similar circumstances if they dare to conduct any research. As for other books in specific or in general, well, there's a reason libraries have led the charge against the PATRIOT Act from day one with its potential for warrantless demands of reading lists from libraries and bookstores.
REAL ID, due to be implemented in 2008, will see Americans tracked wherever they work, bank, or travel. Checkpoints begun for drunk or drug-impaired drivers are now being conducted on occasion for other reasons, including one that was apparently set up to question drivers to see whether or not they'd witnessed a crime committed on a particular roadway. Cameras, many including microphones, are everywhere. Patdown searches aren't just common but are mandated at some events, including NFL football games.
We're supposed to be celebrating birth and rebirth in December. We're even supposed to appreciate the sacrifices made by our fighting men and women overseas for what we're told is the birth of democracy and freedom in Iraq. And many of us do. At the same time, however, we're seeing the loss of many of the same things here we claim to be working for everywhere else. It's true we don't face armed insurgents or suicide bombers on our own soil, but we do face very real danger and loss.
It's becoming more and more obvious as time goes on that we're expected to say, write, and read the "right" things; that we need to be careful of those with whom we associate, even loosely; that our travel and our activities will be monitored to ensure we behave in certain ways; and that those of us who don't toe the line will be added to lists and databases, visited by federal agents, and could even find our lifestyles compromised. If we don't have anything to hide, we're supposed to welcome random searches when we travel on airplanes or subways; we're expected to cooperate with being patted down like the meanest of criminals just because we happen to have a ticket to Sunday's game.
While so many spend these weeks showing their love for each other by offering gifts, it's imperative that we recall that freedom is the greatest gift of all. And as 2006 begins, it's more important than ever that we understand that, if we don't witness the rebirth of freedom in this new year, at the rate we've been going we will surely live to see the death of it.