“All tyranny needs
to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”
– Thomas Jefferson
As a history teacher, I spend a great deal of time with the Founding Fathers, and, as an American citizen, I was raised to see them, their ideas, and the heritage handed down from them as significant and valuable. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most Americans think they value the heritage of their country.
But, in reality, the average American merely gives lip service to the ideas of liberty and freedom espoused in our founding documents and by our Founding Fathers. In other words, Americans may “value” these things, but only as one values a work of art at the Louvre. You appreciate it from a distance and know it will never be in your house.
This is evidenced not by how many Americans own a copy of the Constitution or by how many could name all the presidents, but by how freely Americans willingly surrender what belongs to them.
Wednesday was the 10th anniversary of the PATRIOT Act. On Oct. 26, 2001, President George W. Bush signed the 315-page legislation into law even though the House was only given 15 minutes to consider its contents. Then Attorney General John Ashcroft told Congress it was much too urgent to delay. This was done in the name of keeping Americans “safe” and protecting America, the “brightest beacon of freedom and opportunity in the world.”
“Freedom and opportunity” were, according to Bush, what motivated the 9/11 attacks against us, though Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda explicitly claimed other motives. Bin Laden said, “We swore that America wouldn’t live in security until we live it truly in Palestine. This showed the reality of America, which puts Israel’s interest above its own people’s interest. America won’t get out of this crisis until it gets out of the Arabian Peninsula, and until it stops its support of Israel.”
If it seems strange that American leaders ignored those stated motives in favor of the “freedom and opportunity” story, how much worse is it that they responded with the PATRIOT Act? Are freedom and opportunity preserved by allowing the government to track its own citizens? What about wiretaps? Search and seizure without a warrant or even stated probable cause? Does that sound like freedom? How about the government’s ability to detain someone indefinitely without charge? Or its ability to place American citizens on a “kill list” without first granting them due process? What kind of “opportunity” do Americans have when they are groped at every airport, train station, bus station, and (coming soon) highway by TSA agents?
The real problem is that too many Americans do not think in these terms. They respond to such questions with a pitiful “times have changed” argument as if we are the only society in history to be challenged with the issues of liberty and government tyranny. Times have changed, and it is most evident in the willingness of Americans to gladly have their own rights trampled in the name of safety.
If Americans valued liberty, if they valued that upon which the nation was founded, they would know exactly how to respond. If the Founding Fathers were seen as anything more than the guys on our money and the Constitution as more than a museum piece, Americans would know how to respond. In fact, those very men and those very documents warned us of such a time as this.
James Madison said, “It is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.” If liberty is robbed, it will come under the guise of protection. As Judge Andrew Napolitano noted in reference to the PATRIOT Act, Americans have given over their rights because they have believed the government’s lie of “Give me your freedom and I’ll keep you safe.”
But individuals without rights are not safe. Those inalienable rights, granted by the Creator and protected by the Bill of Rights, once given up, are replaced by tyranny, abuse, and danger. Once a right that belonged to the people is given over to the government, it is seldom regained.
Yet the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written to prevent such a removal of rights. The Constitution clearly delineates the roles, duties, and powers of the Congress, president, and court system. Those holding office in any of the three branches of government are sworn to uphold the Constitution, and, in order to prevent any abuse of individual liberty even in that limited system, the Founding Fathers went on to create the Bill of Rights to further protect Americans from their government.
It cannot be stated plainly enough or often enough that the founding documents of America were written to protect citizens from their government. Again, it was James Madison who said, “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.” Thomas Jefferson said, “A Bill of Rights is what the people are entitled to against every government, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference” (emphasis mine).
Some may read such musings and simply reply that America is “too far gone” or even claim that it does not matter now. After all, they reason, what good is it to be reminded of what we’ve already lost? Well, ironically, Madison spoke to that as well. He said, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” He also said, “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.” We must first know what has been lost if we are ever to get it back.
Americans must be brought face to face with the fact that they have given up liberty in the name of safety and, as a result, now have neither. Americans must realize that they have been duped into submitting to tyranny in the name of “patriotism” or, more specifically, the PATRIOT Act. Yet nothing could be further from American patriotism than trampling the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
If the PATRIOT Act is what passes for patriotism in America, then let all Americans number themselves with traitors like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.