Men are qualified for civil liberties in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their appetites: in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity.
You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.
Edmund Burke is an interesting cat. I like to read him when alarmists shout incessantly about how things are worse than ever. Things are not worse than ever. It is far better. Not everything, of course. Most things are far, far better. Burke understood this concept more than most. Burke was not an absolutist. He was a realist. However, despite things being generally better, we tend to repeat our mistakes, especially ones made in recent history. Like this week, when for reasons understandable to human emotions; fear, grief and hate, but not so much in the pursuit of our intellectual and legal collective known as the United States of America, we are dangerously close to trading in our civil liberties…again.
Suddenly, as two bombs go off in Boston, we are faced, in a far less and entirely different set of circumstances as 9/11—let’s not detach ourselves completely from reality, here—but with an equally charged political and social dilemma. When confronted with our own (false) sense of safety, how much does protecting the freedoms that separate us from most of the planet matter?
Burke is also an interesting cat because he is simultaneously the “philosophical founder of modern conservatism” and “the font of liberalism”; both forces always at work whenever this nation feels a tinge of vulnerability. We are constantly under siege from these two damaged and discredited notions on how our liberties should be compromised. Oh, they love to throw their aphorisms around, mostly framing the other side as some kind of enemy to “the greater cause.” Then, ever so slowly, almost without notice, you become indebted to their ideologies and forced to ask their permission to see if you’ve been a good little American.
By all this I mean to say that the discussion (some of it serious, most of it drivel) following a tragedy, for instance, Newtown or Boston, most assuredly veers into the diminishing of our rights; whether it’s to curtail the purchase of a certain level of gun or its ammunition or blithely calling to wave every possible right granted to an American citizen by the amendments to the U.S. Constitution, like Miranda rights or search and seizure, etc. And what makes it all so interesting is that those who defend the rights granted by the Second Amendment in the former case are now the same clamoring about trashing Amendments 4 and 5 and a few more for good measure.
Don’t be fooled. Both liberals and conservatives are always keen on limiting your freedoms, while clouding up your vision of this by arguing that the other has a monopoly on those limits. We’ve discussed these anomalies, or more to the point, hypocrites many, many times in this space, far too many times to fathom. But be very aware and extremely careful when it comes to this bullshit about national security. This is when freedoms always end up on the chopping block.
The disastrous response to 9/11, all of it still on display today, from airport security, the uselessness of Homeland Security, the ramp up in military action and the tragically tyrannical Patriot Act, was some of the most egregious attacks on our basic civil rights ever enacted. Don’t get me wrong, there were terrible examples of this each time war reared its ugly head in this country, but these were particularly thorny in a time when the expansion of knowledge (the internet and soon to be social media and these now ubiquitous phone/camera/video recorders) was giving us a more penetrating glimpse into our government’s direct role in the robbing of our rights.
The reason many over-shot the presumption that George W. Bush was “the worst president ever,” the way they now deem the current president (mostly through revenge, because Obama has some way to go to be as destructive as Bush) is because we have more information. Now, being riddled with information is not always the best thing (most of it is paranoid innuendo), but it is preferable to being completely in the dark as Americans were during the War of 1812 or the Civil War or the Spanish/American War or pretty much every war through Viet Nam. It could be said that information was what eventually doomed the criminally insane doings in Viet Nam, or as military supporters will couch it: “We were too wishy-washy about our determined mission there,” which actually means that the government couldn’t quietly get away with the same level of chicanery it did for the entirety of the 20th century up to that point.
So that brings us to now, where we have a 19-year-old American citizen incarcerated in the state of Massachusetts, the very breeding ground of the American experiment, for the crimes of murdering and seriously injuring other American citizens. Some want him tried as a military combatant, which would obliterate any case against him, for the simple and binding reason that he is not a military combatant, anymore than Timothy McVeigh, who as an American citizen (not given the title of president), perpetrated the greatest harm to this country’s citizenry ever.
This also bring us to the notion that because the FBI had once interviewed one of the Boston suspects some years ago and let him go, the government is now considering “lowering the bar” on what it means to be “a serious threat to national security.”
Whoa, Jack. Hang on there.
Who decides this? What “bar” and who is deciding to “lower” it to what now?
This badly formed but wholly important previous sentence is what should have been asked in 2001, and, quite frankly, before each time the government tried to put its citizens on notice that “well, as long as you are safe (which we’ve already determined is a false premise to begin with) then you can endure a little less of your rights.”
Look, I do not believe gun control could work, or as history shows in the recent past, has worked in this country; however, I have a better shot at making the argument that it is a far more pressing issue than terrorism. Since 1970, when terrorism began to take hold as an effective method for those not fortunate enough to have nukes and ambassadors and a CIA or KGB at their disposal to make a mark on the international violence tote board, about 3,400 people have been killed in this country in “terror-related” deaths. From 1980 to the present, nearly one million people have been killed from a gun.
Either way, no tragedy or crisis, as former Obama Chief Of Staff Rahm Emanuel once mused leading up to the massively unconstitutional Affordable Care Act, ever passes around here without someone concocting some new way to eliminate a portion of your rights.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of the Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus” and “Midnight for Cinderella”