Thursday, December 15, 2011

Celebrating the Bill of Rights

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Today is the 220th anniversary of the ratification, on December 15, 1791, of the U.S. Bill of Rights. Above, that's just the first of these ten amendments. But think of how different things might have been today without that.

Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom to protest injustice - can you imagine an America without those freedoms? Think of how important the Bill of Rights really is!

And then, coincidentally, there's this:
Barack Obama has abandoned a commitment to veto a new security law that allows the military to indefinitely detain without trial American terrorism suspects arrested on US soil who could then be shipped to Guantánamo Bay.

Human rights groups accused the president of deserting his principles and disregarding the long-established principle that the military is not used in domestic policing. The legislation has also been strongly criticised by libertarians on the right angered at the stripping of individual rights for the duration of "a war that appears to have no end". ...

"It's something so radical that it would have been considered crazy had it been pushed by the Bush administration," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. "It establishes precisely the kind of system that the United States has consistently urged other countries not to adopt. At a time when the United States is urging Egypt, for example, to scrap its emergency law and military courts, this is not consistent." ...

Critics accused the president of caving in again to pressure from some Republicans on a counter-terrorism issue for fear of being painted in next year's election campaign as weak and of failing to defend America.

Human Rights Watch said that by signing the bill Obama would go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law.

"The paradigm of the war on terror has advanced so far in people's minds that this has to appear more normal than it actually is," Malinowski said. "It wasn't asked for by any of the agencies on the frontlines in the fight against terrorism in the United States. It breaks with over 200 years of tradition in America against using the military in domestic affairs."

In fact, the heads of several security agencies, including the FBI, CIA, the director of national intelligence and the attorney general objected to the legislation. The Pentagon also said it was against the bill.

The FBI director, Robert Mueller, said he feared the law could compromise the bureau's ability to investigate terrorism because it would be more complicated to win co-operation from suspects held by the military.

"The possibility looms that we will lose opportunities to obtain co-operation from the persons in the past that we've been fairly successful in gaining," he told Congress.

Civil liberties groups say the FBI and federal courts have dealt with more than 400 alleged terrorism cases, including the successful prosecutions of Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber", Umar Farouk, the "underwear bomber", and Faisal Shahzad, the "Times Square bomber".

Where do I even begin with the crazy on this one? Shall I note the political cowardice of Democrats who are always frightened of what Republicans will say about them? Republicans will always find something bad to say about them, even if they have to make it up!

Shall I point out, as I regularly do, how cowardly we Americans have become, willing to give up hard-fought civil liberties for the promise - which no politician can actually give - of protection from a rag-tag band of religious nuts using improvised explosives? Jeebus, when I grew up, we worried about global thermonuclear war, and we still managed to hang onto some of our freedoms!

Shall I predict the inevitable idiocy on the left, where some loons will certainly use this to proclaim that there's "no difference" between the Democrats and the Republicans, how it doesn't matter which candidate we elect for president, because they're "all alike"? Yes, I'm very disappointed in Obama on this issue, but there's a huge difference between him and the Republicans. Let's not lose our sanity just because the right-wing has already lost theirs.

Finally, do I really have to point out how insane it is to fight extremism with extremism? How do you think we'll fare in this "war on terror" if we don't have an alternative to offer? If we give up our respect for the law and our respect for civil liberties, what are we going to offer other people that's any different from what the terrorists are offering them? Oh, you can be a Christian crazy, rather than a Muslim one? Nice choice there!

Well, I'm tired. I'm real tired of arguing against insanity like this. It's been at least ten years now, since the start of the Bush administration, and we haven't recognized these fundamental mistakes even now that Bush is gone? I've only been blogging for two years, but I'm tired of arguing these things here, too. I'm not giving up, never think that. But I'm tired.

So, on this 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, maybe I'll just point out three more of those amendments which we should be celebrating, instead of gutting. Here's the Fourth Amendment:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

And here's the Fifth Amendment (these all kind of hang together):
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Note that part about "nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law"?  And there's an exception to a Grand Jury indictment, but only for people who are actively serving in the military during wartime. Yeah, soldiers give up some of their rights - temporarily - when we're actually at war. That's just one of the many sacrifices they make in order to serve our country.

Think there's still some wiggle room here? I don't, but OK, here's the Sixth Amendment:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

So far, I've quoted fewer than half of the amendments in the U.S. Bill of Rights, and I don't see any way that law could be constitutional. (Frankly, I don't see  how it could even be constitutional for non-citizens, since there's no indication that these rights apply only to citizens.) More importantly - since I'm not a constitutional scholar - I don't see any reason why we'd want to give up these civil rights.

I don't care how much of a coward you are, how can you support abandoning our fundamental civil liberties like this? Today, we should be honoring the Bill of Rights, not trying to subvert it. Of course, that's no different than what we should be doing every day.

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