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The confusion of the interested onlooker is surely understandable at this point. Learning that the federal government is, and has apparently been for some time, collecting information on the phone calls of law-abiding citizens of whom there is absolutely no suspicion of illegality is jarring to the sensibilities of the free-born American. A friend of mine, who simultaneously praises Ronald Reagan while describing himself as a liberal (which is indeed confusing), posted the musings of something called Americans Against The Republican Party on Facebook, which contained a USA Today story from 2006, reading in part:
The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY. The NSA program reaches into the homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime.
The point of the exercise is to highlight the supposed hypocrisy of those on the right who are alarmed by the revelations of whistle blower Edward Snowden, who says that federal authorities, “…quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.” The reader is invited to wonder where exactly were the protests from the right when it was George W. Bush’s administration doing the snooping under the auspices of the Patriot Act.
Concerning which, the Patriot Act’s author, James Sensenbrenner, has gone on record saying that the feds have exceeded the powers granted under the Act. “I do not believe the released FISA order is consistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act,” he says, adding that, “Seizing the phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American.” Sensenbrenner won’t get an argument from this corner on that last point.
We have a program which, we were assured, focused on communication to and from those parts of the globe which incubate Islamic fanatics, evidently turning its focus to a dragnet of American citizens en masse. To the extent that those of us on the right were slow to see the potential for abuse of federal powers in this regard, we have occasion to again acquaint ourselves with Lord Acton’s admonishment that power begets corruption and to wonder at the dumb silence of those on the left who years ago counseled us to question authority. But, as is the case in so many instances, context matters.
We were told very recently by the President that, “…this war, like all wars, must end,” though he left unanswered the question of what happens when the enemy disagrees and continues fighting. “That’s what history advises,” said the President, though that advice went unheeded by the Tsarnaev brothers, who most emphatically waged war on Americans at the Boston Marathon. “That’s what our democracy demands,” he continued, even as those demands failed to slow the ranting savage who hacked a British soldier to death in broad daylight.
However, if we accept at face value the President’s word that the war is winding down because — well, because he says so — how can he justify surveillance of Americans on such a massive scale without hemorrhaging from the pressure of his contradictions? Why are the NSA and FBI directly tapping into the servers of major U.S. Internet providers and retrieving all manner of documentation? Does democracy also demand these encroachments? Does history advise federal access to emails, audio and video chats and photographs? Which of the Federalist Papers spoke approvingly of intrusions of this order?
We have a sort of inverted war going on and sadly, that war has enthusiasts on both sides of the aisle. This war is being waged by people who send F-16 fighter jets to Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egypt, while seeking to limit American citizens to seven bullets in their own defense. It’s a war in which our armed forces are emasculated even as domestic agencies amass military weaponry and hardware at an alarming rate, thereby leaving the law-abiding citizen vulnerable to both foreign enemies and his own government. This is a war in which an American ambassador and staff are left defenseless during an attack overseas, abandoned by a Commander-in-Chief who has yet to account for his own actions that day, but who nevertheless scurried about the land for weeks fraudulently insisting that responsibility rested on the head of an American video producer who remains incarcerated to this day. It is a war in which our government labels an attack on US soldiers by a Muslim shouting “Allahu Akbar” as, “workplace Vvolence,” while labeling Americans who embrace the freedoms enshrined in our founding documents as potential terrorists.
We live in a time in which an Air Force wing commander removes from a base dining facility a Bible verse reading, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God,” on word of an unhappy atheist, thereby discovering a heretofore unknown constitutional right not to be offended. An Army Master Sergeant is reprimanded for reading books by conservative authors while Air Force personnel are directed to avoid accessing stories regarding the government’s surveillance of American citizens from government computers (often times the only way military members serving overseas can read the news).
We have an IRS that openly persecutes American citizens on the basis of their political beliefs while the EPA flies unmanned drones over the heads of American farmers just to make sure they are behaving. Our government monitors the phone lines of journalists suspected of printing leaked information all while illegally passing along the private information of individual citizens it has gathered to political opponents for purposes of harassment and intimidation. Is there now any wonder why so many of us rejected the idea of a national firearms registry? It is in this larger context that the government’s snooping on law-abiding citizens becomes even more problematic.
In apparent need of a master, the modern liberal coexists quite cozily with the idea of an authoritarian power that leaves the individual citizen vulnerable to the whims and abuses of the state. Sadly, there appear to be those on our own side with similar predispositions — people for whom the emerging surveillance state presents no evident concern. We are told that one court or another has held that once we engage in almost any transfer of information with another person or entity, we voluntarily cede all expectation of privacy over that information, — that the government is perfectly within its right, according to one precedent or another, to engage in what Ricochet Contributor John Grant correctly identified as the descendant of British general warrants wherein the government was free to search citizens without probable cause.
It pays, at times like this, to remind ourselves of the whole point of the American experiment and of the fact that a bloody revolution was fought precisely to free the individual from the arbitrary powers of centralized government. Indeed, the Constitution itself would not have been ratified by the states had it not been for the addition of a Bill of Rights, fashioned to secure and nurture the sovereignty of the individual. The Founders did not risk their lives, fortunes, and scared honor for want of governmental attention. With Democrats having morphed into the party of government, their general hostility to the Constitution is expected, though disheartening. Heirs to liberty, they have instead opted for subservience. But the degree of acquiescence from some on the right is downright alarming.
The good news is that an undercurrent of resistance is beginning. It was on display last week, when a high school valedictorian discarded his school-sanctioned speech in favor of reciting, to cheers and applause, The Lord’s Prayer. It was on display again last week when Betty Gerritson, from Wetumpka, Alabama, cut through the fog of lawyer-speak and bureaucratese to pointedly tell Congress, “You’ve forgotten your place.”
As for me, I will go on record here as observing that the fact that a court has given its imprimatur to an encroachment makes it no less of an encroachment. Last week, the Supreme Court also held that the police may obtain, involuntarily, DNA samples from those they arrest. Note please that no conviction is required. Indeed, even if the arrest is found to have been in error, the right of the individual not to turn his DNA over to the state will have already been ignored. For that matter, the Supreme Court last year gave us the supreme injustice of granting the federal government power to require a private individual to enter into a private contract by virtue of his very existence. We are constantly told to “accept reality,” by the terminally timid among us for whom acceptance of reality requires acquiescence in servitude. Not here. Not me. Not ever.