A biweekly column by Karen Kwiatkowski, Lt. Col. USAF (ret.)
posted 14 December 04
Rights and Responsibilities
December 15th is Bill of Rights Day. Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared it so in 1941, in between his busy consolidation of government power over the economy via the Office of Production Management and his restoration of the military draft.
Only the week before, America had entered World War II, ushering in a new era of federal controls covering all aspects of American life, as FDR attempted to deal with the economic woes of the Great Depression.
Bill of Rights Day was a friendly gesture to the idea of restricting and limiting government power over the lives and choices of its citizens.
Today, Americans heartily embrace the big government radicalism of World War II, and its Cold War legacy of massive state enterprise as all-important and fearfully necessary. For the most part Americans willingly support Washington through tax receipts, daily accumulation of unthinkable debt and regularly voting either Red or Blue – both colors guaranteeing continued government growth at the expense of real national prosperity. We find ourselves with a holiday we don't really understand, much less celebrate.
But celebrate we should. The Bill of Rights was forced on the Federalists by a group of contentious and argumentative folks united by what they were against. The winners write the history and call the shots, so the Bill of Righters are known as "Anti-Federalists."
This little crowd of contrarians warned that even though the Constitution was good, it was not armed to prevent what they thought would be the inevitable increase in centralized political power, and its inevitable abuse by the very people and organizations Americans trusted.
They were right about the inevitable growth of centralized government power, and its abuse. They were wrong to expect that a simple set of ten amendments would be enough.
Our latest crisis of centralized government stupidity and largesse is caricaturized by the occupation of Iraq. Certainly this type of thing was unforeseen by either Federalists or Anti-Federalists. Both groups would huddle in horror at the site of our meddling, massive and militaristic America.
The first amendment states that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech and the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble. Yet we have many restrictions, including our current President's establishment of what the administration calls "free speech zones." As an American, I once believed that wherever I happened to be standing was by definition, a free speech zone. But that is simply no longer the case. The recent flap over Spc. Thomas Wilson's hard hitting yet specifically forbidden question to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld over the ongoing crisis of inadequate armor protection for our troops in Iraq illustrates exactly how this freedom of speech thing really works.
The second amendment has long been debated, but regardless of what one understands constitutes a militia, or the right to bear arms, it is clear our federal army sent halfway around the world under false pretenses is probably not on a mission related to "securing America." At least in Vietnam, we understood that our wasted lives and treasure there might have, at some point, been related to halting the spread of communism.
In Iraq, there is no global ideology opposing America beyond nationalism and revenge. Allied today in a common goal of freedom from occupation, Iraqis will destroy outside Muslim extremists themselves the first chance they get – this is a gift of thirty years under Ba-ath secularism, a nascent embrace of Iraqi nationhood. Having no strategic weapons, Iraq poses no threat to America the country. Offering no popular global ideology, Iraq poses to threat to America the government. Last week the thousandth American soldier was killed in Iraq – not a single American politician wept publicly. My sense is that few bothered to weep privately.
The third amendment prohibits the quartering of soldiers at any time in private homes without the consent of the homeowner, in time of peace or war. We wonder why the founders saw fit to include this obvious nod to private property and privacy. We wonder, as the founders did not, because modern Americans know nothing of the habits of kings and principalities, and absolute power. Remember the third amendment and what it signifies, as Congress in some future month, congratulates itself on the passage of Patriot Act II or finds an alternative way of getting what all budding totalitarian states want. It is an icon of times past and future.
Amendments four, five, six, seven and eight all relate to the power of governments to seek evidence, charge, try and punish individuals. Half of the Bill of Rights seek to restrain our government's pursuit of justice. Why should this be? Isn't justice a good thing? Or did the anti-federalists have an idea that if unrestrained and unmonitored, if too secretive, too unaccountable, or too paranoid, governmental justice might just take on the moral ambivalence and criminality found in the legal no-man's land of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and home grown detention camps.
Amendments nine and ten seek to restrain governmental power in lieu of preserving the power of persons, the freedom of persons, and the rights of persons. God given rights, granted freely and undeniably to all people, or so the founders felt. They could, of course, not envision the 20th century, nor could they imagine the 21st.
Last week CBS's 60 Minutes interviewed some of the 5,500 servicemen who have deserted the military specifically because of the war in Iraq. This war has nothing to do with American security. It is a war justified on government blunders and outright falsehoods, and a war that makes little sense morally or tactically. They spoke from the heart, with candor. They spoke from Canada because, as deserters, they face the death penalty here at home. American mainstream media, and of course the American government, label them anti-American cowards, unpatriotic and self-serving. I think a better name for them is anti-Federalists.
Happy Bill of Rights Day. We may not be able to exercise them freely or openly, but thinking about them every once in a while isn't such a bad idea.
© 2004 Karen Kwiatkowski