Tuesday, April 17, 2012

“Guarding Freedom”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Guarding Freedom”
April 17, 2012

There are times when it takes a revolution to overthrow or change an oppressive regime, as happened in England in 1642, America in 1776 and France in 1789. There is nothing permanent in our world, especially governments. While ours is a relatively liberal government, we should never feel complacent. There have been times when oppression slips silently in, as though on Carl Sandburg's “little cat feet”, as Mussolini did when he became Italy’s 40th Prime Minister in 1922, and as Hitler did when he became the German Chancellor in 1933.

As difficult as it is to understand today, no Italian in 1922 or German in 1933 could foresee the terrible chain of events that would follow those “democratic” elections. The changes were incremental and insidious. It was akin to placing a lobster in tepid water and letting it gradually heat up. By the time the lobster realizes what is going on, it’s too late. The lesson from history is that democracies must be ever vigilant of giving more and more power to central governments.

A good man, in a position of power, is no threat, but if the legislature has provided the executive branch unusual powers, a bad man can be elected and change the direction of the country. On February 27th, the House passed H.R 347 393-3, benignly entitled the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act, but better known as the anti-protest Trespass Bill. It had earlier been approved by the Senate. The Bill was signed by the President on March 10th, with little fanfare and has attracted very little attention. The Bill is an update of an original law enacted in 1971 that was amended in 2006, which dealt with restricted areas around the President and Vice President, or any others under the protection of the Secret Service.

The Bill makes it illegal to protest in areas where the Secret Service is operating, which can be from anything to a Presidential campaign stop to a super bowl. The restricted area may be mobile, again depending on the movement of Secret Service agents. And, since Secret Service agents are secret, they do not advertise their whereabouts.

One of the significant differences in this Bill from the one it amends is that “willfully and knowingly” has been changed to just “knowingly”, with respect to the mental state required to be charged with a crime. In other words, if a person enters a restricted area, but did not know it was illegal to do so, he could still be arrested. The odds are that the Bill will have little effect on most of our lives, but it does make it easier for an immoral individual to seize increasing power. For example, why could not a President target a political enemy for arrest and arrange for the Secret Service to be in that person’s location? It is a Bill that could be abused, and it is frightening for those who cherish the First Amendment to think that Congress approved it so overwhelmingly and that the President signed it with so little publicity.

All presidents have had to suffer the slings and arrows of those in the Press who do not like them or their policies. Freedom of the press is an inherent right, as is the right of all individuals to voice their disapproval. Protests, definitionally, are designed to disrupt. Certainly interruptions can be inconvenient to those being protested, but is not that a price we pay for living in a democracy?

As President, George Washington experienced brutal press attacks from the likes of Philip Freneau, Benjamin Franklin Bache, William Duane, James Thomas Callender and even, toward the end of his second term, Thomas Paine. Washington’s response was not to muzzle the press. In fact, he never took public notice of them. He wrote that his wish was that his “remaining days may be undisturbed and tranquil…” and that “I shall never undertake the painful process of recrimination.” Most Presidents would not abuse their power; it would not be compatible with the way they grew up, the history they learned and their basic sense for fairness and righteousness. But for we the people it is safer to trust laws than individuals. As a nation of laws, we should feel safe from the exploitation of laws that may have been well intentioned, but have been exploited by the unscrupulous for personal reason.

The Fourth Estate (the Press) has a responsibility to hold the feet of government leaders to the coals. Unfortunately mainstream media has put ideology above principle. It is why one should fear oppression from the left more than from the right; though cable TV and the Internet have somewhat evened the odds. The National Defense Authorization Act (another Bill that increases the reach of our central government) was originally enacted in the wake of 9/11. It has been renewed every year since, most recently on February 6. A person, including citizens, considered a terrorist threat can be held indefinitely, which is essentially a suspension of habeas corpus. The outcry when President Bush renewed the Act each year was loud and clear, but not so when President Obama signed the same extensions.

Returning to the anti-protest Trespass Bill, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice (an organization the Washington Post has called “the constitutional sheriffs for a new protest generation”) acknowledges “it is easier to prosecute under ‘knowingly’, instead of ‘knowingly and willfully’”, but she does not feel the Bill will cripple the Constitution. It is hard to argue with her conclusions, but I return to my original concern. Freedom is lost not in a revolution, but in the gradual, but perfidious growth of centralized government.

In his last published book (American Politics, Then & Now and Other Essays) before his untimely death, James Q. Wilson wrote: “Well over half (58%) of Americans prefer personal freedom to a government safety net, but 60% of Europeans prefer the safety net to individual freedom.” As the recent crisis in Europe demonstrates, Europeans are now at risk of losing their safety net as well. Freedom is an inalienable right, which means it was not given us by government, but it can be taken away by government. Guard it well.

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