Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Rose by any other Name

In very era of America's relatively brief history as a nation, through every crisis, there are those among who insist that THIS TIME is unique, that this time, the crisis we face is so overwhelming, our need so dire that we cannot afford to abide by the foundational principles of our democracy, that we need to bend or break them for the sake of our survival. Whether it is the suspension of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War, the Alien and Sedition Acts of the early 20th century, the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II or the suspension of constitutional rights related to the Patriot Act, the internment of "enemy combatants" or the secret torture chambers at Gitmo and in CIA prisons throughout the world, arguments have been well and sincerely raised as to why the rules by which our society is governed, and along with them the principles that gave life to those rules are too lofty to be truly followed in the "real world."

And yet, as fiercely as we might defend these "exceptions" as they occur, so (history has taught us) we will come to regret them with the passage of time, when the heat of the moment is over and the crisis is past. As cooler times give way to cooler heads, we come to recognize that not only have we shamed our nation and our own most cherished beliefs, but that the suspension of our constitutional protections have not helped us to defend ourselves, they have not advanced our cause, they have not helped us surmount the crisis or win the war. Rather, they have demeaned and tarnished the cause in which they were employed and if anything, set it back by painting our most cherished freedoms not as unalienable rights, but rather as "luxuries" only for the best of times in direct opposition to the crucible in which they were first forged, the fight for human liberation that gave birth to this nation.

When we say, yes to civil liberties, but not for suspected terrorists, or for people of nations with which we are at war, or yes to religious liberty, but not for people of minority faiths or faiths which are shared, even if in name only with enemies of our country, we are putting conditions on all liberty. We are then taking what our founders declared as a fundamental human right and reducing it to a privilege of power. Our founders, not so far removed from the ethnic and religious wars of their countries of origin, still suspicious and all to familiar with the abuse of power by majorities over minorities understood that liberty is either for all or for none, that rights are only rights if they cannot be revoked by popular sentiment or national emergency and that freedom could not ever be defended by denying it, not even a little bit. In this current climate of fear, when so many are willing to throw the rights of others "under the bus" in favor of the illusion of security, we would be well advised to take the words of Ben Franklin, one of the architects of our democracy very seriously: "Those who are willing to sacrifice liberty for a little bit of security, deserve neither liberty nor security." Indeed, they may find that they do not have it all.