Repeating History or, Why We have a Bill of Rights
Jun 17, 2013 | 2041 views | 0 0 comments | 63 63 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Harvard philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This week I am very afraid that America is doomed to relearn some very painful lessons.  This was my thought as I drove along listening to a talk show where first the host quoted a poll released that day which indicated that 62 percent of Americans felt it was necessary to pursue terrorists even if it meant that citizen phone records would be looked at.  The host then encouraged people to call in to say how they feel, and on public radio, the supposed bastion of the liberal left, I heard person after person say some variant of, “Well it’s not good, but I don’t mind because we have to do something to be safe against terrorists. If this helps them track down terrorists I guess we have to let them spy on us.”  Boston was cited as an example several times.  Hello, having the phone records did not stop the Boston terrorists. 


As more than a decade of failed homeland security has shown, we can give up our freedoms and privacy but if someone is determined enough they will do something.  (This in not unlike the reality that when people are suicidal enough even in a locked psychiatric ward they will find a way to kill themselves.)  In our fear we are so desperate for safety and security we have forgotten the notion of “in God We Trust” and we instead seek to put our trust in surveillance and weapons.


So a quick review: why the Bill of Rights guarantees us protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, why it also grants us a right to a speedy and fair trial and why it grants the right to free speech.  Throughout Europe, before the founder’s ancestors came to colonial America, people were prosecuted for religious and political beliefs, and for things they said, they were thrown in jail and often held for long times, if indeed ever given a trial.  There were no rules about searches and what could be brought as evidence.  There were witch hunts in Europe and in the colonies before Independence.  Leading up to the war of Independence and during it, the British would enter people’s homes and take things, and they would imprison and even kill them for their statements against the King.


Some would like to believe that once we became independent and operating under our own constitution that all this unjust persecution stopped.  However, I would point out to you that during WWII the Japanese were incarcerated without trial, African Americans were treated throughout most of our history as non-citizens afforded none of these protections, and during the McCarthy era people were blacklisted and destroyed for affiliation, suspicion of affiliations or mere association with “communists.”  During both the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights movement the FBI did illegal surveillance on activists.


Most of you are not worried about the government collecting your phone records because you feel you are good law abiding citizens.  You are not a terrorist so you have nothing to hide, right?  Well, think again.  So if during the witch hunts instead of torturing them to find out who they “consorted with” what if they could have just looked at their phone records?  Oh, whoops. you might have been in there as their neighbor, or co-worker, or banker or hairdresser.  If during the McCarthy era they did not have to scrap to find sign-in sheets for meetings, but could instead have just looked at what Web sites people looked at, have you never looked at a web site even by accident that could be misconstrued in some way?  Whose email could be in your inbox? Has anyone suspicious ever called you?


The Republicans spied on the anti-war movement during the Vietnam war and now the Democrats have messed with the tax records of the Tea-party during the Obama administration.  So clearly neither party can be trusted to not violate people simply for their politics.  The Kennedy administration considered trying to ruin Martin Luther King, Jr. by revealing an affair he had that they learned about by wiretapping.  Are you sure there is nothing in your phone records or emails that you would not be unhappy about having revealed to the whole world if you somehow were deemed “the enemy” because of something you said or did, or just someone you simply befriended?  How many people throughout US history have been tried as accessories to crimes committed by a friend or family member, simply for helping that person when they had no idea what that person was up to?  As the bumpersticker says,  “1984 is a novel, not an instruction manual.”


It’s funny there are people who say they will only let the 2nd amendment be pried out of their cold, hard, dead hands, but I am wondering why we don’t seem to feel that way about all of amendments that make up the Bill of Rights?  The interviews of Edward Snowden reveal that he put a lot of forethought into his decision to go public with the information that our government is spying on us.  He was clear that he is probably surrendering his freedom, perhaps his life, and that at minimum he will be looking over his shoulder forever.  Interestingly, the same public who is not too concerned about being spied on does, by 54 percent in a New York Times poll, see him as hero and a patriot.  How one squares those two things I do not know, but I think some corner of us does sense what it is in our modern day to fight for our Bill of Rights, and this he has clearly revealed to us. 


Snowden also stated that his greatest fear is that nothing will change, that we will willingly surrender our constitutional freedoms.  I can understand that fear.  Our Founding Fathers (and I use the phrase correctly here because the women were left out the room) put these rights into the Constitution because they were dissidents and they understood that for democracy to be real it would need the voice of dissent.  For those of you Republicans who were silent during the Bush administration as these procedures were being developed, and for you Democrats who are silent now in protection of your president, I say time to stop playing politics.  Either our Constitutional rights are valuable and worth standing up for, or they are not. We should remember we had to fight to get them; forgetting that will let them slide away and condemn us to another major fight to get them back.

Lynn Fitz-Hugh, Seattle, is a lifelong peace activist, a mother, therapist, and writes for PeaceVoice.

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