Getting After the Devil: Obama and Civil Liberties

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"Of
all the tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of
its victims may be the most oppressive."
~ C.S. Lewis

There is an
unease in the air, a sense that a shift is taking place in the world.
The signs are all around us: weapons of mass destruction, continual
threats of terrorism, an emerging global police state, and a growing
but over-extended military empire that is wreaking havoc on the
American economy. All the while, troops are being deployed on American
soil, raising the specter of martial law being declared at a moment's
notice.

Profound confusion
and fear abound. And as the pervasiveness of the government increases
in our lives, freedom is being squelched. The reason, we are told,
is to protect us and keep us safe.

Surveillance
cameras now monitor virtually every area of our lives. When the
government so chooses, it can listen in on our telephone calls and
read our e-mails. And government intelligence agencies possess sophisticated
computer technology that is capable of sweeping the internet and
our website activity to determine what we are thinking and saying.
The President can label anyone, including American citizens, "enemy
combatants" and hold them indefinitely without access to family
or an attorney.

These troubling
developments are the outward manifestations of an inner, philosophical
shift underway in how the government views not only the Constitution
and the Bill of Rights, but "we the people," as well.
What this reflects is a move away from a government bound by the
rule of law to one that seeks total control through the imposition
of its own self-serving laws on the populace. In this regard, recent
remarks by President Obama (a former constitutional law professor)
disdaining "liberal" U.S. Supreme Court decisions that
protect the right of citizens is particularly telling. This would
include, among other things, court decisions that provide lawyers
for indigents and require the police to inform citizens of their
rights when in custody.

And now, under
the guise of fighting the "war on terrorism," the Obama
administration wants Congress to allow law enforcement officials
greater flexibility when it comes to issuing the Miranda warning
("You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can
and will be used against you in a court of law…") to terrorism
suspects. Presently, under the public safety exception to the Miranda
rule, if law enforcement agents believe a suspect has information
that might reduce a substantial threat, they can wait to give the
Miranda warning. Unfortunately, Attorney General Eric Holder wants
to see this exception extended to all cases involving so-called
terror suspects. This could easily be extrapolated to apply not
only to foreign individuals but also to American citizens exercising
their First Amendment rights to speak out against controversial
government policies with which they disagree.

This continual
relaxing of the rules that protect our civil liberties will have
far-reaching consequences on a populace that remains ignorant about
their rights. As the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in its 1966 ruling
in Miranda v. Arizona, the police can and often do take advantage
of the fact that most citizens don't know their rights. Thus, the
Court held that police officers must advise a suspect of his/her
civil rights once the suspect has been taken into custody. There
have been few exceptions to this rule over the last 40 years or
so, and with good reason. However, if Congress gives the Obama administration
the green light to scale back the Miranda rule, it would be yet
another dangerous expansion of government power at the expense of
citizens' civil rights.

The lesson
is this: once a free people allows the government inroads into their
freedoms or uses those same freedoms as bargaining chips for security,
it quickly becomes a slippery slope to outright tyranny. Nor does
it seem to matter whether it's a Democrat or a Republican at the
helm anymore, because the bureaucratic mindset on both sides of
the aisle now seems to embody the same philosophy of authoritarian
government.

In fact, the
outlook for civil liberties is growing bleaker by the day. Increasingly,
those on the left who once hailed Barack Obama as the antidote for
restoring the numerous civil liberties that were lost or undermined
as a result of Bush-era policies are finding themselves forced to
acknowledge that America under Obama is not much of an improvement
over what it was under his predecessor. For example, author Naomi
Wolf, who repeatedly warned that America was headed toward a fascist
totalitarianism form of government under George W. Bush, has now
taken to issuing the same warning about Obama. In her book End
of America
(2007), Wolf argued that the American government
under Bush was mimicking the regimes of despots such as Mussolini,
Hitler and Stalin. Under the Bush presidency, the country was characterized
by, among other things, illegal surveillance, military detention
of suspects (even American citizens) and paramilitary martial law.
Thus, when asked in a March 2010 interview if her book, End of
America, was still relevant under Obama, Wolf replied, "Unfortunately,
it is more relevant. Bush legalized torture, but Obama is legalizing
impunity. He promised to roll stuff back, but he is institutionalizing
these things forever. It is terrifying and the left doesn't seem
to recognize it."

It is not just
those on the left who seem oblivious. Even in the face of outright
corruption and incompetency on the part of our elected officials,
Americans in general remain relatively gullible, eager to be persuaded
that the government can solve the problems that plague us — whether
it be terrorism, an economic depression, an environmental disaster
or even a flu epidemic. Yet having bought into the false notion
that the government can ensure not only our safety but our happiness
and will take care of us from cradle to grave — that is, from daycare
centers to nursing homes, we have in actuality allowed ourselves
to be bridled and turned into slaves at the bidding of a government
that cares little for our freedoms or our happiness.

This seductive
yet fictitious notion that the government is "only working
for our good" is one that C. S. Lewis aptly speaks to in God
in the Dock
(1971):

Of all tyrannies
a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may
be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber
barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's
cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be
satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment
us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

This is not
to say that those in government are necessarily evil or out to enslave
us. Rather, their priorities are to remain in control and in power,
which stands in opposition to the principles of free government.
And even in the process of seeking worthy goals, such governments
incredibly undermine and destroy fundamental principles. Playwright
Robert Bolt poses this dilemma in A
Man for All Seasons
(1960):

SIR THOMAS
MOORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law
to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I'd
cut down every law in England to do that!

SIR THOMAS
MOORE:…. Oh?…. And when the last law was down, and the Devil
turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all
being flat?…. This country's planted thick with laws from coast
to coast — man's laws, not God's — and if you cut them down…d'you
really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow
then?

What we are
grappling with today is a government that is cutting great roads
through the very foundations of freedom in order to get after its
modern devils. Yet the government can only go as far as "we
the people" allow. Therein lies the problem. Having allowed
the government to expand and exceed our reach, we find ourselves
on the losing end of a tug-of-war over control of our country and
our lives.

The hour grows
late in terms of restoring the balance of power and reclaiming our
freedoms, but it may not be too late. The time to act is now, using
all methods of nonviolent resistance available to us. "Don't
sit around waiting for the two corrupted established parties to
restore the Constitution or the Republic," Naomi Wolf recently
said. "The founding generation was birthed by the rabble of
all walks of life that got fed up and did risky things because they
were captivated by the breath of liberty. There is a looming oligarchy
and it is up to the people to organize a grassroots movement and
push back."

May
18, 2010

Constitutional
attorney and author John W. Whitehead [send
him mail
] is founder and president of The
Rutherford Institute
. He is the author of The
Change Manifesto
(Sourcebooks).

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