Equality Before the Law Finally Achieved
by Ryan McMaken
Recently by Ryan McMaken: How the Interventionists Stole the AmericanRight
Like virtually every country on earth, the United States has a long and sordid history of persecuting minority groups in the name of national security, safety and cultural "preservation." This can include racial minorities, religious minorities and even linguistic minorities.
The level of persecution varied from short-term hostility and small-scale mob violence, as with German-speaking Americans during the First World War, up to outright chattel slavery as with the Black Americans in many American states, and to a systematic attempt at extermination as with the plains Indians. And in between are those many groups such as Americans of Japanese descent, or Mexican descent, for example, who at various times in history were denied the protection of American law which led to forfeiture of property, income, privacy and freedom.
In a perverse way then, we can now look upon the National Defense Authorization Act as a great equalizer for Americans of all ethnic, religious and language groups. Obviously, it is still worse to have dark skin, as, for example, is the case in Arizona where, under SB 1070, people who "look like" Mexican nationals are far more likely to be harassed for their "papers" by government agents.
But now every American has the equal opportunity to become an unperson if he is declared to be an "enemy combatant," anywhere in America, if only a bureaucrat in the Pentagon wills it and the president rubber-stamps it. The alleged combatant may then be seized and imprisoned indefinitely with no due process. In addition, such administratively declared enemies of the state may, in practice, if not perhaps in established law, be murdered at the will of the president without due process.
In other words, all Americans now enjoy the same freedoms as a Japanese-American in 1943 or a Black American under Jim Crow.
There are always a myriad of excuses to justify the dehumanization of various groups. With the blacks it was the grave threat of mecegenation, or earlier, slave uprising. Namely, there was a lasting fear that the slaves might actually steal what rightly belonged to them: their bodies.
With the Japanese, they were supposedly all in league with Hirohito, secretly plotting the destruction of factories and highways across America. So they were locked up, and now unable to pay their bills or show up for work, they lost jobs and property, and of course, freedom.
With the modern-day Hispanics, the Anglo gatekeepers of American culture (their version of it, anyway) assure us that these European-language-speaking and European-religion-practicing immigrants coming across our border are the harbingers of doom to European civilization. Demand their papers. Deport them. Create a national ID system!
The Hispanics of yesteryear were also an incalculable threat which is why, following the American war of aggression again Mexico that ended in 1848, the new Anglo immigrants into the region used their influence with Congress and their superior numbers locally to defraud the formerly-Mexican inhabitants of most of their lands and property through legislation like the Land Act of 1851. It was all necessary to protect America from Mexican fifth columnists, apparently.
In 1922, Oregon passed the Compulsory Education Act in an attempt to eradicate all private schools, especially those Catholic ones that taught "foreign" values.
And of course, there was Jim Crow, which the pages of National Review described as the imposition of "civilized standards" on a "servile race." In the end, naturally, it was all in the name of preserving "American" values.
These are just a few examples.
Well, that sort of piece-meal, localized despotism is gone.
We are so enlightened now as to give ourselves an equal-opportunity despotism that knows no borders and no rule of law. Today, we are told, the grave existential threat is terrorism. We look at the persecutions of the past in the name of Anglo-Saxonism or White supremacy or Americanism and we say, "well, we know that was wrong, but this time is different. This time, the destruction of human liberty is absolutely necessary. This time, we got it right."
Some of the supporters of the NDAA, which essentially nullifies a sizable portion of the Bill of Rights, take comfort in the thought that only swarthy people with Arabic-sounding names could only ever be caught up in such a law: "If you're not doing anything wrong, you don't need the Fourth Amendment or the Sixth Amendment."
Such people apparently, don't remember the 1990s very well when it was all the rage to discuss the grave threat that "militias" posed to American civilization. Then as now, the FBI was hard at work infiltrating militia groups, and then funding and encouraging violence among alleged extremists.
Had the NDAA been around in the days following The Oklahoma City bombing, it is not difficult to imagine the mass incarceration, without trial, of "right wing extremists," most of whom were little more than plump middle-aged men carrying hunting rifles through the forests of the Upper Peninsula.
Those who stand up in opposition to such abuse at the hands of government have always been labeled as kooks, as part of the fringe and as "un-American." Such was the case with William Lloyd Garrison, the heroic abolitionist, or with Ralph Carr, the governor of Colorado who opposed the internment of the Japanese, or with Edward Atkinson, the great industrialist and defender of laissez faire who raised money for John Brown's anti-slavery revolt and who, during the Spanish-American War, encouraged American soldiers to mutiny rather than fight to put Filipinos under the American government's boot.
Such men were incessantly denounced for defending the criminal element in America, and that the latest despotism, of whatever era, only existed to defend America, to save lives, and to spread liberty.
But, as Mencken has noted "[t]he trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all."
Mencken had it slightly wrong. These days, the defense of freedom only requires the defense of alleged scoundrels, since virtually every American is a criminal under the current weight of tens of thousands of federal laws and regulations, and the war on drugs, the war on immigrants, and the war on terrorism.
The craven conservatives and the hypocritical liberals who defend this ongoing destruction of the Bill of Rights attempt to placate the opposition by saying they "welcome debate" and declare that only kooks oppose laws like the NDAA since it is "complicated." This is little more than shilling for the status quo. John McCain simply declares that all proponents of due process "want terrorists to go free." And yet, it is the cranks, who insist on the rule of law, who are "un-American."
When exposed to the persecutions of the past, especially the racially-motivated ones, school children are often left with the impression that things were different in the past, and that somehow, we've moved beyond that sort of arbitrary oppression and disregard for natural rights and natural law. That notion is incorrect. The arbitrary exercise of government power is alive and well. Except now, it applies to everyone everywhere. Equality before the law has been achieved at last.
Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.