• 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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