Getting After the Devil: Obama and Civil Liberties


"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.

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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.

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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):

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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