John Whitehead's Commentary
‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death’: The Loss of Our Freedoms in the Wake of 9/11
“Since mankind’s dawn, a handful of oppressors have accepted the responsibility over our lives that we should have accepted for ourselves. By doing so, they took our power. By doing nothing, we gave it away. We’ve seen where their way leads, through camps and wars, towards the slaughterhouse.” ― Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
What began with the passage of the USA Patriot Act in October 2001 has snowballed into the eradication of every vital safeguard against government overreach, corruption and abuse. Since then, we have been terrorized, traumatized, and acclimated to life in the American Surveillance State.
The bogeyman’s names and faces change over time, but the end result remains the same: our unquestioning acquiescence to anything the government wants to do in exchange for the phantom promise of safety and security has transitioned us to life in a society where government agents routinely practice violence on the citizens while, in conjunction with the Corporate State, spying on the most intimate details of our personal lives.
Ironically, the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks occurs just days before the 228th anniversary of the ratification of our Constitution. Yet while there is much to mourn about the loss of our freedoms in the years since 9/11, there is virtually nothing to celebrate.
The Constitution has been steadily chipped away at, undermined, eroded, whittled down, and generally discarded to such an extent that what we are left with today is but a shadow of the robust document adopted more than two centuries ago. Most of the damage has been inflicted upon the Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the Constitution—which has historically served as the bulwark from government abuse.
Set against a backdrop of government surveillance, militarized police, SWAT team raids, asset forfeiture, eminent domain, overcriminalization, armed surveillance drones, whole body scanners, stop and frisk searches, roving VIPR raids and the like—all sanctioned by a corrupt government run by Congress, the White House and the courts—a recitation of the Bill of Rights now sounds more like a eulogy to freedoms lost than an affirmation of rights we should possess.
As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the Constitution has been on life support for some time now and all efforts at resuscitating it may soon prove futile.
We can pretend that the Constitution, which was written to hold the government accountable, is still our governing document. However, the reality we must come to terms with is that in the America we live in today, the government does whatever it wants, freedom be damned, and “we the people” are seen as little more than cattle to be branded and eventually led to the slaughterhouse.
Consider the state of our freedoms, and judge for yourself whether Osama Bin Laden was right when he warned that “freedom and human rights in America are doomed,” and that the “U.S. government will lead the American people in — and the West in general — into an unbearable hell and a choking life.”
Here is what it means to live under the Constitution today.
The First Amendment is supposed to protect the freedom to speak your mind, assemble and protest nonviolently without being bridled by the government. It also protects the freedom of the media, as well as the right to worship and pray without interference. In other words, Americans should not be silenced by the government. To the founders, all of America was a free speech zone.
Yet despite the clear protections found in the First Amendment, the freedoms described therein are under constant assault. Increasingly, Americans are being arrested and charged with bogus “contempt of cop” charges such as “disrupting the peace” or “resisting arrest” for daring to film police officers engaged in harassment or abusive practices. Journalists are being prosecuted for reporting on whistleblowers. States are passing legislation to muzzle reporting on cruel and abusive corporate practices. Religious ministries are being fined for attempting to feed and house the homeless. Protesters are being tear-gassed, beaten, arrested and forced into “free speech zones.” And under the guise of “government speech,” the courts have reasoned that the government can discriminate freely against any First Amendment activity that takes place within a government forum.
The Second Amendment was intended to guarantee “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” Yet while gun ownership has been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as an individual citizen right, Americans remain powerless to defend themselves against SWAT team raids and government agents armed to the teeth with military weapons better suited for the battlefield than for a country founded on freedom. Police shootings of unarmed citizens continue to outrage communities, while little is really being done to demilitarize law enforcement agencies. Indeed, just recently, North Dakota became the first state to legalize law enforcement use of drones armed with weapons such as tear gas, rubber bullets, beanbags, pepper spray and Tasers.
The Third Amendment reinforces the principle that civilian-elected officials are superior to the military by prohibiting the military from entering any citizen’s home without “the consent of the owner.” With the police increasingly training like the military, acting like the military, and posing as military forces—complete with military weapons, assault vehicles, etc.—it is clear that we now have what the founders feared most—a standing army on American soil. Moreover, as a result of SWAT team raids (more than 80,000 a year) where police invade homes, often without warrants, and injure and even kill unarmed citizens, the barrier between public and private property has been done away with, leaving us with armed government agents who act as if they own our property.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits the government from conducting surveillance on you or touching you or invading you, unless they have some evidence that you’re up to something criminal. In other words, the Fourth Amendment ensures privacy and bodily integrity. Unfortunately, the Fourth Amendment has suffered the greatest damage in recent years and been all but eviscerated by an unwarranted expansion of police powers that include strip searches and even anal and vaginal searches of citizens, surveillance and intrusions justified in the name of fighting terrorism, as well as the outsourcing of otherwise illegal activities to private contractors. Case in point: Texas police forced a 21-year-old woman to undergo a warrantless vaginal search by the side of the road after she allegedly “rolled” through a stop sign.
The use of civil asset forfeiture schemes to swell the coffers of police forces has also continued to grow in popularity among cash-strapped states. The federal government continues to strong-arm corporations into providing it with access to Americans’ private affairs, from emails and online transactions to banking and web surfing. Coming in the wake of massive leaks about the inner workings of the NSA and the massive secretive surveillance state, it was revealed that the government threatened to fine Yahoo $250,000 every day for failing to comply with the NSA’s mass data collection program known as PRISM. Meanwhile, AT&T has enjoyed a profitable and “extraordinary, decades-long” relationship with the NSA.
The technological future appears to pose even greater threats to what’s left of our Fourth Amendment rights, with advances in biometric identification and microchip implants on the horizon making it that much easier for the government to track not only our movements and cyber activities but our very cellular beings. Barclays has already begun using a finger-scanner as a form of two-step authentication to give select customers access to their accounts. Similarly, Motorola has been developing thin “digital tattoos” that will ensure that a phone’s owner is the only person who may unlock it. Not to be overlooked are the aerial spies—surveillance drones—about to take to the skies in coming years, as well as the Drive Smart programs that will spy on you (your speed, movements, passengers, etc.) while you travel the nation’s highways and byways.
The Fifth Amendment and the Sixth Amendment work in tandem. These amendments supposedly ensure that you are innocent until proven guilty, and government authorities cannot deprive you of your life, your liberty or your property without the right to an attorney and a fair trial before a civilian judge. However, in the new suspect society in which we live, where surveillance is the norm, these fundamental principles have been upended. Certainly, if the government can arbitrarily freeze, seize or lay claim to your property (money, land or possessions) under government asset forfeiture schemes, you have no true rights. That’s the crux of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the government’s use of asset forfeiture to strip American citizens of the funds needed to hire a defense attorney of their choosing.
The Seventh Amendment guarantees citizens the right to a jury trial. However, when the populace has no idea of what’s in the Constitution—civic education has virtually disappeared from most school curriculums—that inevitably translates to an ignorant jury incapable of distinguishing justice and the law from their own preconceived notions and fears. However, as a growing number of citizens are coming to realize, the power of the jury to nullify the government’s actions—and thereby help balance the scales of justice—is not to be underestimated. Jury nullification reminds the government that it’s “we the people” who can and should be determining what laws are just, what activities are criminal and who can be jailed for what crimes.
The Eighth Amendment is similar to the Sixth in that it is supposed to protect the rights of the accused and forbid the use of cruel and unusual punishment. However, the Supreme Court’s determination that what constitutes “cruel and unusual” should be dependent on the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” leaves us with little protection in the face of a society lacking in morals altogether. For example, a California appeals court is being asked to consider “whether years of unpredictable delays from conviction to execution” constitute cruel and unusual punishment. For instance, although 900 individuals have been sentenced to death in California since 1978, only 13 have been executed. As CBS News reports, “More prisoners have died of natural causes on death row than have perished in the death chamber.”
The Ninth Amendment provides that other rights not enumerated in the Constitution are nonetheless retained by the people. Popular sovereignty—the belief that the power to govern flows upward from the people rather than downward from the rulers—is clearly evident in this amendment. However, it has since been turned on its head by a centralized federal government that sees itself as supreme and which continues to pass more and more laws that restrict our freedoms under the pretext that it has an “important government interest” in doing so. Thus, once the government began violating the non-enumerated rights granted in the Ninth Amendment, it was only a matter of time before it began to trample the enumerated rights of the people, as explicitly spelled out in the rest of the Bill of Rights.
As for the Tenth Amendment’s reminder that the people and the states retain every authority that is not otherwise mentioned in the Constitution, that assurance of a system of government in which power is divided among local, state and national entities has long since been rendered moot by the centralized Washington, DC, power elite—the president, Congress and the courts. Indeed, the federal governmental bureaucracy has grown so large that it has made local and state legislatures relatively irrelevant. Through its many agencies and regulations, the federal government has stripped states of the right to regulate countless issues that were originally governed at the local level.
If there is any sense to be made from this recitation of freedoms lost, it is simply this: our individual freedoms have been eviscerated so that the government’s powers could be expanded, while reducing us to a system of slavery disguised as a democracy.
The film V for Vendetta is a powerful commentary on how totalitarian governments such as our own exploit fear and use mass surveillance, censorship, terrorism, and militarized tactics to control, oppress and enslave.
As the lead character V observes:
Where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.
How will you have it? Will you simply comply while the train heads down the track to a modern-day Auschwitz? Or will you become a free person and resist? To quote Patrick Henry, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! — I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”