By John W. Whitehead
“I tell you, freedom and human rights in America are doomed. The U.S. government will lead the American people in — and the West in general — into an unbearable hell and a choking life.”—Osama bin Laden (October 2001)
Ironically, we mark the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the same week we celebrate the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution.
While there has been much to mourn since 9/11, there has been very little to celebrate.
Here is what it means to live under the Constitution today.
The First Amendment is supposed to protect the freedom to speak your mind (the media, as well), worship, assemble, and protest nonviolently without being bridled by the government. Despite the clear protections found in the First Amendment, Americans continue to be censored, silenced and prosecuted for challenging government misconduct and corruption.
The Second Amendment was intended to guarantee “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” Essentially, this amendment was intended to give the citizenry the means to resist tyrannical government. 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 militarized government agents armed to the teeth.
The Third Amendment prohibits the military from entering any citizen’s home without “the consent of the owner.” Yet with the police increasingly training like, acting like, and arming themselves like military forces, we now have what the founders feared most—a standing army on American soil.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits the government from conducting surveillance on you or touching you or invading you, unless they have some evidence that you are guilty of a crime. Unfortunately, the Fourth Amendment has been all but eviscerated by an unwarranted expansion of police powers that include strip searches, surveillance and home invasions.
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 our suspect/surveillance society, these fundamental principles have been upended.
The Seventh Amendment guarantees citizens the right to a jury trial. Yet when the populace has no idea of what’s in the Constitution, that inevitably translates to an ignorant jury incapable of distinguishing justice and the law from their own preconceived notions and fears.
The Eighth Amendment 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” depends 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.
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—has been turned on its head by a centralized federal government that sees itself as supreme.
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. 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.
Yet those who gave us the Constitution and the Bill of Rights believed that the government exists at the behest of “We the People.” We have the power to make and break the government.
Still, it’s hard to be a good citizen if you don’t know anything about your rights or how the government is supposed to operate.
Americans are constitutionally illiterate.
Most citizens have little, if any, knowledge about their basic rights. And our educational system does a poor job of teaching the basic freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Thirty-five percent of Americans cannot name a single branch of the government. Only a quarter of Americans know it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto. One in five Americans incorrectly thinks that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration. And more than half of Americans do not know which party controls the House and Senate.
Only one out of a thousand adults could identify the five rights protected by the First Amendment. Teachers and school administrators do not fare much better. One study found that one out of every five educators was unable to name any of the freedoms in the First Amendment. In fact, while some educators want students to learn about freedom, they do not necessarily want them to exercise their freedoms in school.
So what’s the solution?
Thomas Jefferson recognized that a citizenry educated on “their rights, interests, and duties” is the only real assurance that freedom will survive. As Jefferson concluded in 1820: “This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”
From the President on down, anyone taking public office should have a working knowledge of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and should be held accountable for upholding their precepts. I’d go so far as to require students to pass a citizenship exam before graduating from grade school.
Here’s an idea to get educated and take a stand for freedom: anyone who signs up to become a member of The Rutherford Institute gets a wallet-sized Bill of Rights card and a Know Your Rights card.
If this constitutional illiteracy is not remedied and soon, freedom in America will be doomed.
As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we have managed to keep the wolf at bay so far. Barely.
Our national priorities need to be re-prioritized.
For instance, Donald Trump wants to make America great again.
I, for one, would prefer to make America free again.