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"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [and women] do nothing."
In a wide-ranging exhortation to patriotism, Bruce Fein quoted everyone from Cicero to Grover Cleveland, but this famous saying from Edmund Burke might summarize his theme as well as any.
Mr. Fein, a constitutional attorney and activist, spoke last week at the Rutherford Institute.
He has gained attention recently for advocating the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, but in a larger sense his message concerns freedom, democracy and an American apathy that threatens to undo the Founding Fathers' noble experiment.
Regardless of his or her opinion on the performance of the current administration, any sensible American must agree that citizen participation is imperative to the survival of the republic.
Erosion of the Constitution has been going on for decades, Mr. Fein said, but the pace has intensified since 9/11. Congress has failed in its responsibility to check and balance the executive branch. Courts have made some attempts to do, but operate at a slow pace and have had limited effect so far on the exercise of executive power.
The immediate responsibility for providing balance rests with a now ineffectual Congress.
The ultimate responsibility resides with the people -- a people who are not exercising that responsibility.
"My perception today is that the American people aren't concerned about becoming vassals" to a powerful presidency, he said. We are too interested in "bread and circuses" -- in our immediate creature comforts and threats to those comforts such as gasoline prices and mortgage problems.
Mr. Fein has high standards for Americans and issues a harsh indictment of our failure to "speak truth to power." Food and shelter are fundamental survival needs, and when the mortgage crisis threatens our ability to keep a roof over our heads and gas prices send food costs ever higher, it is understandable that we shift a larger part of our attention to these issues.
But the apathy he condemns predates these crises.
And, in fact, most of us are at no immediate risk of losing our homes or going hungry.
"If your neighbor is indolent, it's one less person keeping a vigilant eye on government," said Mr. Fein. "We all suffer."
In a democracy each voice counts. And one voice can make a difference, he said, citing those in American history who have done just that, from William Garrison for the abolitionist movement to Elizabeth Cady Stanton for women's suffrage.
If it is security we want, failing to speak truth to power will eventually make us less secure.
"Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," to paraphrase Lord Acton in another famous quotation. Power feeds on itself if unchecked, growing ever stronger.
"We're all in this together," Mr. Fein said. "That's how democracies work.
"We still have freedom now. It's too late [to protect liberty] if we wait forever."