Still the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave?

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Common Dreams

Still the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave?

Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force.  Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.  Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action. 
 - George Washington

The re-declaration of a national State of Emergency by President Obama on September 10, 2009 is not theoretical; it affects our civil liberties and our ability to live in a free and open society.  Not one major media outlet covered the fact that we've just entered our 9th year of a continuous state of emergency.  The question is:  Do we still enjoy the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment?

We first witnessed so-called "free speech zones" when we covered the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles for the Santa Monica Mirror.  The "zone" was a black asphalt parking lot surrounded on all sides by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.  Heavily armed riot police walked the perimeter.  There was a gate at one end through which people could pass as salt passes through an hourglass.

It didn't take a lot of imagination to foresee what would happen if the people crowded inside this enclosure felt compelled to leave in a hurry.  And sure enough, when the LAPD decided it was time to "clear the zone" there were plenty of bodies caught in the neck of the hourglass, easy prey for the batons, gas, and rubber bullets.  After all, this was a post-Seattle situation and law enforcement didn't lack for "crowd control" gadgets.

Flash forward to Pittsburgh, site of the September 24-25, 2009 meeting of the G-20.   Now those who choose to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly risk the loss of their hearing!  With the advent of the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) or sonic cannon, police can not only disperse pesky demonstrators, but cripple them for life as well.  In addition, the Pittsburgh armed force had all the other accoutrements of crowd control; one wag described them as "10,000 Darth Vaders."  Were those citizens on the receiving end of the LRAD reasonably able to exercise their freedoms of speech and assembly?

It's no coincidence that as the United States loses its global preeminence, constitutional rights are under full assault.  In the heart of the schoolyard bully lives the fear of a bigger, meaner bully.  The bully gives no quarter, tolerates no opposition, sneers down his enemies and when necessary, goes nuclear.  This is the fearful position of the United States in 2009.  Obama's America is a nation adrift, without moral compass, armed to the teeth.  

Over the past half century, the United States has turned its aggression outward against such counties as Vietnam, Bosnia, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  This insatiable appetite for aggression ultimately turns inward, manifesting as domestic repression and the kind of violence we witnessed this month in Killeen, Texas.  Surveillance of private citizens has become more comprehensive and sophisticated.  The internet is more restricted with websites and blogs watched for "offensive" content. Meaningful political protest, as in Pittsburgh, is extinguished.  As Naomi Wolf points out in her book The End of America (2007), "The Department of Homeland Security's surveillance apparatus is certainly aimed at prosecuting the war on terror.  But it may also be aimed at us, for domestic political purposes."  

So this is how "the land of the free and the home of the brave" devolves.  This is how we become a neutered people, no longer holding our leaders to account, no longer seeming to care that our constitution has become just another piece of paper.  

It is a betrayal that President Obama continues to "render" foreign nationals to countries where they suffer the very torture that candidate Obama railed against.  In September, 2006, Sen. Obama spoke these words on the floor of the U.S. Senate,

...restricting somebody's right to challenge their imprisonment indefinitely is not going to make us safer. In fact, recent evidence shows it is probably making us less safe.

Now this same Barack Obama presides over indefinite detention without habeas corpus for thousands of prisoners being held by this country in Afghanistan.  Most of the unspeakable policies initiated under Bush continue in the Obama administration. Where is the change we were promised?

Last April, President Obama attended the Summit of the Americas hosted by the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.  At the end of what turned out to be a rather humiliating meeting for the United States, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez coyly asked Obama, "Are you a prisoner?"  Chavez's words were shrugged off, but there was poignant truth in them.  Latin American leaders know too well what it is to be under the control of the military.  Is this the predicament in which our new president finds himself?

Regardless of whether Obama is a captive, we the people must reject the cruelty being committed in our name.  We must act on the truth that justice denied to some is justice denied to all, that it's a short step from your brother or sister being held outside the law to being treated the same yourself.

If we as a people fail to speak out for the millions currently being bombed, maimed, tortured and jailed without recourse in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and even here on the meaner streets of our own country, we become complicit in the dismantling of our democratic republic.

We may think we can hide behind well-rehearsed defenses about national security and American exceptionalism.  But the truth is that if the constitution has no meaning, neither does the American republic.  

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither." 

Lewis Seiler

Lewis Seiler is president of Voice of the Environment.

Dan Hamburg

Dan Hamburg, a former US congressman from California, is executive director of Voice of the Environment..

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