What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
photo credit: Vectorportal
In the wake of an undeclared war with France, a Congress full of Federalists passed several bills known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts. Signed into law by John Adams, the laws aimed to clamp down domestically on perceived threats to the fledgling American nation.
The executive branch was given authority under these laws to deport any resident alien deemed “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States,” as well as those whose countries were at war with the United States of America. Most egregiously, the Sedition Act criminalized the publication of “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government or select government officials.
Once the bill was made law, the Federalists got to work. Twenty-five men were arrested under the powers created by the Sedition Act, most of whom were editors of Republican newspapers (the Federalists’ political rivals). Matthew Lyon, a Republican congressman from Vermont, became the first person to be put on trial under the Sedition Act. Lyon had written a letter published in the paper for which he was an editor, criticizing Adams’ “continued grasp for power.”
A federal grand jury indicted Lyon for intentionally stirring up hatred against the President. He was later sentenced by a Federalist judge to four months in jail and a $1,000 fine, having been convicted by the jury (assembled from Vermont towns that were Federalist strongholds) for expressing seditious words with “bad intent.” Among those arrested was the grandson of Benjamin Franklin who worked as the editor of the Philadelphia Democrat-Republican Aurora, who was charged with libeling President John Adams. Thomas Cooper, editor of the Sunbury and Northumberland Gazette, was likewise indicted for sedition, fined $400, and made to serve six months in jail.
These blatantly unconstitutional and nebulous restrictions—who, after all, can legally nail down what is sufficiently “scandalous” to merit swift punishment?—created an uproar that led to the creation of the Principles of ’98—interposition and nullification enabling the states to affirm their sovereign power to check the encroaching aggrandizement of their creature, the federal government. Legislation this alarming may be considered by some to be a relic of the past, for surely we are more civilized and intelligent today, right?
Witness (among far too many examples that might be cited as evidence) the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (NDAA). This legislation, signed into law on New Year’s Eve, is the primary legislative vehicle by which the military receives its annual funding. Of course, warmongering opportunists have long taken advantage of these bills by including all sorts of hardly-related spending and legislation that would be more difficult to successfully pass on its own merits. After all, who would want to vote against the bill that would supply needed funding to our troops? Openly criticizing such bills, especially during a “time of war,” is seen by many chest-thumping neocons to be political suicide. Thus, plenty of horrible stuff gets passed on the coattails of “supporting the troops!”
In this year’s NDAA, provisions were included that codify into law the authority for the President, on his say-so alone, to order the indefinite detention of American citizens. No due process. No habeas corpus. No trial. No rights supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution. The “law” confers authority to detain American citizens who “substantially supported” forces “associated” with terrorists that are “engaged in hostilities” against the federal government or its “coalition partners.”
None of the quoted terms above are defined in the law. Thus, like the Alien and Sedition Acts, discretion is left solely up to the very government officials who have been granted the power to detain. And when an amendment was offered that would have explicitly forbidden such detention of citizens without trial, it was rejected. Rarely has liberty so openly been eviscerated as it was in Congress during the NDAA-related proceedings.
But, never fear: when affixing his signature to the document which contained the usurped, illegitimate authority he and his predecessor, George Bush, had long been utilizing, Barack Obama added a “signing statement” to clarify his intent:
I want to clarify that my Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens. Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a Nation. My Administration will interpret section 1021 in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable law.
So, we’ve been reassured by the man given dictatorial power that he will not, in fact, use such a power. To understand whether this rhetoric has any basis in reality, we might review just one example (many, many more exist). In a 2006 debate regarding pending legislation on military commissions, then-Senator Obama railed against the Bush Administration. A lengthy portion is included below to demonstrate Obama’s audacity of hypocrisy:
[W]hat we’re doing here today – a debate over the fundamental human rights of the accused – should be bigger than politics. This is serious.
We could have fixed all of this in a way that allows us to detain and interrogate and try suspected terrorists while still protecting the accidentally accused from spending their lives locked away in Guantanamo Bay. Easily. This was not an either-or question.
Instead of allowing this President – or any President – to decide what does and does not constitute torture, we could have left the definition up to our own laws and to the Geneva Conventions, as we would have if we passed the bill that the Armed Services committee originally offered.
Instead of detainees arriving at Guantanamo and facing a Combatant Status Review Tribunal that allows them no real chance to prove their innocence with evidence or a lawyer, we could have developed a real military system of justice that would sort out the suspected terrorists from the accidentally accused.
And instead of not just suspending, but eliminating, the right of habeas corpus – the seven century-old right of individuals to challenge the terms of their own detention, we could have given the accused one chance – one single chance – to ask the government why they are being held and what they are being charged with.
But politics won today. Politics won. The Administration got its vote, and now it will have its victory lap, and now they will be able to go out on the campaign trail and tell the American people that they were the ones who were tough on the terrorists.
And yet, we have a bill that gives the terrorist mastermind of 9/11 his day in court, but not the innocent people we may have accidentally rounded up and mistaken for terrorists – people who may stay in prison for the rest of their lives.
And yet, we have a report authored by sixteen of our own government’s intelligence agencies, a previous draft of which described, and I quote, “…actions by the United States government that were determined to have stoked the jihad movement, like the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay…”
If the indefinition detention of non-citizen individuals (something that is still unconstitutional and unjust) is considered enough to give rise to a retaliatory movement comprised of the loved ones and fellow countrymen of the innocent non-Americans our government locks away, we as Americans—we whose beloved country was formed through armed revolution—should ask ourselves at what point the actions of our own government will stoke a movement. Where is the backlash? Where is the outcry? Perhaps the signing of the legislation was not sufficient to stoke the dying flames of patriotism. Perhaps it will take the government actually incarcerating Americans without trial before anybody stands up and objects.
In an ironic foreshadowing of his own presidency, in which he has amplified the dictatorial Bush doctrine he had vehemently criticized on the campaign trail, Obama further stated in the same speech: “In the future, people like this may never have a chance to prove their innocence. They may remain locked away forever.”
Thus, while this hypocrite now as President claims in a signing statement that he’ll respect our traditions and values and not do what he’s been given legal sanction to do, we should laugh to scorn the mere thought of being asked to believe such nonsense. And lest some people be led to ignorantly assume that this is a Democrat issue, consider Mitt Romney’s answer to a question on the NDAA during the South Carolina GOP debate. Asked if he would have signed the bill, he replied that he would have, and stated further:
I recognize that when you’re in a setting when there are enemy combatants, and some of them on our own soil, that could possibly be abused. . . . I don’t think [Obama] is going to abuse this power and I know that if I were president, I would not abuse this power. . . . In my view, you have to choose people who you believe have sufficient character not to abuse the power of the presidency, and to make sure that we do not violate our constitutional principles.
Trust us, Romney says—this despite millions of reasons not to trust the government. Dictators are okay, in such a world view, so long as they’re a benevolent one.
The NDAA is the Alien and Sedition Acts of our time. A lawsuit has been filed (read the plaintiff’s reasons here), and state-based opposition is gearing up. Fortunately, there is ample precedent in both principle and history. As some of the states began to flex their own muscle during John Adams’ presidency, Thomas Jefferson wrote the following in the first of the Kentucky Resolutions (emphasis added):
Resolved, That the several States composing, the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government; but that, by a compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States, and of amendments thereto, they constituted a general government for special purposes — delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving, each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government; and that whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force: that to this compact each State acceded as a State, and is an integral part, its co-States forming, as to itself, the other party: that the government created by this compact was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself; since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers; but that, as in all other cases of compact among powers having no common judge, each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress.
This government now claims far more aggressive and tyrannical powers than it did through the Alien and Sedition Acts. The need has never been greater for similar resolutions to be made, and backed up by a coordinated refusal to submit. If Americans will not now rise up and demand redress for and repeal of the illegitimate powers claimed under the NDAA, then we clearly are not deserving of the liberty that has been stolen from us.
On New Year’s Eve of 2011, a stroke of Obama’s pen created the signature heard ’round the world. Having now heard it, the question we must answer is: what will we do about it?