Two of the primary complaints made by the protesters in the Middle East have been the refusal of government officials to lift decades-old emergency legislation that permits the dictatorial regimes to arbitrarily arrest people, detain them indefinitely, torture them, and even execute them; and the horrible economic conditions that have consigned people to lives of poverty.
Both complaints hold important lessons for the American people.
Recall, first of all, why our American ancestors were so reluctant to permit the federal government to be called into existence. They understood that the greatest threat to people’s freedom and well-being was their own government. They feared that the Constitution could bring into existence a government that would end up infringing — even destroying — the freedom of the American populace.
Among the greatest dangers was that the government would acquire the power to arrest people without any valid reason, especially people who were critical of government officials, and cart them away for imprisonment, torture, and even execution. That was a power that had been exercised by tyrannical kings at various times in English history.
As former British subjects, the Framers were very familiar with the resistance to that power among the English people, resistance that stretched as far back as the year 1215. Prior to that time, the king had been exercising the same kind of tyrannical power over his subjects that the Middle Eastern dictators have been wielding over their citizenry — arresting opponents of the regime without formal charges, incarcerating them, torturing them, and sometimes even killing them.
At Runnymede in 1215, the great barons of England required King John, at the point of a sword, to formally relinquish that tyrannical power. In the Magna Carta — the Great Charter — the king promised to no longer seize people or their property in violation of “the law of the land.”
That phrase — “law of the land” — later evolved into a phrase with which every American is familiar: “due process of law.” It was one of the express restrictions on federal power in the Bill of Rights that our American ancestors demanded as a condition for letting the federal government come into existence. Thanks to the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, federal officials are expressly prohibited from doing what King John and other English tyrants did to the English people and what the Middle Eastern tyrants have done to their citizens — arbitrarily arrest them, especially the “troublemakers”; cart them off to police and military dungeons; torture, rape, and abuse them; and even execute them.
Why did our American ancestors demand the inclusion of such express restrictions on the power of U.S. officials? Because they knew their history and they understood human nature and the nature of governmental power. They knew that governmental power inevitably attracts people who lust for power. And they knew that the American populace would inevitably include such people, people who would gain the reins of power within the federal government and then look for every opportunity imaginable to satisfy that lust for power.
The Bill of Rights
Our ancestors understood that the federal government would attract the same kinds of people now holding power in the dictatorial regimes of the Middle East — people who would try to suppress and punish criticism and disclosure of government wrongdoing.
That was the idea behind the First Amendment — to make it clear that such conduct was illegal.
They also understood that federal officials would try to disarm people, just as the dictators of the Middle East have done to their citizens, thereby making it easier for the police, intelligence forces, and military to round them up and cart them away.
Preventing that was the idea behind the Second Amendment — to ensure that the citizenry had the ability to resist the tyranny of their own government, unlike the people in the countries of the Middle East, where, thanks to gun control, they lack the means to defend themselves from the cowardly goons within the government who think nothing about loyally following orders to shoot and kill defenseless protesters.
They understood that federal officials would attract the kinds of people who would have no compunctions about barging into people’s homes and searching their persons and belongings looking for evidence of criminal behavior.
That was the reason for the Fourth Amendment requirement of search warrants based on probable cause.
Our ancestors were also concerned about what is arguably the most tyrannical power of all — the power simply to seize anyone federal officials want to seize and take him away for incarceration without charges, and then torture and abuse him, even execute him after some sort of show trial before a kangaroo tribunal to make it look as though justice is being done.
That was the idea behind the Fifth Amendment. It guarantees trial by jury, a judicial method that relies on ordinary citizens, not tribunal judges, to decide the guilt or innocence of the accused and the morality and justice of the law itself. The Amendment also expressly prohibits federal officials from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, which includes at a minimum formal notice of charges and a judicially administered trial.
The express restrictions on power in the Bill of Rights, along with the limited, enumerated powers delegated to the federal government in the Constitution (including the judicially guaranteed privilege of habeas corpus), distinguished the United States from other countries in history. While there have been major and minor infringements of civil liberties throughout the history of the United States (the drug war furnishing the excuse for many of the recent ones), for most of that time the American people have been free of the omnipotent power wielded and exercised by dictators and tyrants — the power to arrest people without cause, especially political critics and dissidents, jail them for years without trial, torture and abuse them, and even execute them.
That is, until 9/11 came along. That was the emergency that federal officials used to revolutionize America’s judicial system — and all without a constitutional amendment. That was the emergency by which George W. Bush decreed that as “commander in chief” in the “war on terrorism” — a war that was to be permanent in nature — he now wielded the omnipotent power to determine that a person was a terrorist, take him into custody as an “enemy combatant” without charges, torture and abuse him, and even execute him after trial by military tribunal.
What Bush had done was take a federal criminal offense — terrorism, an offense that has always been and still is a crime in the U.S. Code — and convert it into an act of war, at his option. In other words, in the post–9/11 world, the president would have the option of sending an accused terrorist down either the constitutional route or the military route.
It was at that point that the president wielded the omnipotent power that the Fifth Amendment had been designed to prohibit.
Obviously, Bush wasn’t the first ruler in history to achieve such omnipotent power over his own people, especially in the midst of an emergency. That’s one of the great benefits to emergencies, at least from the standpoint of the power-lusters who gravitate to government. Public officials have long understood that during emergencies people get scared and look to the government to keep them safe. That’s when liberty is most in peril because it’s when the power-lusters see their opportunity to expand power and it’s when the people are willing to relinquish their liberties in order to be kept safe.
Consider the Middle Eastern dictators. For decades, they have possessed the same power that U.S. presidents now possess — the power to arbitrarily arrest citizens and jail them indefinitely, torture and abuse them, and execute them without trial by jury.
Among the most common times dictators acquire and exercise dictatorial powers are, not surprisingly, times of crises or emergencies.
Of course, when that happens the ruler inevitably assures the people that such extraordinary powers are only going to be “temporary” — that is, they’ll last only until the emergency is over.
As a practical matter, however, it rarely works out that way. The ruler inevitably looks for excuses for extending the period of his powers, oftentimes pointing to the ongoing threat of terrorists or drug dealers.
Consider, for example, former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. His extraordinary emergency powers stretched back some 30 years to when Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat was assassinated. The common justification for continuing such powers today? Terrorism and drug dealing. As soon as the war on terrorism is over and as soon as drugs are no longer a problem, the dictators promise to lift their emergency powers over their citizens.
Recall the world’s most famous dictator — Adolf Hitler. He used two favorite justifications for his emergency powers — terrorism and communism. After the Reichstag fire, he was able to convince the German parliament to grant him temporary “emergency” powers to deal with the twin threats of terrorism and communism (both of which would later be used by U.S. officials to justify extraordinary powers).
After some of the defendants in the Reichstag fire prosecutions were acquitted by the German courts, Hitler formed a special court to try criminal cases concerning terrorism and treason to ensure that no more accused terrorists were set free (which is the same reason that U.S. officials formed military tribunals as an option for dealing with terrorists).
Emergencies in which power-lusters acquire extraordinary powers are, of course, not limited to threats (or supposed threats) to civil liberties. As the American people learned during the presidential regime of Franklin Roosevelt, economic emergencies also furnish the power-lusters with the opportunity for expanded powers over the citizenry. It was during the Great Depression, in fact, that Roosevelt revolutionized America’s economic system by transforming it from one based on free enterprise, wealth production, and private charity to one based on confiscation and redistribution of wealth (the welfare state) and the regulated economy.
Ironically, the Great Depression was caused by the federal government itself, even though most Americans continue to hew to the myth that it was actually caused by the “failure of America’s free-enterprise system.” That was the myth that federal officials promulgated at the time and that government schoolteachers continue to promote to students today. The last thing the power-lusters in government wanted Americans to discover was that it was the federal government itself that brought on the Great Depression and that it was that emergency that was used to revolutionize America’s economic system and orient it to principles of socialism, interventionism, and fascism.
Recall Roosevelt’s nationalization of gold, one of the most infamous acts in U.S. history. He ordered every American to surrender his gold coins (and gold certificates) to the federal government in return for irredeemable paper money, which was devalued by federal officials immediately after the forced exchange. Ownership of gold became a felony offense. Anyone caught possessing it was prosecuted ruthlessly by his Justice Department.
Roosevelt’s nationalization of gold was no different in principle from the nationalizations that Stalin was carrying out in the Soviet Union and no different from those that Fidel Castro would later carry out in Cuba. But the fact that it was occurring in the United States — the fact that people were being converted into felons for doing something that had been a core element of American economic life since the nation’s founding — was especially shocking and egregious.
It wasn’t the only dictatorial act exercised by Roosevelt. There was also the infamous National Recovery Act, which attempted to cartelize American industry, reinforced by Roosevelt’s militarist Blue Eagle campaign, which sought to stigmatize American businessmen who resisted his fascist program as unpatriotic citizens who deserved condemnation or worse.
And of course there was the embrace of socialistic programs, beginning with the one that would become the crown jewel of America’s welfare state — Social Security, a program that had its roots in socialism in Germany.
Tyranny and poverty
What’s all this have to do with the Middle East? Two things. One, it shows how power-lusters everywhere use emergencies to expand their powers and infringe the liberties of the people. But it also goes to the heart of why people in the Middle East are so poor. For decades, they have suffered under an economic system in which the state has dominated and controlled the economy. In fact, in many of the countries, the state, including the military, owns and operates businesses and industries.
Even in those countries that have “privatized” such businesses and industries, the state has used its power to grant exclusive licenses to friends, relatives, or other favored people to operate enterprises as monopolies — that is, without the threat of competition. This is the system known as “crony capitalism,” but it’s really just fascism, given that the state is partnering with businessmen in the private sector.
There is also the massive welfare state that characterizes Middle Eastern countries, a way of life in which the central government is charged with taking care of the citizenry. But as the welfare states of Europe are learning, socialism inevitably leads to out-of-control spending, borrowing, inflation, bankruptcy, and impoverishment.
As the people in the Middle East have learned — and especially those in Egypt — oftentimes the emergency powers that were acquired decades ago never seem to go away.
Even if such powers are rescinded, new “emergencies” can be easily declared to justify the immediate imposition of emergency rule.
For example, last spring two of the U.S.-supported Middle East dictatorships, Yemen and Bahrain, assumed emergency powers in order to quell anti-government protests. The emergency measures included a broad power to arrest and detain without judicial oversight, media censorship, bans on protests, and special-security courts to try suspected terrorists. `
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the extraordinary powers that President Bush assumed by decree and those he acquired by legislation (e.g., the PATRIOT Act) are still in existence 10 years later, with no end in sight. Indeed, Americans are still saddled with the ever-growing burden of Social Security and ever-devaluing paper money decades after the end of the emergency known as the Great Depression.
What better time than now for Americans to reevaluate where they are as a nation?
America has been transformed into a warfare-state empire, with military bases all over the world, invasions, occupations, wars of aggression, kidnapping, torture, abuse, support of foreign dictatorships, Gitmo, foreign aid, and regime-change operations. It’s not what the Framers and our American ancestors envisioned. And not coincidentally, it all furnishes the excuse for the assumption and exercise of extraordinary, extra-constitutional powers to deal with the terrorist blowback that such actions produce.
Arbitrary arrests, indefinite incarceration, torture and abuse, kangaroo military tribunals. They are not what the Framers and our American ancestors envisioned.
Socialism, interventionism, fascism, paper money, a central bank, income taxation and the IRS, welfare-state programs — including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — subsidies, government-business partnerships, foreign aid, economic regulation, and the drug war. They are not what the Framers and our American ancestors envisioned.
Americans today have an opportunity to lead the world out of this statist morass. That way requires dismantling the militarism, imperialism, socialism, interventionism, and fascism that the statists have foisted upon our land. The way forward entails restoring and building on our nation’s heritage of economic liberty, free enterprise, free markets, unlimited accumulation of wealth, private property, voluntary charity, and freedom of choice.
This article originally appeared in the July 2011 edition of Freedom Daily.