The most benevolent government on the face of the earth still needs laws and restrictions to prevent it from abusing the rights of its citizens. In a democracy like the United States, these restraints are doubly necessary, due to the transitory nature of our leadership. Successive administrations are subject to the same laws. Removing the levers of power from angels does the same for demons.
The law passed this weekend by Congress, allowing the Bush administration to spy on Americans’ international communications without a warrant is exactly the kind of creeping legislation that does more to undermine the Bill of Rights than if Berzelius Windrup were to leap from the pages of fiction and establish residence in the West Wing. In fact, it is the slow drip, the corrosive wearing away of the foundations of our liberty that could, over the long run, open up the government in Washington to the will and whims of a tyrant.
To be clear, President Bush is not a tyrant. He will not become, nor could he be one. His popularity is far to the south of where a leader’s needs to be to make the transition to dictator. But, by using the familiar refrain of fearmongering, waylaying an opposition Congress that was supposed to be immune to such pressure, he has once again been instrumental in expanding the power of the federal government to watch, to gather information, not just on those who threaten us, but inevitably, on those who may threaten us. It follows, after that, that information will be gathered on those who are not threats in order to determine if they may be threats. And on, and on, and on, until, Stasi-like, the government has the ability to legally gather as much information as the NSA’s computer banks can house; a vast reserve of just-in-case information on the innocent that centuries old tenets of privacy dictate that a government shall not hold.
Any idea that this legislation will only be temporary, weakening basic human rights for only as long as Washington deems it necessary to provide for our safety, is a farce, as is the idea that our government knows who to watch, and who to leave alone.
After President Bush signs the bill, the legislation is set to expire in six months. But, it must be remembered that the legislation retroactively legalizes actions that the government has already undertaken. What will happen in sixth months? Will the men on the other side of the screen suddenly stop watching? Not likely.
Our leaders have embarked on a dangerous path, undermining, in nefarious ways, the rights that make us Americans. But, even if one trusts this administration to do the right thing with these new abilities (a tall order, indeed), to use restraint and caution, applying them in limited and unavoidable circumstances, after these men and women let go from the levers of power, new leaders will take their place. These leaders have yet to receive a single vote, or a single appointment and confirmation to their positions, but they will enter their new offices with powers cajoled for by those that came before them that are above and beyond any laid out in our framing documents. We should not trust these unknown individuals to exercise restraint that we only hope our current leaders will use.
We do not have a system where all the rules are reset when our leaders ride off into the sunset. No new administration or Congress has to justify, all over again, legislation that whittles away our protections from persecution once every four years. Were that the case, were there a definite deadline for the complete renewal of our rights, January 20th, every fourth year, maybe legislation like this could find rationale. But the framers did not write the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in that way. They wrote it to expressly forbid legislation like that passed by Congress, and the will of the executive branch to use it. They knew, unlike those who walk in their footsteps today, the dangers of seemingly small steps towards subjugation. They knew that once a right, no matter how small, is compromised, it is unlikely that right will ever be returned to those that lost it.