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Belated Birthday Presents for the Bill of Rights

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 19 years ago, in 2003, on the World Wide Web.

It’s been a rough century for the Bill of Rights. It started out with Woodrow Wilson’s totalitarian Espionage and Sedition Acts, proceeded through Franklin Roosevelt’s mass jailing of dissidents and the Vietnam era’s brutal COINTELPRO, and has ended up with Bush Jr.’s USA PATRIOT Act, suspension of habeas corpus, and periodic attempts to push through even more totalitarian surveillance legislation. My intent, however, is not to retell the rather disgusting tale of assaults on civil liberties during wartime (that tale is retold nicely enough by Justin Raimondo, in the context of the John Walker Lindh trial). Rather, I want to wish a belated happy birthday to that good old parchment barricade against tyranny. December 15, 2003 was the 212th anniversary of the passage of the first ten Amendments to the Constitution.

The Executive Branch has not been very kind to the Birthday Bill. Consider, for example, that most famous of amendments:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

And another Amendment, less frequently cited but no less important, which the Founders considered absolutely essential to preventing monarchial tyranny from the Executive:

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Consider, on the other hand, the conduct of the FBI — and not just the conduct, but the overwhelming sense of entitlement — in pissing all over both of these barricades for liberty:

What a completely surreal evening I had last night. As I’d mentioned, I reluctantly dropped John off at the airport around 4pm or so. I went with him to the baggage counter and waited while he filled out the paperwork to declare his firearms, walked with him to the security line, and kissed him goodbye. I thought I might need some distraction, so I had agreed to meet some friends for dinner at 7pm. I went home, changed, and then headed to the restaurant. Just as I pulled into the parking lot, my cell phone rang.

I said hello, and a polite stranger asked if I was [my name], identified himself as a police officer, then asked if I was safe and okay. My forehead wrinkled, and I said I was. The officer then asked if I knew John, and whether he had (a) been staying with me this past week and (b) brought firearms with him for the purpose of shooting at the local range. I said yes to both, and jumped to the conclusion that John must’ve not cleared each and every gun — I know I’m obsessive about checking mine when I travel — it wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to have left one magazine in when dealing with the number of guns he brought with him. So the officer then asked if I’d mind coming to the airport to talk to him.

. . .

They told me that John was in a little trouble. They dodged my questions at first, and then said he had brought a firearm with him that he had not declared. The way in which they said it implied that he had a gun I hadn’t seen, that it was loaded, and that it was on his person. They didn’t outright say any of those things — but they very adroitly led me right to that conclusion. Then they started asking me questions. Who was I, how did I meet John, what were our political views, did we meet with others who might have similar political views on his visit… lots of things that were clearly leading right to the idea that he was some sort of militia nut who was here on a recruiting mission or some such.

They started out treating me like some poor stupid femme who’d been unknowingly lured into some sort of illicit affair with a Very Dangerous Fellow. On top of that, both were extremely flirty. They seemed to think that I didn’t know John had any guns with him. When I said I did, they wanted to know how many and what types. Then whether I knew that he had illegal high capacity magazines with him. I said that so far as I knew, all of his high-cap mags were pre-ban and thus not illegal. They asked if I knew he’d made modifications to his guns. I said sure, he’d put a new trigger in his Glock while he was here. Stupid, stupid questions calculated to make me think he was some sort of maniac.

Then they moved on and asked me if I knew what kind of literature he had with him.

Fortunately, this is not just a jeremiad about the decline and fall of civil liberties in America. The Executive branch is not the only branch of government there is (gee, it’s almost like they designed the Constitution with this sort of thing in mind…), and the news is not all doom and gloom. In particular, two federal courts have given the Bill of Rights a belated birthday present, by striking down the Bush administration’s assaults on habeas corpus and the Fourth Amendment in the case of Abdullah al-Mujahir (nee José Padilla) and the internment camp at Guantanamo Bay.

The Bush administration, of course, is not about to take this lying down, and they are planning to appeal this up to the Supreme Court if they have to. Good — let the battle be joined, just in time for an election year when the Left and civil libertarians need to mobilize. In the meantime, take a moment to celebrate. Give the Bill of Rights a reading, and say a thank you to the Second and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals. Happy birthday Bill of Rights — and here’s hoping for many happy returns.

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