Public Opinion Doesn’t Trump Basic Rights

Published in the Bloomsburg Press-Enterprise, Feb. 10, 2006

A recent New York Times/CBS poll showed that about half the public approves of the president authorizing federal surveillance of American citizens’ phone calls.

Might as well do a poll of how many Americans believe the moon is made of cheese. Even if half say it is, that wouldn’t make it so.

The president casts his surveillance program as a defense against terrorism; in fact, it’s a major offense against our most basic right: to be left alone.

A hypothetical case study might illuminate the real issue. Imagine: after polls show the public will support it, the US government makes an offer to poor, politically repressed Central Americans desperate to flee their homelands for brighter prospects Up North.

Here’s the deal: We, the U.S., will guarantee you an ample daily diet, first-rate healthcare and limited economic compensation – in essence, a standard of living and security 100 times greater than you now have. In return, you agree to serve as a slave to an American family. You’ll have no civil rights, no status as a citizen, no right of litigation if you dislike the duties assigned to you. Rest assured, the Department of Homeland Enslavement will conduct periodic inspections and strictly enforce federal regulations to ensure you are not physically or psychologically abused. At the end of 10 years, you will be set free, made a US citizen and given 25 percent of the fee your slave-holder family paid for the privilege of owning you. 

Were such a program advertised in the poorest, most desperate regions of central America, people would line up to get in. There would be waiting lists.

But here’s the problem: No edict allowing slavery – even if it were supported by public opinion, proclaimed by a president, enacted by Congress or sanctioned by the Supreme Court – could possibly be legal. Why? Because every human being’s right to liberty is “inalienable,” according to our Declaration of Independence. No person can make another a slave. No person can choose to be a slave. And no government can declare slavery legal. Personal liberty is a first principle of humanity.

The same is true of unwarranted government intrusion into our lives. The Declaration of Independence is not just about the Colonies seceding from England; that’s really only a case study. Rather, it proclaims and explains the individuals’ secession from the oppressive yoke of the state. Similarly, our constitution outlines the rights of the people and places limits on the state.

Our government does not give us our rights, nor can it take them away; it exists solely to protect them. Our liberty is God-given, and cannot be legislated, voted or polled into oblivion. Civil rights are unalienable, non-negotiable.

Our president does not give us our rights, nor can he take them away. He has enormous responsibilities and enormous powers to act in our stead, but in the end, our “Mr. President“ is no more than a fellow citizen, temporarily empowered to carry out the duties of his office.

Just as I have no right to eavesdrop on your phone calls, so the citizen–president has no right to eavesdrop on my phone calls, let alone empower a vast and secret government bureaucracy to do so.

Even if polls show that 99% of Americans approve, it wouldn’t matter. “Inalienable“ means that our rights – including our right to be left alone by government – cannot be given away, taken away, voted away.

So a poll that shows half of us think it’s OK for our government to spy on us is no more valid than a poll that would show half of us think that Jews should be second- class citizens, or that African-Americans shouldn’t be allowed to vote or, for that matter, that we should offer a domestic slavery program to poor people from Central America.

Where civil rights are concerned, our history is fraught with examples of failure and redemption: slavery and emancipation; Japanese-American internment and eventual reparation; Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s.

The failures are always remedied with waters from the same sweet well: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These documents mean what they say: all people are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

All of the rights abide with the people; the benefit of the doubt is never with the state — which in the minds of the Framers was ever and always the potential engine of tyranny (multinational corporations having not yet been invented). 

The policies of a president who claims the right to act as a supra-citizen, who perversely claims rights for the state at the expense of the people in the name of the people, who reluctantly signs bills against torture but then blindly asserts the right to torture cannot, should not, and must not stand.

And no amount of lies, obfuscations, executive orders or polls can overcome the unalienable right of the individual to resist becoming a servant or a ward of the state, no matter how many of his fellow citizens, acting from fear, ideology or personal interests, are eager to do so.

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