Bring the First Amendment Back to Life

In order to establish a dictatorship, a government needs two things. One, the moral sanction of a people (and their intellectuals) to permit it; and two, the practical tools to implement it.

We’re not quite there with the moral sanction. However, the indifference and apathy of most Americans towards government monitoring of their cell phones and Internet activity is disturbing.

You can’t not communicate. And by registering almost no protest of government monitoring of private citizens, a majority of Americans are communicating to their government: “I don’t care.” reports:

If you use Tor or any of a number of other privacy services online or even visit their web sites to read about the services, there’s a good chance your IP address has been collected and stored by the NSA [National Security Administration], according to top-secret source code for a program the NSA uses to conduct internet surveillance.

There’s also a good chance you’ve been tagged for simply reading news articles about these services published by Wired and other sites.

This is according to code, obtained and analyzed by journalists and others in Germany, which for the first time reveals the extent of some of the wide-spread tracking the NSA conducts on people using or interested in using privatizing tools and services—a list that includes journalists and their sources, human rights activists, political dissidents living under oppressive countries and many others who have various reasons for needing to shield their identity and their online activity.

In order to establish a dictatorship, the government must first have the tools and the data. If these and other reports are true, the government is assembling those tools and data as we speak.

No, it’s not a vast conspiracy. It’s simply a progression. We’re trained to believe that “progress” is automatically and always a good thing. But it’s possible to progress towards disaster — like cancer — as well as to progress towards liberty, freedom, objective truth and enlightenment. We’re lulled into thinking “change” and “transformation” and magnificent things, without any objective reference to what we’re changing or transforming into.

A good government protects the individual rights of its people. An agency like the NSA should exist solely to track criminals — i.e., people likely to engage in physical force against innocent citizens. Most Americans still naively assume this is all the government does. “We have the First Amendment. We’re fine.” But the First Amendment only protects us if it’s upheld as a principle.

Congress, we all know, is worse than worthless. The Supreme Court’s willingness to uphold Constitutional principle is questionable, at best. But even if they do, what about the third branch of government, the President? Our present President routinely defies Constitutional authority every day. As the latest example, he plans to defy the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case and enforce Obamacare as he pleases. The Constitution states he has to honor the decisions of the Supreme Court, and seek out legislation if he doesn’t like a particular decision. To him, it doesn’t matter, and this isn’t the first time.

When you have a President who won’t listen to the Supreme Court when it displeases him, or will ignore the lack of legislation in some area (e.g., environmental issues, gun laws) and simply issue executive orders whenever he feels like it, isn’t it reasonable to conclude he’ll care just as little for freedom of speech? The First Amendment won’t protect us, not if we allow our highest political leader to routinely get away with ignoring the Constitution (including the Supreme Court) in all other areas.

As of now, people are not (to my knowledge) being arrested, questioned or indicted for viewing websites or other online information the government considers improper. However, the government is, according to these reports, assembling the data necessary to do so at a later time. It’s kind of like assembling ammunition to eventually use in an attack. Are we really supposed to believe that a government which permits monitoring of citizens’ cell phone and Internet activity — without due process of law, or even any reason at all — won’t eventually use its data to do more?

“Under [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] there are numerous places where it says you shouldn’t be targeting people on the basis of activities protected by the First Amendment,” says Kurt Opsahl, deputy general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “I can’t see how this activity could have been properly authorized under FISA. This is suggesting then that they have come up with some other theory of authorizing this.”

But the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is legislation. It’s legislation that gets in the way of the federal government’s desire to do what it pleases, particularly under the current President, and probably even more so under the next President, now that the precedent has been established.

Thomas Jefferson could have been speaking of today when he wrote, “If once the people become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions.”

In their silence, apathy and repeated displays of indifference, the American people  are allowing their government to become wolves. Although we’re not responsible for other people’s actions, we all are responsible for the environment we create around us. The government is supposed to be afraid of its people, and hold respect for them — not the other way around. As America drifts in the direction of other societies throughout human history, its fate may be the same. It can happen here, if this indifference and apathy to unprecedented government intrusion continues.

In psychology and psychotherapy, we’re trained to look for anger as a sign of health after a person has been depressed, indifferent or in some sense blasé or lacking emotional affect. “You’re getting angry. That’s a sign of life,” we’ll sometimes tell our more severely troubled patients or clients.

I’m beginning to think of America that way, with respect to its government. The lack of rationally-based anger, coupled with a widespread unwillingness to hold our government (especially our President) accountable, in any way, for absolutely anything, is mighty disturbing.

The First Amendment is our last and best protector against dictatorship, as the government compiles the data and begins to engage in the practices all dictatorships do. But without our willingness to breathe life and force into that First Amendment, the piece of paper known as the Constitution will not do us a bit of good. It will perish on our watch — if we let it.

It’s time for Americans to get angry — really angry — while it’s still legal and possible to express this rationally based emotion openly.


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