On June 15, 1215, just eight hundred years ago, King John of England was forced by his nobles to sign the Magna Carta Libertatum -- the Great Charter of Liberties -- and democracy was born in Europe after many centuries of feudalism. True, it was mainly the nobles who secured rights from the king, rather than the commoners -- but it was a start, and a major step which has ultimately led to democracy in America as well. Challenging the so-called Divine Right of Kings was revolutionary then, and challenging the abuse of power at so many levels in our society remains revolutionary -- and risky -- even now, 800 years later.
The relevance of the Magna Carta has never been greater than today, when democracy is being challenged by the forces of intolerance and injustice all over the world. From the dictatorship in North Korea to the plutocracy of the Russian ruler to the terrorism of ISIS and Al Qaeda, and others who are determined to kill, control, or oppress those who do not see things their way, violations of fundamental human rights grow.
Nor are such abuses limited to third-world nations, dictatorships, and rabid misinterpreters of religions. In so-called enlightened America some states execute juveniles, retarded people, and even those proven to be innocent after their wrongful convictions. In so-called enlightened America, police power is used to injure and kill people -- mainly minority-group members -- whose only crime is walking down the street or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In so-called enlightened America, gun violence is not only accepted, it is praised by the leading advocates for uncontrolled access to firearms as an unlimited right of our citizens.
Indeed, abuse of power exists at all levels of our society, even at the national level. Our Federal government has seriously debated just which of its interrogatory practices constitute torture, while sending drone aircraft to conflict zones all over the world, resulting in the maiming and killing of many innocent men, women, and children. While the Magna Carta limited the powers of the British king, nothing seems to limit Presidential power here to negotiate secret trade agreements, authorize virtually-unlimited spying on Americans, and continue to allow energy company practices which are destroying our environment, and ultimately making our only planet unlivable. And our Congress tries to go even further against the best interests of the nation.
The Magna Carta was far from perfect -- yet by initiating the transfer of power from the king to the nobles, it was still a great step forward eight hundred years ago. Without a new Magna Carta which endorses and leads to true democracy, we are at risk of losing those eight hundred years of progress and returning to the feudal past. For King John of England, the handwriting was on the Magna Carta which he reluctantly signed. For our era, the handwriting is on the wall, and we had better read and heed it while there is yet time.