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In the Land of Our (Founding) Fathers

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Message Bernard Weiner
(PHILADELPHIA) Not just because I majored in politics in college, and took my graduate degrees in government & international relations afterwards, but I am an unabashed lover of my country's form of governance. I remember actually choking-up when talking to one of my graduate-school mentors about the glories of America's unique form of democracy. And I felt the same way here in Philadelphia when walking around Independence Square. I was so moved at what had been wrought here, especially in Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were conceived, debated, and proudly unveiled. And so saddened at the state of American government today in the hands of the Bush Administration. We are so lucky to be the beneficiaries of the genius of our country's Founding Fathers -- men like Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Adams, Franklin, Paine and a host of others. Yes, of course, the American system of government was and is far from perfect, but it has the built-in political infrastructure for constant improvement. ("Democracy," said Churchill, "is the worst form of government ever invented. Except for all the others.") FREEDOM -- "IF YOU CAN KEEP IT" Franklin in essence challenged us all after the Constitution was written: We've given you this wonderful democratic-republic form of government -- "if you can keep it." That is our massive responsibility today. Democracy is not just voting, it is also constantly struggling to protect and defend it against more authoritarian forces anxious to tear it down, including their willingness to upset the delicate separation-of-powers system our forefathers set up to keep any one branch or faction from amassing too much political control. The power-hungry Bush crew have worked as a wrecking company tearing down so many of America's legal and political traditions. If we've learned anything during the past six years, it is that protecting democracy is a rough-and-tumble contact sport and you can't win if you cede the court to the other guys. You need to get in there and mix it up in defense of the greatness and potential greatness of this country. THE DANGER OF A KING NAMED GEORGE The colonists had been loyal subjects of the British Crown until the English king began aggressively mistreating his subjects in the New World. King George III was a tyrant -- who was, many believe, somewhat mentally unhinged -- and he exercised his power cruelly and excessively. Eventually, the citizens in the thirteen colonies began to chafe at being taxed without representation, at the heavy-handed way the British troops barged into their homes and farms and manhandled (and in some cases imprisoned, beat and killed) them. Rebellion was in the air, but breaking free of a despotic ruler is not easy and definitely not for sissies. The founders of our democratic republic knew that issuing their Declaration of Independence from Great Britain was an act of treason against the state that guaranteed them death-by-hanging if their enterprise failed. These were no sissies. They signed the Declaration on July 4, 1776. It took them eight long years of warfare (much of it of a guerrilla nature) for the colonists to gain their independence. Following the American victory, the loose Articles of Confederation were barely holding the 13 states together. The United States were -- not yet "was" -- in jeopardy. A Constitution for an effective national government had to be constructed, from scratch, with all sorts of compromises between large states and small states, high-population states and low-population states, Federalists and Republicans, those states that sanctioned slavery and those that didn't. Finally, in 1787 the new Constitution was completed. It dealt largely with the relations between the federal government and the various states, but hardly addressed the rights of the people. In large part, the colonists had fought their war for independence precisely because the British Crown would acknowledge no such rights and ran roughshod over the populace. And so, in order to strengthen the case for ratification of the Constitution by the various states, the Bill of Rights, comprising the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was promised and finally adopted in 1791. THE BILL OF RIGHTS: PROTECTION FOR ALL From that time, until six years ago, United States citizens lived under the glorious umbrella of Constitutional protections of their rights. That's more than 200 years. Certainly, there were occasional egregious violations of those rights: slavery being the most notable, along with the lack of women's suffrage and sanctioned racial discriminations. But, by and large, the system worked beautifully and effectively. The rights protected by those first ten amendments include: the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, the free exercise of religion, the freedom to petition, the peoples' right to keep and bear arms, and the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, cruel and unusual punishment, and compelled self-incrimination. Also included are restrictions on Congress' power to establish an official religion, and prohibiting the federal government from depriving any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law. In criminal cases, the Bill of Rights requires indictment by a grand jury, guarantees a speedy trial with an impartial and local jury, and prohibits double jeopardy. The Bush Administration, citing the mass-tragedy of 9/11 as their cover, has systematically dismantled the Bill of Rights and re-interpreted the Constitution to the end of amassing virtually all power in the Executive Branch, with few rights left to the people. Under the twisted legal philosophy developed by Alberto Gonzales and other Bush toadies, a virtual executive dictatorship was established, giving the President the authority to do anything and everything he chooses to do as long as he uses the magic words: acting as "commander-in-chief" of the armed forces during "wartime." (One must note that this war is a "war on terrorism" that has no end, since there always will be terrorists of one sort or another.) Under these warped legal interpretations, the Bush Administration has ensured that citizens no longer possess most of those freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. After six years, we have seen one after another of those first ten amendments abandoned or distorted. Under the guise of searching for "terrorists," Bush Administration policies have established that American citizens no longer enjoy the 800-year-old concept of habeas corpus, which says we can't be arrested and put on trial without a court hearing validating the charges; we no longer are guaranteed attorney-client privacy rights; we can be thrown into military stockades and kept isolated from society forever without access to a lawyer; we can have our home and computer and email searched without a warrant and without our even knowing of the violation of our privacy; we can be subjected to physical abuse and sent under "extraordinary rendition" to countries that specialize in extreme torture, and on and on. REMOVING WOULD-BE DICTATORS I think the tears that welled in my eyes while standing in the Philadelphia assembly chamber where the Declaration of Independence was debated and ratified was not just for the ghosts of the American legal giants who had shaped our future more than two centuries ago, but also for what our society and government have come to under the current leadership in the White House. Bush, who once "joked" that it sure would be easier to rule if he were a dictator, has been in that position now for years. True, in 2007 Bush's moral authority is slipping as the public has figured out the true dimensions of the man -- the midterm election results and recent polls are good demonstrations of that. But he continues to maintain his control of the military, the judicial system (having appointed ideologically-friendly judges and loyalist U.S. attorneys), the Department of Justice. He starts disastrous wars on his own and says he'll carry them out even if Congress and the American people try to stop him. Likewise, when the Supreme Court slaps down his most egregious policies, he either ignores them or figures out a way to go around the ruling; Gonzales has warned the courts to stay out of matters involving "national security." In short, we have our own "King" George to deal with, and the American public has taken the first moves by slapping down Bush's party in the midterm elections. The next step involves hard, tough investigatory hearings -- on Iraq policy, the misuse of intelligence, lies and deceptions, corruption, domestic spying, torture as state policy, etc. etc. -- and then likely impeachment and removal from office, especially if Bush and Cheney continue in their irrational escalation of the Iraq War and the inauguration of a new one against Iran. The damage the Bush Bunker crew have wrought in the past six years, and the further damage and destruction they can do in the next two years, almost makes one sick to contemplate. Even if the Democrats in 2008 were to maintain control of the Congress and take the White House as well, it would take years, perhaps a decade or more, to start to undo the worst aspects of that destruction. But one starts where and when one can. The process of Constitutional restoration begins now, with each of us. If we are united in our resolve, we can best tyranny of all sorts. We will not be moved. We shall overcome. # Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at Western Washington University and San Diego State University, worked as a writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently is co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: crisispapers@comcast.net . First published by The Crisis Papers 2/6/07. >> www.crisispapers.org/essays7w/fathers.htm
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Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked for two decades as a writer-editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (more...)
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