I am not a Constitutional law expert, but I have had a fair amount of legal education between my BA in Government and MS in Environmental Policy—and I’m sure I’ll receive more as I move through my PhD. For a while I’ve been reluctant to even mention the recent espionage and whistle-blowing controversies surrounding the Patriot Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and its 2008 amendments, NSA, PRISM, FBI, DOJ, Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden because of, let’s say, ethical questions I had yet to flush out for myself. But in light of recent events I feel I can keep my silence no longer.
The Constitution of the United States of America is, I believe, among the most successful manifestations of secular liberal Enlightenment political philosophy. Obviously its amendments have had some good work done to them since the 18th century (slavery, suffrage, prohibition’s repeal, presidential term limits, etc.)—but why has it been so “successful”?
Loosely, because the Constitution represents one of those rare cases where what is legal also happens to be what is moral. Far too often morality appears smothered by the technicalities of law, but our Constitution is an exception to the common and unfortunate division between legality and morality—the gap between principle and policy.
We are a people of principle. Many codified as amendments, many as implicit social obligations. Among our implicit principles “is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” Franklin’s adage is especially true today concerning the state of the 4th, 5th, and 8th amendments of the Bill of Rights.
The 4th amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. Generally, for the government to extend its hand into the privacy of a private citizen entails a rather involved process of obtaining a warrant via probable cause for said search or seizure. But in the wake of FISA, the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping, and domestic communications surveillance, this precept is no longer seems so straightforward.
However, according to an opinion handed down by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, such domestic surveillance activity under FISA is unconstitutional, re: the Fourth Amendment. The DOJ tried to keep the ruling under wraps, but a DC court has now ordered the pertinent FISC opinions to be released under the Freedom of Information Act. DOJ fought it, but then reluctantly agreed to release redacted versions of the documents. So we’ll see what those look like.
Driving this point home even further, former White House Green Jobs Advisor Van Jones recently affirmed the existence of domestic spying programs despite the President’s reassurances on the Tonight Show that no such programs are in place. Jones says we should be trying “balance” domestic spying rather than “pretend like there’s no balancing to be done.” Presumably, the “balance” he’s referring to is one between the Executive’s prerogative to spy on Americans and our Constitutional right to privacy.
Before moving on to the federal government’s abuse of the 8th amendment, I’d like to mention a potential bright spot pertaining to the 4th amendment. A federal judge, Judge Shria Scheindlin declared New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” law to be a practice of unconstitutional unreasonable search and seizure. Scheindlin also brought the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause into her opinion because stop-and-frisk has been notorious for indirect racial profiling. However, the Judge only ordered that stop-and-frisk be reformed, not abolished altogether. If, for instance, police are equipped with body-worn cameras to deter wrongful conduct on their part then the law could be permissible. In any case, Bloomberg will certainly take Scheindlin’s judgment to the appellate court, so again, we’ll see what that ends up looking like.
Next, the 8th amendment—our protection from cruel and unusual punishment—is also taking fire. Bradley Manning wasn’t convicted of aiding the enemy, so he escaped the death penalty, but before his trial ever took place he was subjected to morally questionable “suicide watch” treatment. Manning was regularly stripped of his clothing, vision, and left in the dark while imprisoned before he was ever convicted of anything. It is an unnerving reality, to say the least, if authorities are allowed to treat pre-trial prisoners, military or not—who are, at that point in due process, still innocent until proven guilty—as if they had already been sentenced.
Thirdly, a recent US Supreme Court decision—Salinas v. Texas—that largely snuck in under the radar of mass media has broadened the Constitutional permissibility of police questioning. Now, the 5th Amendment gives American citizens the right to abstain from self-incrimination. In Miranda terms, the 5th gives us our right to remain silent. Or so we thought. It seems that the 5th amendment, too, is not so straightforward.
Apparently, according to Justice Alito, writing for the 5-4 majority of the Court, it is a longstanding precedent that our 5th amendment rights don’t apply until they are explicitly invoked by the subject or explained by police in the midst of an arrest. It seems, outwardly at least, that the 5th does not mean “a complete right to remain silent but only guarantees that criminal defendants may not be forced to testify against themselves.” Very well…perhaps this ruling narrows its meaning, but does similar logic apply to other rights? Must we declare our right to free speech every time we speak our minds or else we have no such right to do so?
Finally—regarding the moral elephant in the room—Guantanamo Bay is still open for business, rife with human rights violations ranging from indefinite imprisonment without trial or charges to waterboarding and the use of force-feeding tubes to keep hunger strikers alive for further imprisonment and coercive interrogation. Of course, those imprisoned at Guantanamo are not US citizens, so legally we are not obliged to abstain from cruel and unusual punishment, nor are we compelled to provide a speedy trial, proper representation, or any semblance of due process. Morally, however, have we forgotten that our own Declaration of Independence enshrines the self-evident truth of the equality of all people? Those interned at Guantanamo may not be US citizens, but are they not human beings? Do they not deserve basic dignities simply for respect of their being alive?
Again, I am no constitutional lawyer, but these questions seem increasingly salient. Are our constitutional rights being systematically dismantled? Will we, like lobsters in a slowly warming pot, one day suddenly realize we’ve been boiled?
The whole situation smacks with the acrid taste of principled hypocrisy. If nothing else, we may assert–with more or less safety–that the United States’ moral high ground, our self-proclaimed superior and uniquely American respect for Constitutional and human rights is being, if not already, lost.
Love your country, question your government.