Throughout the ages those who would engage in tyranny have always disguised their suspension or removal of freedom from others in the cloak of freedom’s defense. Dictators always claim a sole and special ability to defend their people from dangers, - real and imaged if only the people would surrender their rights and give obedience in return. But they have not been alone. On more than one occasion in American history our system of government checks and balances has proven not only the wisdom of our founding fathers, but also to be critical and necessary to our own continuing liberty. The examples are many and continue today.
Today we have an administration in Washington that for nearly eight years has been willing to do more than just put our system to the test. They have clouded and corrupted the very system itself by blurring the lines between the different branches of government for the sake of convenience.
After 9/11, the American people were spied-on with the help of multi-billion dollar communications giants without proper due process and probably in violation of U.S. law. When it became apparent this was the case, the administration’s cronies in the Congress at the time simply passed another law making the actions “legal” and protecting their corporate accomplices. Citizens and non-citizens have been detained at secret intelligence bases, U.S. military bases or sent to facilities operated by foreign governments and detained indefinitely based only on the mere suspicion of involvement with terrorists or terrorist organizations. By shipping people to locations operated by foreign governments, things can take place that if done on U.S. soil or by our personnel would probably be illegal. But no worry, a finding by this Administration’s former Attorney General essentially argued the case for the use of torture. Never mind the fact information obtained under torture is highly unreliable and puts American servicemen and women at great risk.
Before 9/11, an emotional issue regarding the right to die involved the case of a woman in a permanent vegetative state and a decision by her husband to remove her feeding tubes. The family was not in agreement about the decision and sued. This administration took the dangerous and unprecedented step of ignoring our system of government once again. Not happy that the matter had been settled in the courts, their allies in Congress passed a law to try to intervene against a separate and equal branch of government.
Today, in the name of national security and the need to secure our southern border, the Bush Administration is wasting yet again more vast sums of tax payer dollars on a border fence that will not solve the problem, secure the border, reform immigration law or improve our international standing in the world. Worse yet they are attempting use a 2005 change to federal immigration law to “waive” that is ignore and put aside, some 35 federal laws and numerous state and local regulations dealing with everything from safety to the environment and clean water. In other words, as long as their actions claim to protect national security, the ends justify the means. Sound familiar?
We have been down this road before. After the attack on Pearl Harbor which began our involvement in World War II, thousands of Americans of Japanese descent were round-ed up and denied their freedoms and due process in the name of security. These actions were illegal and in violation of the U.S. Constitution. But we threw it out for convenience sake and did not reconcile it for decades. For years the executive branches of local and state governments simply ignored laws regarding voting rights and equality they were supposed to enforce. Many states allowed a segregated system of education to exist claiming separate was equal, until the Supreme Court reviewed the laws and ruled otherwise.
Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived numerous federal and state laws as if they did not exist on the authority of a separate federal law on immigration. This was done in order to speed up the construction of the border fence. The fence construction has already progressed ignoring many important laws designed to protect our health and environment. The action has been appealed, requesting a review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Just this week eight Congressional Committee chairman and women announced they would add their voices to the appeal. Among them was our own Bob Filner (D-51). They should be commended for speaking out when their position may not be popular with some.
These conflicts of needs and values are never really about the importance of security in a time of danger, securing our borders, national interests or our level of patriotism. These issues are always about the great tests faced by a great democracy. Will we throw out our system from time to time when it is inconvenient in the name of saving it? When it is all said and done, will we really have preserved our democracy or weakened it?
Padilla served as Chula Vista Mayor from 2002-06 and on the California Coastal Commission from 2005-07. He is President/CEO of Aquarius Group, Inc. and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.