215 years after Bill of Rights, freedom rings hollow
December 12, 2006
On the 215th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, freedom is on the retreat.
Congress adopted these first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution on Dec. 15, 1791, to prevent the rise of tyranny by a central government.
The Bill of Rights protects the people and limits the power of the federal government by preventing Congress from abridging the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and the freedom to petition. Further, it protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, prevents cruel and unusual punishment and self-incrimination and guarantees due process with a speedy public trial and an impartial jury.
Unfortunately, in the land of the free, the concept of freedom never really applied to everyone. And its meaning has changed over time.
In 1791, freedom applied to white men only. White women would not have the right to vote until 1920.
And African-Americans had no rights of citizenship, a view affirmed by the Dred Scott decision in 1857. This ruling stated that slaves were property -- even if enslaved in free states and territories -- and that the court would not deprive slave owners of their property without due process of law, as stated in the Fifth Amendment.
Blacks and other disenfranchised groups have served as the conscience of America, forcing the country to expand the definition of liberty. Now, with recent assaults on affirmative action and the voting rights of citizens of color, liberty seems tenuous.
The government has a history of giving freedom -- and taking it away.
During the Civil War, it suspended habeas corpus, which safeguards individual freedom against arbitrary imprisonment.
During World War II, it placed Japanese Americans living on the mainland in internment camps.
And during the Cold War, the government, under McCarthyism, ruined the lives of thousands who it suspected of being communists and socialists.
During times of hysteria and national paranoia, freedom fades.
Today, when Americans are told that terrorists hate us for our freedom, some people are more than willing to give up that freedom in exchange for more security. They end up with neither.
In the land of religious tolerance and cultural pluralism, Muslim Americans and Arab Americans are held in suspicion and treated like second-class citizens. When Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim member of Congress, decided that he would carry a Quran rather than a Bible to his swearing-in, his patriotism and
allegiance were questioned.
Meanwhile, in a nation where there is no official state-sanctioned religion, Christian fundamentalism shapes policy on women's reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, stem-cell research and the teaching of evolution in schools.
Under the Bush administration, the Bill of Rights has taken a beating. In the name of the war on terror, the administration has suspended due process and has approved abusive interrogations, illegal, warrantless wiretappings, torture and indefinite secret detentions for suspected terrorists.
The executive branch has placed itself above the law, and Congress has given its rubber stamp to this abuse of power.
Those who do not use their democracy will surely lose it. America has squandered democracy and allowed the Bill of Rights, an extraordinary document, to go brittle and tear.
We must restore it -- and our freedoms -- before it's too late.
David A. Love is a lawyer and writer based in Philadelphia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.