Hitler’s Patriot Act

One thing everonward has (hopefully) yet to be during its short existence is political (and by that, I think I mean partisan). I plan, for the most part, to keep it that way, too. If you are like me, you find yourself bombarded by politics at every turn. And, if you are like me, you grow weary of its intrusion into otherwise enjoyable pastimes. Don’t get me wrong, involvement and education are important, but smothering me with unsolicited political commentary only serves to further jade my perception of modern government and taint my desire to participate in it.

That said, this post is in no way meant to exhibit partisanship. It simply reflects some misgivings I have about recent legislation, namely the Patriot Act. In all fairness, much of the Patriot Act is positive legislation, dealing with such things as the protection of civil rights and relief for the families of victims of terrorist attacks; but other more invasive provisions should be viewed with caution. A popular theme of empowerment these days is that we as individuals should demonstrate a constant vigilance toward foreign threats. I believe in this line of thought, but I also believe that that same vigilance should be applied toward our own government.

I stumbled upon what I consider an interesting article recently (it’s quite short), upon which I have tried to expand with this post:

http://www.fff.org/freedom/fd0403a.asp

The author is Jacob Hornberger, founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

The article speaks of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in a country that was, at the time, a democratic republic. The fact that the United States is a democratic republic was not lost on me, nor should it be lost on you. This suggests that the fundamental structure of our two governments is essentially the same, or at the very least similar. Now, let me quickly dispense with any thought in your mind that I might think a modern-day “Adolf Hitler” is likey to rise to dictator status in this country; I don’t. I believe the U.S. has well-established constitutional instruments to frustrate any attempt made by an individual toward that end. But I find the similarities between legislation passed in the 1930s by a fledgling Nazi regime and our own Patriot Act frighteningly apparent.

On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag (Germany’s equivalent to Congress) building was burned. Today, it is widely believed that the man arrested for starting the fire was tricked and likely assisted by the Nazi party in setting the blaze. The incident, however, was blamed on “communist terrorists” and was used to buttress Hitler’s assertion to the public that an insidious communist coup was underway. He knew all too well that a scared constituency is far less reluctant to resist surrendering liberties in exchange for security. After the fire, Hitler persuaded the president to order a decree suspending constitutional guarantees pertaining to civil liberties:

“Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications; and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.”

Ring a bell? Alarmingly, it did with me. The concept of “suspending” civil rights sounded too familiar in this age of paranoia. Rest assured, I don’t believe that American leaders orchestrate terrorist attacks against our country; I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist. But no matter the perpetrator of such attacks, the fact remains that it is dangerous practice to sacrifice essential liberties in the pursuit of perceived security. Benjamin Franklin once said “they that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” I would not be so naive as to insist that every person should be able to do *anything* that he or she pleased; human nature is such that societal groups preclude the full simultaneous enjoyment of every individual’s liberties. Simply put, without reasonable limits on liberty one person’s “liberty” would inexorably intrude on another’s.

And so I understand that limited legal restriction on personal liberty is a necessary evil that maintains order in society, to actually prevent the more egregious intrusion of basic civil liberties that would exist without such order. But this does not change the core substance of Franklin’s message: we must not sacrifice those essential liberties, those that serve to define the United States and make up its very fabric, in the face of adversity. As Franklin’s statement implies, such a policy would be intolerably hypocritical. Defensive security measures resisting foreign menace must be taken, yes, but it is the extent of the intrusion of those security measures into our fundamental rights that must be actively and thoroughly scrutinized.

It is in this idea of scrutiny that a key difference resides between 1930s Germany and the United States. Even as I type, the Patriot Act IS being actively scrutinized, and challenged, and in some cases overruled by federal courts in this country. Some recent decisions have dealt a serious blow to several of the more potent provisions of the Patriot Act. Judicial review has eased much of my apprehension regarding the Patriot Act because it has reassured me that the system still works. It is not always efficient, and by no means perfect, but it demonstrates a resilience and integrity that was not present in Hitler’s Germany. Nonetheless, though our government was designed so that each branch might have scrutiny over the other two, it is vital that we as citizens maintain vigilance toward all three.

I would like to mention one more topic that I feel relevant. In his rise to power, Hitler went on to suspend the German constitution and established a new system of tribunals answerable directly to him, whose holdings and sentences were not reviewable by the state courts. “The Nazis implemented a legal concept called Schutzhaft or ‘protective custody’ which enabled them to arrest and incarcerate people without charging them with a crime.”

Thinking about this, two words come immediately to mind: enemy combatant. To my knowledge, the United States is currently holding thousands (is the actual number even known?) of individuals, Americans and foreigners alike, indefinitely without leveling charges against them. I understand that we are currently engaged in a war unlike any in history and that perhaps we must find new means of containing the enemy, but once again, we must not allow the implementation of constitutional/conventional violations as part of those means. Personally, I do not consider declaring an individual an “enemy combatant” as opposed to “prisoner of war” sufficient safeguarding of that person’s rights. Technically, legal obstacles are side-stepped by the label, yes, but such avoidance is of a technical nature only; this arbitrary qualification of individual status does not honor the spirit of equitable doctrine to which our country has bound itself.

For their part, the German people of the 1930s were quick to accept Hitler’s new order of things. Even leading up to World War II, because most German families were not Jewish, if they kept a low profile and went about their business non-defiantly, they were unlikely to rouse any governmental displeasure. Fear had caused the German people to make the seemingly small sacrifice of civil liberty under the guise of providing security. Complacence, the very antithesis of vigilance, toward their own government leaders led Germany down the darkest road in its history. I think that is a lesson worth learning.

“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running and robbing the country. That’s our problem.”

– Howard Zinn, “Failure to Quit”

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