|Issue #73 • January/February, 2002|
This article was written immediately after 9-11 and before passage of the USA-PATRIOT Act.
How can we keep our freedom in this time of catastrophe? The short answer is: We can’t. Crises, real or concocted, are the best friends big government has. “Emergency measures,” always broader than necessary to begin with, become permanent fixtures. (How do you like that payroll withholding tax you’re still paying each week to help win World War II?)
A few of the most blatant austerity policies or constitutional abuses are rolled back at the end of a crisis; but the 90 percent of new laws, regulations, and agencies that people have learned to tolerate remain…and remain. And let’s not talk about “sunset clauses” that can be revoked in an instant. I’ll laugh so hard I’ll fry my keyboard spitting tea into it.
The catastrophe that struck us on September 11, 2001 was horrifyingly, undeniably real. The rubble has barely quit smoking. Anthrax in our mailboxes hasn’t improved our sense of security. So a nation that had been on the verge of realizing that government was the problem now heralds government as The Solution.
Willingly, we rally ’round our politicians. And yes, compared with Osama, or Saddam, or whoever else might be lurking behind those hijackings and funny envelopes, even Gary Condit looks like a good guy. Protecting our nation and striking back take priority.
But in rallying ’round, we lose freedom. Not because the terrorists took it. Not because it’s necessary to give up freedom to attain security. Far from it. But because every cynical pol and bureaucrat from city hall to the Capitol dome knows exactly how to use our patriotic sentiments and our fears to further his agenda. So we end up with unconstitutional sneak-and-peak warrants, Internet surveillance without a court order, wiretaps on the innocent, criminalization of dissent, ad infinitum.
It’s an old story. It’s happened in every crisis since the War Between the States. Government promises to protect us. We say, “Take anything, do anything For The Cause.” Then when those measures fail to make us safe, we say, “Take more, do more. Just make us feel better.” (Does anybody recall how much freedom we gave up merely five years ago when we allowed Congress to pass The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 after the Oklahoma City bombing? That law, which politicians swore would protect us against mass destruction, has been used to lock innocent foreign nationals up literally for years without charges. In one case the U.S. Forest Service slyly used it to deprive a Colorado woman, Dianna Luppi, of her home. But how many acts of terrorism did it prevent on 9-11 or thereafter? How safe did it make you or your nation?)
Thing is, it truly isn’t necessary to give up freedom to combat terrorism. On the contrary, some of the most effective ways we could fight terrorism would be with more, not less freedom. For starters, forget about taking away our nail clippers at the airport; let us carry .45s loaded with Glaser Safety Slugs and see how many terrorists dare cross entire planeloads of armed-and-ready passengers.
We could return to being a limited, constitutional republic, dealing peacefully with all nations and not routinely playing policeman or bossy mother to any.
As Rep. Ron Paul suggested, Congress could even use its constitutional authority to issue letters of marque and reprisal. That would turn privateers loose, under strict rules of conduct, to hunt down and deal with terrorists. Which is not as farfetched as it sounds. Ross Perot did it when he snatched hostage employees out of Iran, and privateers routinely played a part in early U.S. wars. That might be an effective way of striking directly at the evildoers (a thing that righteously needs doing) without murdering already long-suffering civilians, destroying their cities, opening the U.S. to further attacks from enraged people, and saddling ourselves with an ever-more expensive standing army.
But these things aren’t likely to happen.
So what do we do? Well, at this moment we can hope to shout down some of the most oppressive (and ineffective) plans of power seekers—like the one Larry “Mr. National ID” Ellison has been peddling to Dianne Feinstein, John Ashcroft, and the media. The CEO of the giant database maker Oracle Corporation wants—for purely altruistic reasons, you can be sure—to impose upon us biometric smart cards linked to a database containing our “places of work, amounts and sources of income, assets, purchases, travel destinations, and more.” Those are his own words. (Can you tell me how the feds can “make America safer” by having instant access to your purchases of duck decoys, cell phones, or Preparation H? Or by knowing that you make $29,934.56 per year—not counting the undeclared $100 your grandma gave you for Christmas and the $213.25 you made at that unlicensed garage sale?)
Maybe, if we’re really lucky and our legislators are fearful enough of our wrath—as they should be—we can forestall the very worst that they and their corporate panderers can do.
But face it, we’re losers. Freedom’s a loser. At least for the time being. Nobody but the usual handful of nuts wants it, and even some of freedom’s erstwhile pals have backpedaled, compromised, and started sounding like the people they hated three months ago.
Still, we can’t give up the fight. Those of us who value freedom—truly value it—must go on making noise, demanding serious reductions in government reach and power, reminding politicians and everyone else that an America without freedom isn’t really America. And above all, we’ll go on living our lives like people who expect and deserve freedom.
Laying the groundwork for freedom
We may not be able to keep freedom now, let alone win back in our lifetimes any that we lost during the late, unlamented Century of Government. But we can lay the groundwork for winning it back in the future. Even if that means our children’s or our grandchildren’s future, not our own.
1. Understand it’s not going to be easy. We’re not going to win freedom back by sending in a handful of contributions to the ACLU, the NRA, or the Free Congress Foundation, raging at our representatives, or waving a picket sign a couple of times a year. This is life. This is something we do to the marrow of our bones or not at all. Pledge yourself to it or get out of the way.
2. Stay alive for a starter. Prepare to take care of yourself and family in an emergency. I’ll leave the specifics of food storage, water, medicines, and such to other Backwoods Home writers, in this issue and in BHM‘s Emergency Preparedness and Survival Guide. But the main thing is, you can’t fight effectively for freedom if you’re scrambling for groceries and water. And you can’t legitimately call yourself a freedom fighter if you’re begging the government for the basics you need to stay alive. (I think, and I hope, that most BHM readers are way ahead of me on this one.)
3. Know the Bill of Rights. For Americans, the distilled essence of individual liberty and national freedom is found in 10 brief articles. Those articles certainly don’t say all there is to say about liberty. But the Bill of Rights gives us a set of fundamental “talking points” and lines in the sand. It gives us a meme—an “idea gene”—to plant in the American culture. We must promote—and promote, and promote—what Aaron Zelman of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO) calls A Bill of Rights Culture.
This means, among other things, that we need to understand the historic and contemporary relevance of the Bill of Rights and convey them to others. Fortunately, that doesn’t have to be hard. Although there are scholarly books on the subject (a good one is Akhil Reed Amar’s The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction), there’s also one simple booklet that contains more education and supporting facts in one tiny handful than anything else I know. The booklet is called It’s Common Sense to Use Our Bill of Rights by attorney Richard W. Stevens. An illustrated dialog, it’s aimed at intelligent children or adults, and it’s cheap enough to buy by the bushel and hand out at town meetings, churches, gun stores, schools, or wherever. You can get it here or by calling (800) 869-1884 or (262) 673-9745.
Everything else that follows is another way of creating a true Bill of Rights Culture—one that’s not just on paper but in real life.
4. Defend for others the rights you want to keep. If we want the U.S. to be a land committed to individual rights, we have to be willing to extend to everyone the rights and freedoms we want for ourselves. When we shrug at injustice delivered to some inner-city kid, some “rag-head,” or some “enviro-whacko” (or some “gun nut” if we happen to be in a different quadrant of the political spectrum), we’re consenting to tyranny. Tyranny nearly always starts by targeting a group of political opponents or social “undesirables” (often in the name of “a war on X” or “the crisis of Y”). Once accepted by the public, it engulfs whole populations.
5. Resist the appeal of sweeping political “solutions.” If a political solution to a problem appeals to your gut, run it through your head first. Ask yourself: Is this the most targeted possible approach to the problem? Does this have a greater effect on the innocent and law-abiding than on the guilty? What are the long-term consequences of doing this?
It’s always easy for us to see the unjust, catastrophic nature of policies our political opponents promote. We may perceive instantly that banning guns won’t stop criminals from getting them. We may understand that allowing the FBI to surveil the entire Internet without a warrant is a suspiciously sloppy way to conduct an investigation of suspected criminals. But then we’ll turn around and advocate something equally broad brush and not see the disaster our own policy wish list would bring.
For instance, a lot of people, claiming defense of freedom, would like to see the U.S. military close the borders to all unauthorized entry. (Never mind the Posse Comitatus Act or the fact that most of the 9-11 terrorists were apparently here with the approval of the INS.) Emotionally, that’s understandable. But for freedom, it’s as bad a “bright idea” as gun bans or mass surveillance of the innocent. It wouldn’t work. The border’s too vast to be “interdicted.” But the effort would inflict on the U.S. a standing army or other corps of enforcers so unimaginably huge and dangerous we might never be free of it. (For proof, read Joseph Miranda, War on Drugs: Military Perspectives and Problems (Although this article specifically addresses drug interdiction, any border-closing problem is similar.)
We can fight terror, or regular old crime, without vast new governmental powers and without further limitations on individual freedom. If new laws are needed (and that’s always a dubious proposition), let them be legal lasers, micro-aimed at the guilty, not legal nukes, blasting everyone.
6. Resist bad laws. The ultimate responsibility of anyone who truly values freedom is to resist tyranny—personally. If the government succeeds in imposing a national ID card to monitor and control your activities, you should not only speak against the card, you should refuse to get one—even though the risk (in both legal trouble and denial of services) may be high. If facial-recognition cameras glare at us in every public place—tracking ordinary folks while criminals and terrorists practice easy means to spoof or evade them—it’s going to be up to freedom lovers to monkeywrench the snoop systems if legislatures and courts won’t rid us of them. That may mean anything from wearing Groucho glasses to painting over the camera lenses to shooting the camera’s little eyes out.
And you’ll need to make those same kinds of decisions and commitments about anything else that bids to steal your, or your children’s, freedom.
Individual resistance takes great courage, puts freedom lovers at great risk, and may have no useful impact if large numbers of people don’t join in.
Amid the urge to pull together for the survival of the American tribe, country, and culture, the idea of resisting government currently seems unfashionable, unpatriotic, and to some, unthinkable. That’s understandable in this dangerous moment. But in the long run, resistance to injustice and police-state policies is necessary.
7. Don’t destroy the Bill of Rights in your daily work. If you’re employed by a government agency that regularly exceeds its constitutional authority to the detriment of freedom, quit. If you work for a corporation whose products or government contracts are routinely used to destroy individual freedom, quit or transfer to a division that does something beneficial. Or, if you’re in a position to do it, lobby bosses and board members for corporate-cultural change. This isn’t easy. But withdrawing your labor from freedom-killing institutions is one of the most effective ways to halt the erosion of freedom. It’s also a good way to maintain personal integrity. Don’t close your eyes to the impact of your own daily decisions. Don’t someday shrug and tell your grandchildren that, when their freedom disappeared with your paid assistance, you were “only doing my job.”
8. Go armed. Get a handgun if you don’t have one. Learn to use it safely and well. Refuse to go where you can’t go armed. Those who don’t trust you with arms are saying they don’t trust you with freedom.
Will you ever be in a position to foil an act of terrorism or tyranny? Probably not. But you will be showing, in the most meaningful way, that you understand that self-defense, by definition, can’t be delegated to government. You’ll be showing that you understand that freedom and its defense are personal responsibilities.
9. Check in with yourself every day. Ask yourself often: What did I do today to preserve the Bill of Rights? What did I do to make the government less intrusive on the lives of innocent people? What did I do to promote or practice self-reliance? What did I do to lay the groundwork for a freer future, even if the moment looks hopeless?
Only with this kind to total, totally honest, and totally unflinching commitment do we have a chance of bequeathing freedom to our children and grandchildren.
Ben Franklin observed that people who trade security for freedom end up with neither. Those may be the truest—and most ignored—words ever spoken. If we unresistingly surrender our rights for the comforting illusion that national ID chips, airport tweezer-seizures, military border closures, total electronic surveillance of the population or any other mass expansion of government power we’ll deserve exactly what we get in the end.
Even if we’re doomed to end up unfree, thanks to the unthinking trust and inertia of our fellow citizens, don’t you at least want to be able to tell your grandchildren that you did everything within your power to prevent it, for their sakes? Don’t you want, at least, to be able to pass the embers of resistance—if not a burning torch of freedom—on to them?