“I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it . . .”—Judge Learned Hand, 1944
The bedrock of the American republic is fracturing. The Constitution is being eviscerated by government leaders and their corporate allies. The system of checks and balances embodied in that document, the mechanism which prevents the United States from sliding into tyranny, is eroding. The walls separating the three branches of government, as well as those separating the government from corporations and the military, have collapsed. With the rise of the national security state, this process has accelerated. Now, thanks to a collusion between domestic police forces and the military, we are being subjected to an onslaught of military drills carried out in major American cities, SWAT team raids on unsuspecting homeowners, Black Hawk helicopters patrolling American skies, and endless foreign wars that drain our national coffers.
Throughout 2011 and into 2012, the cities of Boston, Miami, Little Rock, and Los Angeles have all served as staging grounds for military training exercises involving Black Hawk helicopters and uniformed soldiers. The military training exercises have occurred in the middle of the night, with the full cooperation of the local police forces and generally without forewarning the public. They involve helicopters buzzing buildings and performing landing and take-off maneuvers. Justified on the grounds that they prepare troops for urban warfare situations and future deployments, these training exercises also condition Americans to an environment in which the buzz of Black Hawk helicopters and the sight of armed forces rappelling onto buildings is commonplace.
Making good on the Obama administration’s promise to expand national security sweeps beyond airports and train stations, federal agents with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Operation Shield, a program which seeks to check up on security protocols around the country with unannounced visits, recently conducted a surprise security exercise at the Social Security Administration building in Leesburg, Fla. People who went to pick up their checks at the SSA office in January 2012 were subjected to random ID checks by federal agents armed with semi-automatic weapons.
This is what the death of the rule of law looks like. While slow and measured, this dismantling of our republic has been nothing short of radical.
Over the course of the past several decades, the President of the United States has, through the use of signing statements and executive orders, established a system of decree by which he can circumvent the law at will. Members of Congress, more concerned with getting re-elected than representing their constituents, have utterly failed in their duty to serve as a check upon the president’s powers, allowing him to amass even greater powers with little consequence. All three branches of government—executive, legislative and judicial—have succumbed to an elitist mindset that favors the interests of corporations over the average taxpayer. Corporations, having bought their way into the government’s inner circle, have flooded the electoral process with billions of dollars in order to maintain their beneficial government contracts and to frustrate attempts to regulate harmful business practices.
Meanwhile, private defense contractors flood the coffers of congressmen so they will continue to pass gigantic defense bills, despite the fact that most Americans are fed up with the wars abroad. These corporations have spread their defense manufacturing jobs throughout the country, making any congressman’s attempt to downsize the defense budget political suicide. And now the United States is gearing up for more wars, with the military slowly surrounding Iran and stationing troops in the Pacific region.
The government’s massive defense spending feeds directly into another aspect of the rising power of the state: police officers using military-grade weapons in American cities, as well as the presence of military personnel and federal agents throughout the country. A number of bills passed by Congress have led to the collusion of the military and law enforcement in the American homeland. In 1981, Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, which granted the military the power to help local police forces wage the “war on drugs” by sharing equipment, training, and intelligence. Another bill passed in 1988 allowed the National Guard to participate in drug sweeps in cities and rural counties. In 1997, the 1033 Program was initiated by Congress, which allows the Secretary of Defense to transfer surplus military supplies and weapons to local law enforcement agencies without charge. The 1033 Program has led to over 17,000 agencies across America taking $2.6 billion dollars worth of weapons and equipment from the military since 1997.
Then you have the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (NDAA) and the Enemy Expatriation Act. The NDAA codified the right of the government to indefinitely detain any American accused of terrorism or substantially supporting terrorist actors. It was quietly signed by President Obama on New Year’s Eve. The Enemy Expatriation Act, which is currently making its way through Congress, seeks to simply revoke the citizenship of any person accused of terrorism, thus making the legality of indefinitely detaining an American a moot point. These bills completely circumvent the rule of law and the constitutional rights of American citizens.
The American people, having lost any true say in the workings of the government, have been relegated to little more than serfs whose only purpose is to serve the elite. We have allowed ourselves to be corralled, compartmentalized, branded, bullied, maneuvered, manipulated, monitored, dictated to, drugged, imprisoned, impoverished, outsourced, outclassed, outgunned, silenced, censored and stymied. In short, we have allowed ourselves to be sold to the highest bidder.
Yet this devolution toward authoritarianism, centered in the presidency and supported by corporate and military interests, should come as no surprise. The power of the executive branch has grown dramatically since World War II, aided in part by the stultifying fish lens that is television news. Under the less-than-watchful eye of the American people and without consulting Congress, the president now declares war unilaterally and commits troops to invasions and occupations of foreign countries. The power to declare war is explicitly granted to Congress in Article I of the Constitution, yet Congress has willingly obliged all military actions initiated by the president, starting with the blank check given to Lyndon Johnson at the start of the Vietnam War.
Since 9/11, the president has amassed even greater powers. The Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was passed right after 9/11, authorized the executive branch to essentially wage war against the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks. Thus began the so-called war on terror, an unwinnable war with no concrete goals other than to enrich defense contractors and entrench the military-industrial complex. Further emboldened, the president now conducts extrajudicial assassinations of American citizens and bombing campaigns using unmanned drone technology in countries—including Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan—against which Congress has never declared war.
The courts have been equally remiss in maintaining a separation of powers between the White House and Congress. Time and again, when challenges to the president’s wartime powers have been raised, the courts have deferred to the judgment of the president and his advisors, citing the “state secrets” privilege and avoiding the thorny constitutional questions brought about by assassinating American citizens abroad, warrantless surveillance of American citizens, and indefinite detention of terrorism suspects, all in the name of national security. The federal government continues to maintain the position that these programs are completely secret and thus outside of the purview of the courts.
The monolithic American government which no longer attempts to check or balance its own behavior is a threat to us all. Without a vocal and visible response from the American public, this trend will continue, until our constitutional rights are a faint memory. If we as Americans continue to play into the desires of the elite, if we continue to give credence to the political rat race, the foreign wars, and the outrageous government spending, we are simply digging our own graves.
About John W. Whitehead: Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book “The Freedom Wars” (TRI Press) is available online at www.amazon.com. Whitehead can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.