Columns » Bob McCord

Forgotten freedoms


I was putting out our old American flag Sunday morning when it occurred to me that a lot of the things in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution aren't getting much attention these days. Thomas Jefferson's most popular line in the Declaration is the one that says that all of us are endowed with certain unalienable rights - "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." - and that "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Well, it's hardly evident to homosexuals that our president and thousands of others in several states are determined that they will not be able to marry anyone except someone of the opposite sex. In Arkansas, more than 200,000 persons signed petitions to put such an amendment on the November ballot, an effort financed and executed mostly by members of evangelical churches. Can people with Alzheimer's and similar diseases be happy that President Bush has ordered a halt to research in stem cells, which if put into their bodies might extend their lives for many years? Then there are many unhappy women - usually young girls - who are forced to deliver unwanted babies because our President and other politicians are opposed to abortion. What about the liberty that's being denied to Americans who want to go to Cuba but are no longer allowed to by their government? How about sick Americans who are now forbidden to buy medicine from drug stores in Canada, where medicine sells at a third of the price that American pharmaceutical companies make us pay? No American can be sure of liberty, happiness or even life if he or she can't find out what their government is doing. Yet, President Bush's hand-picked Attorney General, John Ashcroft, refuses to make public his records, ignoring Freedom of Information laws. Then we also have the Patriot Act, which President Bush forced through the Congress in two weeks right after he took office. Most of the members didn't even read it. Surely if they had they would not have voted for a law that allows the FBI to tap your phone, monitor your Internet, search your house and get the titles of the books you check out of the library without you knowing about it. That surely undermines the delicate balance between liberty and federal authority intended by the Bill of Rights. Amendment IV says: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." Amendment VI says: "In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury." Section nine of the Constitution says: "The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it." That means anyone put in jail must be allowed to appear before a judge to assure that their imprisonment is not illegal. For two years the Bush Administration has held two U.S. citizens (one arrested in Chicago, the other in Afghanistan) and 600 Afghanistan and Pakistan men captured in their countries and sent to the Naval Base in Cuba without habeas corpus. Bushites say one of the men was planning to set off a bomb in this country and that the other one was fighting with the Taliban, although his father said he went to Afghanistan to work. Their excuse for denying habeas corpus for the Muslim soldiers was that they were being jailed not in the U.S. but in Cuba. Only three of the justices fell for that - Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Well, last week the Supreme Court finally said that these people couldn't be held without charge and must be brought to court. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in her decision: "A state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens." She reminded us of the criticism the nation received for interning thousands of Japanese Americans (many in camps in Arkansas) after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. In the other case, Justice John Paul Stevens said that there was nothing unusual about nonresident aliens being tried in American courts. There's at least one other change that Thomas Jefferson wouldn't like - presidents deciding to fight wars only with professional soldiers and volunteers. If a president and the Congress believe that our country is so badly threatened that we have to go to war, every young, able man should be drafted to take part. To quote Kevin Baker in American Heritage, many of the soldiers who have been killed and wounded in Iraq are "the poorest, the darkest and the least well connected." That's not fair. "All men are created equal," Jefferson told us.

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