The fourth of July. This is the day for Americans to go down to the beach with a picnic basket loaded up with ham sandwiches and to drink more beer than can possibly be recommended during the work week. This is the day to gather with friends and family and to ooh and aah at pyrotechnics dazzling the sky. It is a day, if we stop to think, to be grateful that we are not living in a country which produces lock-step conformity and fear in its citizenry. It is a day, traditionally, to be thankful for our freedoms.
This July 4th, it would be useful to take a look at what we have lost, in terms of freedoms, and what we still stand to lose. Like some other institutions in America, the July 4th celebration of freedom has become something of an obligatory exercise of patriotic fervor. And given the developments of the last few years, it may now be relatively empty of meaning.
For the first time in US history, we have a President who has created—and invoked — the executive privilege of ordering the murders of US citizens without due process. While this has only been exercised a few times (to our knowledge), most notably with the 2011 assassination by drone strike of US born Muslim cleric Anwar al -Awlaki and subsequently of his son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the precedent now exists. This is not a privilege generally granted to a President in a free society. In fact, it is an action that is more redolent of a dictator, a Hitler or a Pol Pot whose purges of not only “enemies of the state,” but also of whomever pissed off the dictator, became part of our collective awareness that we, as Americans, were very fortunate not to live under these sorts of rulers.
The media seems to have forgotten the lessons of history, as far as tracking the slide into tyranny. Certainly, we are not seeing any general forum of public discussion as to how to respond to this level of legalized attack.
In 2014, the Department of Justice reluctantly declassified and released the DOJ memo which provided the legal analysis to support murder by Presidential dictum. This memo was released when its author, David Barron, was up for Congressional approval as a federal judge (He was subsequently approved for the position). Alarmingly, the memo was not released in its entirety. Critical sections dealing with how to resolve the inherent contradictions between the right of a President to decide whom to kill and the Fifth Amendment were redacted, so that we were not able to see how the right to not be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” could be reconciled with murder by Presidential order.
The potential repercussions of this prerogative seized by President Obama await realization. In the meantime, certain other blips on the political radar point to possible future outcomes. One of these potential outcomes is the possibility of the deployment of drones against US citizens within the borders of the US.
In a widely circulated letter, written by former US Attorney General Eric Holder in response to an inquiry by US Senator Rand Paul, Holder admitted that such drone deployment could be lawful. Wrote Holder:
It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.
There is more evidence that “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” have gone out the window. When The Guardian broke the story this past February that the Chicago police were using a “black site” to detain people in Illinois without processing them legally and without allowing the detainees the right to contact anyone on the outside world, those on the “human rights watch” felt a collective shiver. Subsequent revelations that a mini-“black site” was extant in Los Angeles County simply confirmed the perception that the erosion of rights has become a landslide.
It is not only illegal police detentions that should alarm us about the boys in blue. Police in the US are now murdering US citizens — largely black, Latino or allegedly mentally ill—at an alarming rate and with virtually no culpability.
What we are seeing is in part the disparity between “paper rights” and real rights.
In other words, what is considered to be lawful versus what really happens may be two entirely different critters. Recent US Supreme Court decisions affirmed that the detainees in Guantanamo have rights under US law. Even with the highest court in the land affirming these rights, the detainees have remained in custody for years without a single habeas corpus being granted and, in many cases, without being charged.
One bright spot, according to the Second Amendment’ers, is that our gun rights are still intact. Those who believe that guns are a protection against intrusive government agents are still pounding on their virtual pulpits, insisting that these rights to bear arms will prove to be our salvation, should push come to, well, shoot.
Let’s get real, here. The US government has stockpiles of both chemical and biological weapons, and as far as “paper rights” go, the government has great latitude to use these against US citizens. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which the US is a party to, allows the discretion of the party nations to allow domestic law enforcement agencies to use these weapons against their own citizens.
According to the Biological Weapons Convention, the use of biological weapons is not so permitted. However, when the United States Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, that permission was indeed self-dealt. In the now infamous Section 817, the Expansion of the Biological Weapons Statute, the US government gave itself immunity from violating its own biological weapons laws.
And as far as this being a domestic violation of the BWC, one can imagine the satisfaction of the legal team who cooked up Section 817, given their awareness that there is nothing that the treaty organization can do about this. The BWC, unlike other arms treaties, has no verification protocol and no mechanisms to enforce its own regulations.
In addition, there has been a landslide of reports that directed energy weapons,which are classified as non-lethal, are being tested on US citizens, without consent.
In the face of the reality that the US has drones, chemical and biological weapons and a whole mish mosh of other assault capabilities, and can use these against its citizens without legal culpability — at least given how the laws are currently configured — how does the gun lobby actually imagine that a .22 rifle is going to protect anyone? Did anyone at the shooting range ever try to shoot a germ?
Snowden’s revelations of the extent of US spying clarified and confirmed for us the uneasy perception that we had utterly lost our privacy rights. As it turns out, we have lost a whole lot more.
It might be time to reassess the fourth of July celebrations. Rather than munching on hot dogs and downing a few Budweisers and cooing at the gorgeous pyrotechnics, it might be time instead to hold a wake. And after we have buried Lady Liberty, maybe we can get down to the serious work of figuring out what to do now.
Janet C. Phelan, investigative journalist and human rights defender that has traveled pretty extensively over the Asian region, an author of a tell-all book EXILE, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”, where this article first appeared.