Monday, May 28, 2012

Some Personal Reflections on Memorial Day

I was watching The Chris Matthews' Show yesterday and found a conversation the panel had about military service interesting.   They were discussing whether or not military service in a political candidate made much difference anymore with regard to electability.  The youngest person on the panel (Kasie Hunt) pointed out that it is no longer as universal an experience as it once was.  In the Greatest Generation almost everyone served. The same was true for Baby Boomers who were subjected to a draft during the Vietnam war.  But, in my generation (X) and younger, as we have fought wars with an all volunteer service, a far fewer percentage have served.  She went further to explain that less of us these days even know someone who is serving or has served.   This strikes me as true.  While I have friends who have served or are serving, the last members of my family to serve fought in World War II.  Despite extended conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have not lost anyone and, of course, our homeland has not truly been threatened.  While many have lost loved ones in these conflicts, my experience is far from unique.  In fact, I'll wager it is the norm.  Relatively few of us are feeling the pain or experiencing the horror of these wars.

It should not be lost on any of us that even when war is necessary, it is horrible.  Today is a day to remember those who have paid the ultimate price and rendered what President Lincoln called, "the last full measure of devotion," in the defense of our nation and for the cause of liberty.  Robert E. Lee observed, "It is well that war is so terrible, else we should become too fond of it."  But for most of us, is it so terrible?  Most of us live in peace and comfort while volunteers, men and women far braver than I, risk life and limb on battlefields half a world away on our behalf.  Which begs the question, what impact does the fact that a majority of Americans don't experience the horror of war have on our war policy?  Are we too quick to engage in conflict?  Have we become, as a society, too fond of it?  Certainly our political leaders order these young men and women to their deaths with impunity.  The Dick Cheneys, Newt Gingriches, Barack Obamas, Rick Santorums, Mitt Romneys, and Hilary Clintons have all advocated for the projection of military power abroad without ever having served themselves or even having sons and daughters serving (John McCain is a notable exception here.  While I often disagree with his hawkishness, at least he knows full well what he is asking our servicemen and women to do).  Those that decide whether or not we go to war do so without any personal stake. They are all, as Congressman Paul described them, chicken hawks.  How easy is it for them to order other people's sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles into battle?  How easy is it for us to let them when we are not impacted directly by their sacrifice?  For my fellow trekkers (and others who share my view that everything they ever needed to know in life they learned from watching Star Trek), I am reminded of the original series episode, "A Taste of Armageddon," in which two planets remain perpetually at war for eons because the war is entirely computer simulated, with casualties then assigned to report to painless execution chambers.  Without the violence and destruction and with relatively few providing the sacrifice, the societies in this episode tolerated war indefinitely and had no incentive to seek peace.  Is this what is to become of us?  Shall we become society perpetually at war because we have removed its sting from most of the population?

Let us today remember all those who have paid that terrible price and let us pray for the day when there are no more of them to remember.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Free Speech

Although the U.S. Supreme Court did not rule on a federal law restricting free speech until the 20th Century, debate about what the constitutional protection to free speech means is as old as the republic itself.  Jefferson was swept into the presidency in 1800 largely due to the unpopularity of the Alien and Sedition Acts, signed into law by President Adams in 1798.  Specifically, the Sedition Act made it a crime to publish, "false, scandalous, and malicious," writing against government officials.  Opponents of the act argued that it made it a crime to be critical of the government and that this was unconstitutional under the first amendment which mandates, "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech..."  In the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, respectively argued, that these laws were unconstitutional and should be nullified by the states.  In the Kentucky Resolution, Jefferson pointed out that protections on free speech are designed specifically to protect speech that is, "obnoxious to the views," of the government, "or thought dangerous to...their elections or other interests..."  The lesson here is clear.  The first amendment exists to protect your right to be critical of your own government.  Without it, political opposition can be silenced by force and imprisonment, or by the threat of force, and society can no longer remain free.  Although the first amendment initially applied only to the federal government, the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment now extends this constitutional protection to all levels of government.  In Brandenburg v. Ohio [1969] the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this protection extended even to the advocacy of violence as long as such advocacy did not constitute an, "incitement to imminent lawlessness."

And yet this broad protection of expression critical of government is under attack in 2012 by a federal court in Virginia.  A Virginia sheriff (B.J. Roberts) fired six employees.  One of these employees, Daniel Carter, claimed that he was fired for clicking "like" on the facebook page of Sheriff Roberts' rival in his reelection bid, Jim Adams.  While it is far from clear that this was the reason that Mr. Carter was dismissed, the judge in this case declared that the issue was moot because clicking "like" on facebook did not constitute protected free speech!  A U.S. magistrate in Florida has ruled that a facebook page set up to criticize a teacher is protected speech under the first amendment, but Judge Raymond Jackson in Virginia ruled that simply clicking "like" on facebook does not amount to "expressive speech," as a posted comment would.  Really?  How is clicking "like" any less expressive than writing a cheque to a political campaign, something the Supreme Court has ruled is political speech?  How is it any less expressive than planting a sign in your front yard or putting a bumper sticker on your car, actions that everyone would recognize as protected political speech?  All are public statements made in support of a political candidate.  Isn't it the point of the first amendment to prevent precisely what is alleged to have happened in this case: the intimidation or retributive action taken by an employer or an elected official (in this case both) against someone for having opposing political views or supporting an opposing candidate?  How in the world could anyone who spent five minutes in law school, or ten seconds reading and thinking about the first amendment, dismiss this issue so casually? 

We can only hope Mr. Carter is appealing this decision and that an appellate court will recognize its absurdity.  Until then be careful: while I am protected in writing this blog, if you like it on facebook and your employer or elected official does not, you are not protected from retribution.  Unless, of course, you leave a comment.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Smith-Amash Amendment

Sent this letter to my Congressman today urging him to support an amendment to the NDAA authored by Adam Smith (D-WA) and Justin Amash (R-MI) that would restore protections against indefinite detention to U.S. citizens.

I realize that after the next election (with the redistricting), I will no longer reside in your district.  Nonetheless, I am writing as a current constituent and previous supporter about an important issue before this Congress.

As you know, at the beginning of the year, the House and Senate passed and President Obama signed a renewal of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Among other things, this act grants the Executive branch the authority to indefinitely detain, without charges or trial, terrorist suspects apprehended in the United States.  Initially designed to give the federal government the same power to deal with foreign nationals planning terrorist acts on U.S. soil the same way it deals with enemy combatants captured in Afghanistan or Iraq, the original language of this bill (and previous authorizations) has included language to protect U.S. citizens from being treated this way.  However, President Obama insisted that such protections be removed before signing the bill and the final version passed into law grants the authority to detain any American citizen indefinitely for suspicion of terrorism without allowing that person access to counsel or trial or producing evidence.

This is an egregious assault on the civil liberties of Americans.  Everyone deserves their day of court.  The state must show guilt beyond reasonable doubt.  On this, the Constitution could not be clearer.  The fifth amendment states, "no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."  It is a strange concept of due process, indeed, if it does not include access to counsel, a speedy trial, an impartial judge, and a jury of your peers.

While this provision of the law is blatantly unconstitutional, it will remain in effect until such a time as there is an effective legal challenge in the courts.  I am writing you to ask your support in stopping this erosion of civil liberties before it reaches federal courts.  Please support the Smith-Amash amendment to the NDAA to preserve the due process rights of American citizens and restore the protections to these rights that were initially in the bill.  Thank you.