“Experience hath shown, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” — Thomas Jefferson
On this extraordinary day in American history, July 4, it is always worth reflecting on the reasons we celebrate Independence Day, particularly in light of the revelations about the federal government’s monitoring of innocent citizens’ phone calls and emails.
Those who support government surveillance cite their belief that such efforts make us all safer. I disagree.
The government’s surveillance of innocent Americans is a breach of its fundamental obligations to safeguard our constitutionally protected rights. And, by its breach of those obligations, the essence of our democracy is imperiled.
As every youngster should know, the fourth day of July commemorates the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. That extraordinary instrument was conceived and drafted by a group of brave revolutionaries who subscribed to the belief that government should exist for the purpose of securing our rights under “natural law.”
The second paragraph of the Declaration contains the most inspirational statement of human rights ever written: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Throughout the 20th century and into the present, this country has prided itself on those ideals and has attempted to spread throughout the world the concept of freedom and democracy at great cost to its citizens’ lives and national treasure. In the 20th century alone, more than 670,000 American service members died, and many more shed blood in the interest of preserving freedom and preventing tyranny around the world. But, are we truly safe from tyranny here at home?
Our country changed after Sept. 11, 2001. In our zeal to prevent a recurrence of such a horrific tragedy, we have wittingly and unwittingly allowed our government under both political parties to become ever more powerful and intrusive in our lives. Hence, most of us grudgingly endure body scans at airports and surrender shampoo bottles that contain more than 3.4 ounces of fluid.
Nonetheless, we have not knowingly and willingly consented to the much more intrusive conduct of government snooping through our email and/or its recording the identity of those with whom we communicate. There is no articulable reason for us to allow it now and thereby abandon our natural right to privacy — our fundamental right to be left alone by our government.
Some of our fellow citizens say that if someone is not doing anything “wrong,” there shouldn’t be anything to worry about if the government wants to maintain records of our communications, or where we go, or even what we write. But that point of view begs the question: What if their definition of what is acceptable behavior today is later defined as “wrong” by a future political class or some nameless, faceless bureaucrat? Would such law-abiding citizens truly feel comfortable with government agents standing at their street corner recording the identity of visitors to their home, or monitoring where they went or who they visited or how they spent their money? Does it really matter if that kind of surveillance is conducted in person or through some hyper-powered NSA data center?
Do you unqualifiedly trust the government always to do the right thing?
The mere fact that we have sophisticated technology to conduct surveillance — whether by NSA electronic snooping or drones flying above — does not justify its use against our fellow citizens in the absence of a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.
The Fourth Amendment protects us against unreasonable searches and seizures, requiring a judicially sanctioned warrant that is issued only when there is probable cause that a crime has been committed. Obviously, no probable cause exists to permit the monitoring of every citizen’s emails and phone records.
The British poet and academic C.S. Lewis wrote several decades ago, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”
The federal government under Presidents Bush and Obama has attempted to justify snooping on all of us as necessary for our safety. I’m not buying it, and our Constitution forbids it.
Given the choice between safety and liberty from the government’s invasion of our privacy, the choice for me is clear. I choose liberty.
Andrew Clayton is a Sarasota attorney.