Americans seem to have forgotten the reasons behind our Bill of Rights
By Jim Kempton
“Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”
― Benjamin Franklin
Two hundred and twenty two years ago, our forefathers amended our constitution with 10 articles known as the Bill of Rights. In the glaring light of revelations that the U.S. security agencies have overstepped their bounds, it is a good time to consider why we have some seemingly very odd protections in our first 10 Constitutional amendments. The reason? Our first civil guarantees were a direct result of our experience with Britain’s autocratic government.
Most Americans can name the First Amendment as protecting free speech and religion, the Second as the right to bear arms, and the Fifth as protecting citizens from forced self-incrimination. But the “quartering of soldiers?” Yep, that’s the Third Amendment. It states “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” The British “redcoats” you see, moved into Boston homes. The military occupation of private premises was highly resented by the colonial citizens. So, Americans wrote the third amendment, making sure nobody could do that ever again.
The odd thing is that with many of these essential rights, we seem to have forgotten to practice what our founding fathers so brilliantly preached.
Take the quartering of soldiers issue. Having failed to read our history the first thing our leaders did when we invaded Iraq was to establish “safe houses” which meant U.S. combat units could live in houses of Iraqi citizens. And if you know how delighted Bostonians were about this you can probably guess how well the people of Baghdad responded as well.
“Taking the Fifth,” or refusing to answer questions that might incriminate one, has in recent years been disparaged as a loophole for criminals. But it was stipulated by the veterans of the Revolution so no one could torture us into a confession like the British often did. Which makes you wonder why we think it is OK to torture others now that we are the world’s power.
When Congress promised “to make no law respecting an establishment of religion” they did so because they wanted no religion in the government—because they didn’t want a specific one that might harm the particular one they themselves practiced. Some colonists were driven out by the singular restrictions of the Anglican church of King George.
Some folks get quite indignant when Christmas trees and manger scenes are not allowed in public squares (or paid for by government taxes). But can you imagine how some would feel if a Buddhist wheel of Dharma, a Muslim star and crescent, a Hindu aum or giant menorah were erected in public locales during each of those religions many holy days?
So it is good to remember where our sense of rights comes from and why we were so insistent about them. No one should take illegal search and seizures lightly. Nor should we allow our soldiers to commandeer homes, our security forces to extract forced confessions or our officials to promote one religion over another. It defeats all we have fought for—and all we stand for.
Jim Kempton is an armchair political observer who has watched the saga of Edward Snowden with great interest. While he believes Americans have a responsibility to expose wrongdoing in our government, he finds it hard to believe that a patriot would choose Russia as his place to protect his civil rights from the United States.
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