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Shredding the Fourth Amendment in Post-Constitutional America

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Posted on Jun 27, 2014

Photo by Steven Depolo (CC BY 2.0)

By Peter Van Buren, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

Here’s a bit of history from another America: the Bill of Rights was designed to protect the people from their government. If the First Amendment’s right to speak out publicly was the people’s wall of security, then the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy was its buttress. It was once thought that the government should neither be able to stop citizens from speaking nor peer into their lives. Think of that as the essence of the Constitutional era that ended when those towers came down on September 11, 2001. Consider how privacy worked before 9/11 and how it works now in Post-Constitutional America.

The Fourth Amendment

A response to British King George’s excessive invasions of privacy in colonial America, the Fourth Amendment pulls no punches: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

In Post-Constitutional America, the government might as well have taken scissors to the original copy of the Constitution stored in the National Archives, then crumpled up the Fourth Amendment and tossed it in the garbage can. The NSA revelations of Edward Snowden are, in that sense, not just a shock to the conscience but to the Fourth Amendment itself: our government spies on us. All of us. Without suspicion. Without warrants. Without probable cause. Without restraint. This would qualify as “unreasonable” in our old constitutional world, but no more.

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Here, then, are four ways that, in the name of American “security” and according to our government, the Fourth Amendment no longer really applies to our lives.

The Constitutional Borderline

Begin at America’s borders. Most people believe they are “in” the United States as soon as they step off an international flight and are thus fully covered by the Bill of Rights. The truth has, in the twenty-first century, become infinitely more complicated as long-standing practices are manipulated to serve the expanding desires of the national security state. The mining of words and concepts for new, darker meanings is a hallmark of how things work in Post-Constitutional America.

Over the years, recognizing that certain situations could render Fourth Amendment requirements impractical or against the public interest, the Supreme Court crafted various exceptions to them. One was the “border search.” The idea was that the United States should be able to protect itself by stopping and examining people entering the country. As a result, routine border searches without warrants are constitutionally “reasonable” simply by virtue of where they take place. It’s a concept with a long history, enumerated by the First Congress in 1789.

Here’s the twist in the present era: the definition of “border” has been changed. Upon arriving in the United States from abroad, you are not legally present in the country until allowed to enter by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials. You know, the guys who look into your luggage and stamp your passport. Until that moment, you exist in a legal void where the protections of the Bill of Rights and the laws of the United States do not apply. This concept also predates Post-Constitutional America and the DHS. Remember the sorting process at Ellis Island in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? No lawyers allowed there.

Those modest exceptions were all part of constitutional America. Today, once reasonable searches at the border have morphed into a vast “Constitution-free zone.” The “border” is now a strip of land circling the country and extending 100 miles inland that includes two-thirds of the U.S. population. In this vast region, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) can set up checkpoints and conduct warrantless searches. At airports, American citizens are now similarly subjected to search and seizure as filmmaker Laura Poitras—whose work focuses on national security issues in general and Edward Snowden in the particular—knows firsthand. Since 2006, almost every time Poitras has returned to the U.S., her plane has been met by government agents and her laptop and phone examined.

There are multiple similar high-profile cases (including those of a Wikileaks researcher and a Chelsea Manning supporter), but ordinary citizens are hardly exempt. Despite standing in an American airport, a pane of glass away from loved ones, you are not in the U.S. and have no Fourth Amendment rights. How many such airport searches are conducted in the aggregate is unknown. The best information we have comes from a FOIA request by the ACLU. It revealed that, in the 18-month period beginning in October 2008, more than 6,600 people, about half of them U.S. citizens, were subjected to electronic device searches at the border.

Still, reminding us that it’s possible to have a sense of humor on the road to hell, the CBP offers this undoubtedly inadvertent pun at its website: “It is not the intent of CBP to subject travelers to unwarranted scrutiny.” (emphasis added)


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