At the conclusion of the constitutional convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” He sagely responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
In other words, the people are the stewards of the republic. If freedom is to flourish, they must be quick to rebuke government’s propensity toward tyranny, though their votes, stinging criticisms or protest marches. The whole purpose of government, as the Declaration of Independence states, is to secure “unalienable rights … [to] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
In her Oct. 2 debate against Joe Biden, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin chirped, “It was Ronald Reagan who said that freedom is always just one generation away from extinction.” That observation reinforced Benjamin Franklin’s wisdom that a people who fail to repudiate monarch-like government from whatever source will lose their freedom. Echoing Reagan, Palin continued: “We don’t pass [freedom] to our children in the bloodstream; we have to fight for it and protect it, and then hand it on to them so that they shall do the same, or we’re going to find ourselves spending our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children about a time in America, back in the days when men and women were free.”
But if that tragic tale comes to pass, it will be because of the likes of Palin. On the basis of her comments in the debate, her campaign speeches and her interviews, it appears that she is undisturbed by presidential practices and theories of power that have crippled freedom.
In the 1970s, the disgraced Richard Nixon famously insisted that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” Now Palin salutes the policies of a president who boasts that if he does it in the name of fighting terrorists, then it’s legal. Under that theory of unchecked executive power, President George W. Bush has authorized torture, kidnapping and secret imprisonments, flouted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and prevented current or former White House officials from appearing before Congress to testify about suspected crimes.
There was a time in America when the nation initiated war to defend its citizens from arbitrary impressment into the British navy. Now, Americans have been made less free by the president’s indefinite detentions of citizens as enemy combatants without accusation or charge or access to a lawyer.
There was a time in America when the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution was celebrated for prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures and group search warrants to protect the right to be left alone—the most cherished right among civilized people. Now, the American people have been made less free through the president’s warrantless surveillance program authorizing the National Security Agency to intercept the conversations and e-mails of Americans on U.S. soil.
There was a time in America when waterboarding was prosecuted as torture to deter foreign captors from torturing American soldiers. Now, American soldiers have been made less safe by the president’s authorization of waterboarding of suspected enemy combatants.
There was a time in America when government in the sunshine was the rule to deter executive-branch crimes and deceptions. Now, the American people have been made less free and less able to enjoy self-government by the president’s refusals to permit White House officials to appear before Congress to explain their actions and by his half-truths proclaimed to elicit public support for war.
And what is the Alaska governor’s public response to this assault on American freedoms? She stands on the political stump and applauds a corrupt ideology.
If Sarah Palin wants to avoid spending her sunset years telling her children and grandchildren about a time in America when freedom thrived over tyranny, she should vote against the McCain-Palin ticket.
Bruce Fein is a constitutional lawyer with Bruce Fein & Associates and author of “Constitutional Peril: The Life and Death Struggle for Our Constitution and Democracy.”
AP photo / Susan Walsh