Sunday, July 7, 2013

Ends and Means

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.
The Constitution of the United States of America, Amendment IV.

In the wake of the leaking of documents concerning the National Security Agency's PRISM program, there has been a renewed focus on the Fourth Amendment. And while many high-ranking Republican lawmakers have seized the opportunity for a potential wedge between the Obama Administration and the broader public (especially the more Liberal-minded citizens that Republicans would prefer stayed home on Election days), conservatives have themselves been accused of “brush[ing] off constitutional concerns with the bromide ‘the Constitution is not a suicide pact’.”

1. Does the president have inherent powers under the Constitution to conduct surveillance for national security purposes without judicial warrants, regardless of federal statutes?

Intelligence and surveillance have proven to be some of the most effective national security tools we have to protect our nation. Our most basic civil liberty is the right to be kept alive and the President should not hesitate to use every legal tool at his disposal to keep America safe.
Mitt Romney Q&A
But as much as the civil liberties crowd seeks out, and responds to, signs of insufficient reverence for Constitutional rights, the conservative bromide, as insincere as one might take it to be, raises a question that perhaps we have been avoiding answering - Do civil liberties have a purpose? And if so, what is it? Or are they their own purpose? To compare the Bill of Rights and the Ten Commandments, there is an understanding that the Ten Commandments are not absolute - the fact that the Sixth commandment is commonly translated as “You shall not kill,” does not prevent the next page from prescribing the death penalty for manslaughter. The commandment is not an end itself, but a means to an end. An end which it was felt was better served by execution of those guilty of manslaughter. Does the Bill of Rights work the same way?

Whether our ideals serve our interests or are our interests is not, perhaps, a difficult question to answer. “Give me Liberty or give me death,” may make for a rousing quote, but many are perfectly willing to forgo the former rather than face the latter, as “Liberty” serves an interest that death renders moot, rather than being a goal in and of itself. For proof of this, the public panic that served as the impetus for the passage of the PATRIOT Act serves admirably. Ideals were hastily chucked out of the nearest window - not because people suddenly decided that they no longer needed them, but because they were more attached to freedom from the fear of swarthy terrorist bombers then they were to freedom from government intrusions in their lives. (And it didn't need to be a majority that expressed that fear - members of Congress act on those public sentiments that they believe will drive voting behavior. When the number of votes a Congressperson may lose and/or that a potential opponent might gain becomes enough to make the difference between a victory party or going home after the next election, you'll start to see legislation designed to forestall that possibility.)

Although the answer may be something of a foregone conclusion, it's worthwhile to ask the question, if for no other reason than we understand our thinking around it - and whether we're okay with it.

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