Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
When people say, “There is peace and safety,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape. But you are not in darkness, brethren, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all sons of light and sons of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him (1 Thessalonians 5:3-10).
As I mentioned the other day, I think the issue facing our country is not primarily left vs. right or GOP vs. Dem. It is, rather, an elite on both sides of the aisle that is increasingly stronger and more tyrannical vs. a populace that is increasingly weaker and more vulnerable to the depredations of the strong. It is an issue rooted, of course, in our culture of death. But it is something that has now begun to metastasize well past the killing and maltreatment of the weak, sick and old and is beginning to target all of us.
The concern about abortion, since the beginning, has been not merely that the killing of unborn children itself is a grave evil (bad as that is), but that the rationale for doing this evil must and will surely become the rationale for oppressing and killing the weak at every level of society. As Mother Teresa said with characteristic simplicity, “If a mother can kill her own child, what is left but for us to kill each other?” Ideas have consequences. Once you declare that a human being’s right to live comes, not from the hand of God, but from the generosity of the state, you make all members of homo sapiens vulnerable to having their rights stripped from them by anybody with sufficient power to do it.
Almost 40 years ago, we chose to do this to the weakest and most vulnerable members of society and have gone on, as a culture, making that choice every day.
But our civilization has not stayed in place. It has built on this fundamental denial of human rights rooted in the fact that we are creatures made in the image and likeness of God. Little by little, but with increasing momentum, we have chosen, always for the sake of “peace and safety” (i.e., convenience) to snip off from the human family more and more of those who are weakest or otherwise beyond the pale of consideration as ineligible for human rights. Next came the elderly and ill, with euthanasia legislation. It’s sold, again, with the lie that it will bring “peace” (for the unwanted dying) and “safety” (from loss of too much money by those responsible for the care of the expensive weak person) but the real goal is convenience for bean counters who can’t be bothered to pay for people who “use up too many resources.” Power, once again, gets concentrated in the hands of the powerful and the undesirable are, on the word of the powerful alone, declared to be unworthy of life and pushed into death.
The culture that has supported this (particularly my own Generation Narcissus) has, with spectacular short-sightedness, never dreamed that somebody more powerful than us might consider us nuisances who might need to be gotten rid of. Which is how, with quiet efficiency and almost no notice from the media, the U.S. Senate last week was able to pass a bill which (if, God forbid, it becomes law) would place all American citizens in pretty much the position that the unborn, ill and elderly currently occupy: persons with basic human rights if the Powerful say we are entitled to them, and non-persons with absolutely no rights if the Powerful decide to imprison and (as we shall see in a moment) perhaps even kill us without charge or right to counsel.
The bill (SB 1867) was, it shall be noted, a bipartisan effort, authored in secret by Republican John McCain and Democrat Carl Levin. It is sold, of course, as “peace and safety” yet again. The idea is that the War on Terror (for reasons that are entirely unclear ten years down the road from 9/11) is suddenly so desperate that the President shall be given unilateral authority to strip any American citizen of his most fundamental civil rights, place him under military arrest on the basis of the royal fiat of the President alone, throw him in prison without charge and, if the Executive so wills, leave him there for the rest of his natural life. In plain English, what this means for every American citizen is that the Senate just passed a bill that would repeal, not just the Bill of Rights, not just the Constitution, but Anglo-American law back to Magna Carta. If the President says so, any or every American citizen can be summarily declared an enemy of the state—without charge, evidence, trial, judge, jury or verdict—and sentenced to life in prison.
Would a victim of such tyranny have the right of appeal? Senator Lindsey Graham explains it all for you:
“If you’re an American citizen and you betray your country, you’re going to be held in military custody and you’re going to be questioned about what you know,” he said, “and you’re not going to be given a lawyer if our national security interests dictate that you not be given a lawyer and go into the criminal justice system, because we’re not fighting a crime, we’re fighting a war.”
Well, that sounds reasonable! Who wants to give terrorists human rights, the filthy scum? They should be grateful we don’t summarily kill them. And what difference does citizenship make? An American traitor deserves death.
Such reactions are precisely what Hermann Goering was talking about when he said, “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
Indeed, Obama already claims the unilateral right to summarily kill American citizens without arrest, evidence, trial, judge, jury or verdict and he also says the Supreme Court has no authority to stop him. If the President informs the press an American citizen is an enemy of the state, the press dutifully informs us and then the President has, according to the President, the authority to have that citizen killed. We then nod and trust the account the White House gives us, since when has an immensely powerful and unaccountable government official ever erred or lied about gross injustice to an innocent man? The state is, as we all know, infallible when it kills. So due process is a pointless obstacle to its swift and unerring workings. The President can be trusted with near infinite unilateral power of life and death over every citizen. Checks and balances just slow things down when we need action now! This is, naturally, also sold as “peace and safety.”
In short, under Obama, citizens accused of terrorism (not “found guilty”, just accused) are the latest category of people who no longer enjoy rights as human beings in the image and likeness of God. If the state wills, the Executive tells us he can kill any person he declares to be a terrorist.
So what has the Senate—the check on an overweening Executive—done to rein in a President who regards himself as empowered to kill you if he feels like it? The Senate wants to give the man claiming this unilateral power of life and death over every American the unilateral power to lock up—forever—any and all Americans on his word alone as well.
What could possibly go wrong?
Simply this: the reason institutions like the state exist and why a thousand years of Anglo-American law are there is to protect the citizens, not just from Bad Guys like terrorists, but just as much from the depredations of those with absolute and unquestioned power. So, while this bill seems to many a neatly efficient way of dealing with the problem of terrorists, it also has the regrettable side effect of giving a small and absolutely unaccountable elite absolute and unaccountable power over every single American citizen while stripping you and me absolutely naked and defenseless before an omipotent Leviathan. Should the Executive decide he wants to say that you and I are terrorists and lock us up forever without hope of appeal, this bill says, “Go for it!” and takes away habeas corpus solely on the basis of his almighty and unquestionable fiat.
“Yeah, so what?” say some supporters of the bill. “Senator Graham tells it like it is. We’re at war and desperate times call for desperate measures. If you don’t want to feel threatened by this tough measure then don’t be a terrorist traitor!” Yes, well, there is that. But there is also the little fact that what this bill does is a) place the matter of defining who is a “terrorist traitor” in the hands of an omnipotent executive who could, if he felt like it, declare you a terrorist traitor even when you aren’t one. Indeed, you don’t even need to be a terrorist traitor. You just need to be somebody the state thinks is suspicious based on its own bizarre criteria. Do you own guns? Do you own weatherproof ammunition? Are you missing any fingers? Do you have more than seven days worth of food stocked up?
Oh, and by the way, are you prolife (and therefore possibly on a terrorist watch list)? That is sufficient rationale, under this bill, to arrest you without charge and lock you up forever, should the Executive so will.
Indeed, the fig leaf of “suspected” association with “terror” has almost infinite malleability in the hands of an executive skilled at manipulating a pliant media. Because “support” for terrorism is so broad that a mildly imaginative Executive can, with a little lawyerly cleverness, expand the definition of “support” for terrorism to cover almost any person he wishes eliminated. So, not too far down the road you may want to be asking yourself: Have you indulged in “hate speech” by questioning gay “marriage”? Are you critical of the President (or any subsequent President) and saying publicly that he is a despot for warrantless wiretaps or arrests and assassinations of American citizens? Do you oppose some policy of his and think it dangerous or un-American? Do you protest election results, or desire his impeachment or removal from office? Indeed, this law virtually invites the Executive to swiftly abandon giving any rationale at all for your summary imprisonment. The only thing holding the President back from arbitrarily arresting political enemies is the mental stability or general integrity of whoever happens to occupy the White House. You will have no right to counsel if our “national security interests”—defined solely by the executive who is arresting you—say otherwise. You can be “disappeared” and that state can call you a terrorist as it happens. And that state can also, according to Obama, have you killed if it pleases the President.
But that’s not all. To get the bigger picture of the plans our elites on both sides of the aisle have for the populace it is important to note two other things. Namely, two amendments that were (for the moment at least) defeated. One was an amendment by Senator Kelly Ayotte that would have created a secret list of interrogation techniques that breach the boundaries laid out in the Army Field Manual. In short, it would have legalized the use of torture against American citizens if the Executive felt like using it. Second was an amendment (defeated in a bold move by Senator Rand Paul) that would have allowed the state to go on detaining you as long as the Executive willed even if you were found not guilty in civil court.
Now some have noted that President Obama has said he will veto this horrible assault on our most basic protection of law. True. But note his terrifying rationale for doing so:
White House spokesman Jay Carney accused the Senate of engaging in “political micromanagement” by including provisions that he said would restrict US flexibility in the fight against Al-Qaeda.
“Any bill that challenges or constrains the president’s critical authority to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the nation will prompt his senior advisers to recommend a veto,” Carney said.
In other words, Obama objects to this bill, not because it recklessly gives the President virtually limitless power to subvert habeas corpus and summarily strip any and every American citizen of his most basic legal protections before Leviathan, but because it does not give him absolute and unquestioned power to subvert habeas corpus and summarily strip any and every American citizen of his most basic legal protections before Leviathan. It is not, in a word, tyrannical enough for Obama. Our elites, on both sides of the aisle, are laboring to reduce every American citizen to the subjects of a tyranny and the only quarrels between them are the precise degree to which they shall do so. And it is happening right now, not in some dystopian science fiction movie future.
But that could never happen in America! Actually, it can—if we do nothing. The myth that being American somehow protects us from the effects of original sin is just that: a myth. Do nothing and we stand as good a chance as the rest of homo sapiens of destroying our happiness in some rash move that sells our liberty for the illusion of peace and safety. It’s happened before and it can happen again. We have it in our power to become a living laboratory demonstration of Ben Franklin’s stark warning: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” And we are very close to doing it.
It will be argued by some that Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. True enough. But this is not the Civil War and the country is in nothing like the desperate plight it was then. Nor is it a slam dunk that Lincoln was right to do so even then. But he at least had in view the re-establishment of habeas corpus once the war ended. This war as currently defined has no conceivable end since it is a war against a tactic and foe so amorphous that no terms of surrender or criterion of victory have ever been defined. Therefore the Senate is talking about doing away with our most fundamental defenses as citizens again an omnipotent state—forever. It effectively means that the American populace is to be—forever—at the mercy of our ruling elites (and especially an executive) who will decide, as they please, who gets to have basic human rights and who doesn’t. It’s Roe v. Wade metastasizing like a cancer into the life of every American and leaving us all as vulnerable as a helpless baby in the hands of a state that could easily regard us with as much hostility and fear as 1.4 million babies receive each year. For as multiple totalitarian societies can attest, the unaccountable powerful find it easier and easier to dispose of difficult, annoying, and troublesome people via summary jail and execution, just as they find it easy to declare a wider and wider array of citizens as “threats to national security.”
The bill is not law (yet), and we can hope and pray the House rejects it or the President keeps his promise and vetoes it (though I am skeptical he would if it crosses his desk since it basically says about due process what he himself says: Who needs it?). But whether it passes or not, the fact that this utter betrayal of our legal and political traditions could ever have gotten this far says with great clarity, I think, that the real and growing conflict in this country is not between Democrat and Republican but between the strong and the weak. Both Dems and Republicans backed this monstrosity. The President only opposes it because it’s not quite monstrous enough for him. And, as with euthanasia and abortion, the people laboring to strip us of our most basic rights will not just lie down or go away if this first assault fails. They’ll be back, just as they tried again and again before finally succeeding with abortion and euthanasia. The question is, will we let them or will we resist?
If there is one fact we really can prove, from the history that we really do know, it is that despotism can be a development, often a late development and very often indeed the end of societies that have been highly democratic. A despotism may almost be defined as a tired democracy. As fatigue falls on a community, the citizens are less inclined for that eternal vigilance which has truly been called the price of liberty; and they prefer to arm only one single sentinel to watch the city while they sleep.
It need not be so. We can, if we choose, shake off slumber and rouse ourselves to reassert what is best in our country and those who would rob us of it promising “peace and safety.” Indeed, as the outright hostility this President has shown the Catholic Church demonstrates, Catholics have particular reason to be concerned about an omnipotent Leviathan coming to regard them as enemies of the state. But that’s up to us and our willingness to ask God’s help to search and try our ways and turn again to the Lord. Otherwise, we will have only ourselves to blame if we trade our freedom, bought with the blood of generations, for a false sense of security and a very real set of chains.