Rights worth protecting

Kenneth Brooks

The Times Herald

Sunday, July 04, 2004

The Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Its most memorable and most quoted part probably is this: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

This declaration does not mean that all humans are created intellectually, emotionally and physically identical. But it does mean they all have an equal right to determine their life according to their talent and their life's perspective. They have this right at birth. It comes neither as government's grant nor a privilege bestowed by some self-described superior human individual or group.

Our national anthem asks about the status of those freedoms and rights today:

"O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"

Most Americans treat this part of the anthem as a rhetorical question intended to symbolize America's greatness. Instead, they should take it as a cue to examine the current status of freedom and bravery in the United States.

All humans' right to freedom was not respected in 1814 when Francis Scott Key wrote the "Star Spangled Banner." Nor were ideas of human equality universally accepted in United States when Congress made "The Star-Spangled Banner" the national anthem in 1931. Still, millions of Americans sang those words to the national anthem as if it was the land of the free.

Most Americans continue to ignore laws and government practices that intrude on human rights. Legally sanctioned racial segregation and sexism ended decades ago. But the "war on terror" is a more menacing threat to American freedoms this Fourth of July.

The war on terrorism threatens American freedoms more than the people who commit terrorist acts. Government officials decided they need, or at least they want, autocratic powers to fight terrorist acts. They instill fear in the hearts of Americans to convince them to yield their human rights without protest. Fear-based decisions act as a poison that destroys freedom in democracies.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his inaugural address, March 4, 1933, "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." He referred to ungrounded fears that operated to destroy the nation's capitalist system during the Depression years. Still, a similar fear of a formless terrorism operates to destroy our democracy.

President Bush declared we are at war with terrorism. He does not declare war metaphorically, but as a shooting war that gives him extraordinary powers as the United States Armed Forces commander in chief. This war designation seems a good to way protect the nation from terrorist attacks. The problem is that the United States ceased to be the land of the free when Congress ceded to the president war powers in a non-war situation.

The president's war against terrorism is not restricted to a specific country or war theater. It extends worldwide, including these United States. It is not a war against a specific army, but against anybody this commander in chief designates an enemy combatant, including American citizens. This situation may not be so threatening except for how the president treats those he labels enemy combatants. The danger to civil liberties is that president does not treat those enemy-combatants as humans with rights.

President Bush relegates captured enemy combatants to a non-human status totally under his control and without rights. He claims they represent no nation's army so they are not true prisoners of war, entitled to Geneva Convention protections. One questions how he can assume war powers if he fights no nation's army. Also, he denies them the right as non-soldiers to prove their guilt or innocence in American courts or other nation's court.

Government officials argue that desperate times require desperate measures. But, we are no longer a free nation if the president's executive branch can snatch even one American citizen as an enemy combatant and hold him or her incommunicado for months or years. It should concern Americans that the government already did this to at least one American citizen and maybe others. Our president and government use the tactics of Stalin, Saddam Hussein and other dictators.

Finally the Supreme Court ruled on those abuses and it ruled the president did not have powers as commander in chief to strip people of their human right to legal representation in court. The court stopped those abuses of unalienable human rights listed in the Declaration of Independence barely a week before its 2004 birthday. Still, we must guard against other threats to freedom.

Kenneth Brooks is a freelance writer and speaker. Contact him at P.O. Box 882, Vallejo, CA 94590 or by e-mail at brookscolumn@ethicalego.com .