The most vexing issue the world has dealt with is how the German people allowed the machinery of the German government to turn into a killing machine before its very eyes. How did evil triumph among one of the most civilized groups of people to have emerged on the European continent? The reasons why are still murky, the lesson learned: Never again.
Over 200 years ago this experiment called the United States of America was forged on the battlefields of this continent when the colonists undertook battle against the most powerful empire in the world. The power of the lesson of that battle won ended up being not that of the military might of the founders but of the ideas that evolved. Finally, the power of a nation emanated from the people over the sovereign. The sovereign was subject to the will of the people. Thus, the idea of limited government was forged. The people were sovereign.
This experiment was powerful enough that millions have given their lives to protect the legacy of the founders to pass on to future generations. The blood of those who have given their lives consecrates that ongoing battle. The beauty of the ideas of Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson and others was so great that the ongoing battle of the republic has been to include all those who live in this country of “we the people.” Malcolm X, Harvey Milk, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Cesar Chavez, and countless others simply fought to allow those who live here to reside in a place where all individuals are full participants in this revolutionary experiment.
The lives of those who came before, and the challenge for those will come after, who will fight for this country, will be to protect not our ability to have an iPad, a hybrid car or some other consumer good, but to live free, to be individuals free from a government that sees itself as a sovereign protecting its subjects, to one where individuals reign supreme.
The revelations that our government is essentially operating a shadow operation, in secret, monitoring all aspects of our individual lives, is anathema to the legacy of those who fought to establish a republic of limited government. The notion that government is operating with secret courts, secret decisions being made on our behalf, for our good, is an insult to the very core foundations and values of this nation.
Millions of people who died through the centuries, including the War of Independence, the Civil War, both world wars, and our wars in Korea and Vietnam, would turn over in their graves had our leaders ever suggested that we have a secret government working alongside a public one. The 9/11 attacks, and the losses incurred there, do not justify the destruction of the very reasons we exist as a nation.
The security challenges we face to our existence as a country today are dwarfed by those we faced — nuclear annihilation — during the Cold War. Yet no thought was given to create and institutionalize the post 9/11 mechanisms we have seen come to the light of day.
We must fight to leave to our children and coming generations a nation free from secret tribunals, government monitors everywhere, no transparency and unaccountable decision makers, whether in Congress or in the White House.
I am not afraid of living in a free country. I am terrified of what we are becoming.
We must stop this now. We the people have the power to free ourselves from the propaganda that we abdicate our freedom, transparency in government, and accountability, in order to protect us from “terrorists.” Democracy might be messy but it is what we signed on for. The actions taken by our government, and institutionalized by Congress, are not benign measures taken on our behalf; they strike at the essence of our revolutionary experiment.
The lesson I learned from Germany is that each of us is accountable as the institutions that protect freedom are subverted and we do nothing. Our silence equals complicity. I will not remain silent.
Let’s take action to end this now.
John de Leon is an attorney and a past president of the Greater Miami ACLU.