Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The U.S. Constitution and National Security: An Ideological Confrontation

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on July 27, 2009


Throughout the U.S.-led War on Terrorism, attorneys, national-security advisors, law enforcement, and the Department of Justice have all grappled with the same controversial question:  should the United States Government be allowed to bypass the most fundamental principles of our nation?  Of course, what I am referring to is the Constitution of the United States…the most influential and precedent-setting document in our country’s history.  Besides the widely-known Ten Amendments that protect ordinary American citizens from police and government intrusion, unfair trial practices, and the right to express individual opinions, the U.S. Constitution is a symbolic agreement that has shaped the very foundations of democracy.  People of all creeds, colors, nationalities, and religions are ideally equal under national law, while courtroom proceedings are theoretically unbiased and neutral for anyone residing in the greater United States.  Everyone has the universal entitlement to appear in court and defend oneself against a crime, regardless of the severity of the charges or the nature of the circumstances.  The state or national government is even forced to provide a defendant with a trial attorney: a dramatic advantage to those Americans who are unable to afford legal counsel.

Although all of these amendments are important aspects of American society, perhaps the most essential section of the Constitution is the public’s ability to resist aggressive law-enforcement by the authorities.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, or state police are prohibited from overtly searching private property without due-process.  Police must show probable-cause for a search and seizure, demonstrating to the judicial system what they are expecting to find in the individual’s residence, or place of business.  During the whole process of suspicion, arrest, interrogation, trial, and detention, law enforcement is required to follow the rights and privileges of each and every American.  After all, if evidence is planted, Miranda Rights hidden, and lawyers kept on the sidelines, the most free and democratic nation in the world could be jeopardized.

Unfortunately, September 11, 2001 changed all of these assumptions.  The American electorate now expects their government to confront, fight, and destroy terrorist sanctuaries wherever they are located.  Immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, public opinion polls exposed a deep support for increased law-enforcement measures…advanced screening of bags and personal items, and stopping suspicious vehicles that may or may not carry an extremely dangerous weapon.  So the reasoning goes, the United States Government and the United States Military must have every tool at its disposal to resist Islamic fundamentalism.  The name of the game was simple back then: prevent and eliminate any threat that may repeat the September 11 attacks, all the while ensuring the basic safety and security of the American population.  Although some may consider this a brazen statement, the Constitution was quickly overshadowed by the need to promote national security in all its forms.

As the old saying goes, time is usually the best medicine.  The pro-government sentiment that used to dominate the priorities of Americans has now completely evaporated from the country’s psyche.  Washington’s power has now become too strong for us to bear.  Security stops and checkpoints are challenging our fundamental freedom to travel.  Speaking freely about political issues or the ability to express diverse opinions is now hindered with bureaucratic red-tape, government spying, and possible arrest.  The United States and the rest of the world are sick and tired of solving violent problems with violent results.  Questions are now beginning to be asked as to how much American blood will be spilled in the deserts of the Middle East, and how many innocent lives will be extinguished before Al’Qaeda is finally defeated.  Regrettably, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq tell us the simple truth:   it will take years, if not decades more of warfare before Washington is able to mitigate the threat of violent political extremism.

The hostile relationship between national-security and the Constitution has always been at the forefront of American history.  Periods of warfare are always accompanied by those who wish to turn the United States into the country that it used to be:  a land that emphasized the very ideals, principles, and tenants of democracy and universal human rights.  Many times after a large-scale war, citizens create movements of freedom that aim to endorse differing viewpoints, economic prosperity and international peace…hoping to show other cultures, and religions how gentle and kind Americans can be.  Such a situation is often easily predictable, for the cycle of human nature usually comes full circle after tens of thousands of men, women, and children are killed.  All of a sudden, a radical transformation occurs in the American persona towards the very same enemies that we have fought for so long.  Dialogue, it is said, can overcome bombs, guns and missiles.  Rather than continuing on the blind course of air-strikes and tactical operations, we can ask our Taliban foes to sit down with us at the negotiating table.  As peace advocates commonly orchestrate, discussing grievances is much more effective in the long run than destroying Afghan and Pakistani villages with thousand-pound bombs.  “If only the president and his advisors recognize that!”

All of these arguments are taken with respect.  Any claim that advances the prospects for peace should be widely accepted, regardless of their origins.  However, while I would love to believe each statement outlined above with absolute confidence, I am not that naïve.  The type of war we are now engaged in is not compatible with the idealistic fantasies of international humanitarian organizations.  In contrast to the previous wars of attrition, the U.S. Military is now preoccupied with an ever-adapting enemy in some of the most remote places on the globe.  The days of a state officially signing a document of surrender are over…replaced with a more decentralized battle that may never end.  Asymmetrical warfare requires more innovative thinking…an increased mode of sophisticated weaponry that peace supporters would cringe at.  Slowing the capabilities of Al’Qaeda and other like-minded terrorist organizations often requires more intensive intelligence gathering, some of which may only be acquired by sidestepping the traditional rules of engagement.  The Constitution of the United States, the country’s most loving and emblematic work of art, may need to take a backseat to the more pressing challenges that Washington is forced to confront.

Many Americans (especially the legal community) would find my assertions collectively repugnant and disturbing.  I have to admit that deliberately avoiding the principles that our Founding Fathers established is a more than divisive task.  President George W. Bush’s administration has already experienced contentious results over the spying of American citizens, a program that is certainly categorized as above our common understandings of the law.  Yet, with this being said, are we to truly believe that soft power alone will foil the plots of Al’Qaeda and the Taliban?  Will following the Constitution as if the nation is under a period of peace be effective at securing the population in a time of war?  In a more dramatic fashion, will the First Amendment prevent state-sponsors of terror from acquiring nuclear weapons…which could then be passed to a proxy group that does not take into consideration the loss of innocent life?

Not surprisingly, September 11 has already answered this query.  As long as outdated law, partisan politics, and cumbersome bureaucracy thwarts our military’s ability to protect the homeland, more of our brave young and women will be forced to leave their loved ones for a stint on foreign soil.  Like the United States has done in the past, sometimes it is useful to think outside the box during an era of discord.

With the United States consistently bombarded by adverse threats, avoiding some tenants of the Constitution now may actually strengthen its influence in the future.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-An article from the Associated Press helped base the contents of this blog.

You can access this article at:     http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090725/ap_on_go_pr_wh/us_terror_domestic_raid


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