So Long To The Fourth Amendment

“If you see something, say something.” That’s the mantra of the new national security state.

In a post-9/11 world, we’re all junior G-men on the lookout for terrorists. But if you try to complain in a courtroom when Government overreaches, you just might get thrown out of court. You might lack standing, or the you might learn that the Government is immune from suit, or maybe the individual you sued will be given a free pass by a judge granting what lawyers call qualified immunity.

Targeted killing by means of drones, those lethal big birds operated by joystick warriors? Too bad. Rendering suspected terrorists to foreign lands less troubled by the use of torture? So sorry. Eavesdropping on international phone calls and emails? Why that’s business as usual.

The Supreme Court is complicit in our gutting of the Fourth Amendment. Consider the recent case of Clapper v. Amnesty International. Civil rights activists and lawyers sought to challenge the warrantless interception of international electronic communications. The court ruled that those bringing the action lacked standing to sue, thus refusing to even reach the issue of whether the Government violated the law.

The doctrine of standing is intended to assure that courts hear only those cases involving actual controversies between parties. In the fusty language of the law, a party has standing to sue if he or she is involved in an actual case or controversy. In other words, was one party harmed by the action of the other? If there is no harm, there’s no case, no controversy, and no matter how important the issue raised, the courts will not hear it.

In the Clapper case, a 5-4 majority of the highest court in the land concluded that Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and others did not have standing to complain about Government interception of electronic communications. The parties bringing the action had the burden of proving standing. But when they attempted to get their hands on the proof that the Government had wiretapped them, the Government refused to comply with requests for information, citing national security.

So in this new Orwellian universe, folks are told they cannot try to prove the Government violated their right to privacy because the Government refuses to give up evidence necessary to prove the case. The evidence is withheld in the name of keeping safe those whose rights the Government may, or may not, have violated. Trust and obey, we’re told.

And we do.

We get the Government we deserve. The Fourth Amendment merely prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Just what is or is not reasonable is decided on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, juries get to evaluate the conduct of law enforcement agents, deciding what is reasonable. Often, judges decide the issues without juries, deciding, as a matter of law, what is and is not reasonable.

If we, the people, are prepared to accept surveillance, targeted killings, renditions and other broad assertions of federal power in order to make us feel safe, then, by golly, isn’t that proof enough that this is reasonable?


The Obama administration claims that the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts provide sufficient judicial review of intercepted communications to protect our rights. The administration proposes a similar court to review targeted killings of American citizens believed to be associated with al-Qaeda. But these courts operate behind closed doors. There are no juries; no public proceedings. We are told merely to trust the process. I suppose that’s easy to do, so long as someone else is getting killed, snooped upon or whisked away to a Saudi prison.

Where once we gave aid to dissidents who sought to oust Fidel Castro from power in Cuba in the name of liberty, we now use Cuba to warehouse people at Guatanamo Bay.

Historians sometimes speak of cycles in history. We’re in a profoundly conservative cycle just now, current occupant of the White House notwithstanding. Ordinary politics is dissolved into the dysfunctional bickering of professional politicians who can’t even agree on a budget to govern. But these same politicians find all the money they need to fund a national security state run in secret, and, apparently, increasingly free to target we the people.

Oh, we still employ the rhetoric of liberty with zeal. But we do so in meaningless and petty ways. While the Fourth Amendment is being gutted, lollipop patriots strut the streets demanding the full measure of respect for their Second Amendment right to carry guns. We need these guns to keep Government in check, right? Oh, we, the self-selected members of a citizen’s militia.

Utter nonsense, or, more accurately, white noise.

I cannot recall the last time I read about a gun being used as a political tool to oppose the depredations of Government. Instead, we turn the guns against one another. Corporations make a killing selling guns to a vast and growing security regime of local, state and federal law enforcement officers. There’s yet more money to be made selling private citizens guns. The demand for guns is kept high by selling fear.

The Government taps your phone? By golly, buy a gun. An American citizen is targeted for anonymous death by drone? Buy another gun. Your lawsuit is thrown out of court because the Government tells you that the information it may, or may not, have collected about you must be kept secret? Arm yourself for Armageddon. But here’s the trick: Just keep shooting at one another, thus requiring more police, more guns, more prisons, more Government.

We don’t give a damn about liberty any longer. We’re unfit to play act scenes from the founding of this nation. We’re sheep, led to slaughter and pacified by the scent of gunpowder.

I watched “Zero Dark Thirty” the other day. It portrayed the triumph of the national security state. Torture? Fine. Gunfire as national prayer? Check. Osama bin Laden shot dead? Amen.

I found it odd that the filmmakers never let us see the face of the dead terrorist, however. I suppose that was deliberate. Perhaps they didn’t want us to see the smirk on his face. You see, he won the war on terror. We’re destroying ourselves now without his help, one gunshot, one court decision, at a time.



Also listed under: Journal Register Columns


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