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Are America's freedoms slipping away?

July 06, 2008|By BOB MAGINNIS

For July 4, I put together an editorial that praised all of the freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. It would be good, I felt, for citizens to remember what they've been guaranteed and who fought for those rights.

But the editor who proofread the page - a wise person who has saved me from many of my own mistakes - pointed out that, just like the warranty on your old VHS player, some of those guarantees have been voided or watered down.

The right of free expression is one of our most cherished, but if you want to demonstrate at an incumbent president's political rally, you just might get hustled off, so that you won't break the celebratory mood.

Your free expression of your views might also trigger an investigation by the FBI, under guidelines the U.S. Department of Justice wants to put in place later this year. They need not produce any evidence that you've done something wrong, just that you fit the "profile" of someone who might.

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Those who support such guidelines sometimes say that only those with something to hide has anything to fear. But that means that those who haven't decided what they believe can't explore the possibilities.

When I was in college, a close friend flirted with the idea of joining the Students for a Democratic Society, known then as a subversive group.

He was no more a revolutionary than any of the other thousands of students who were looking for an organized way to express their dislike of the government's actions in Vietnam.

But his mother, who had a job with the federal government, was questioned by the FBI, not because of what he had done, but on the basis of what he might do.

Again, supporters of such guidelines will say that terrorists interpret our freedoms as weakness, that the U.S., needs to act in a way that they will understand. The other side of that argument is that if we hope to spread democracy, it will be tougher if the nation's agents begin acting like the minions of a dictator.

This is not an exact science; if there were terrorists plotting to blow up a city, I would personally be willing to err on the side of protecting American lives, even if it meant trampling on their rights.

What I fear is that in our rush to protect our land and our citizens, we might become what the writers of the Constitution abhorred. Such debates should not be seen as a lack of patriotism, but as a citizen's responsibility to protect what is - or should be - precious to us all.

Paying attention to what our government does is the least that we should be doing, especially when we look back at the sacrifices of past Americans.

Consider George Washington, our first president. Based on the history I've read, the people might have installed him as America's king.

But he would have none of it. When he was introduced at a reception in a way befitting a royal leader, he fumed, then told those who had arranged the welcome that that would be the last time that happened.

John Adams, the second president, left his home to serve in a time when there were no executive perks, no big salary and no Secret Service to protect him from those who, even then, were mentally unhinged.

Serving in office, even national office, was a sacrifice in those days. And, as Thomas Jefferson could attest, it often made the officeholder a target of the most vicious slander. But Jefferson, although he felt the sting of the partisan press, was wise enough to know that suppressing it was not the answer to the ill feelings some writers expressed.

In more modern times, there was Harry Truman, a man those who put him on the ticket with Franklin D. Roosevelt were not much impressed with, even though as a congressman he had done the nation a great service by calling attention to waste in the industries preparing materials for the war to come.

Truman knew the difference between himself and his office. He did not fool himself into thinking that the praises that came his way would have come had he remained a haberdasher in Kansas City.

When he left office, he did not go on a lucrative speaking tour, as Bill Clinton did, or accept appointments to corporate boards. He went home to Independence, Mo., and became a private citizen, except for appearances at his presidential library.

During the current presidential campaign, I'm watching for some sign that the two major candidates are struggling with how much freedom citizens should be expected to give up for safety - and how much dissent should be tolerated.

I have lately begun reading the histories of this nation's earliest leaders and what they risked to get us where we are. It should be a mark of shame not to vote, but one of the freedoms Americans have is the freedom to be uninvolved, to have no opinion on matters of the day.

Those of you who don't vote ought to pay attention, however. Just as a muscle not used tends to atrophy, the freedoms we were promised might not be there - at least in their original form - unless they are exercised.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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