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More Droning About the Constitution

Drones have become more than just an advanced piece of military technology. They are no longer completely cloaked and hidden, known only to those in the government and military’s upper levels. We routinely hear news of drone strikes in Pakistan or Yemen, along with body counts or targets killed. Though drones have more uses than killing enemies in far-away countries. Like any government, the United States government likely sees the uses for drones domestically. Some of these uses might include defense and spying. But now a recent document extends these questionable domestic activities. The Department of Justice had made it known that the government may kill Americans deemed part of Al Qaeda or an “associated force with drones.” While drones are advanced technology, this does not entail that the situation we face is any different from our history. Only the surface differs, but the substance remains the same.

In a more abstract manner, we must question where this memo lies in relation to the Constitution as a whole. Although in this discussion, something vital cannot be left out: our constitutional rights do not come from the government. Rather, our constitutional rights are derived from our sheer existence—they are natural rights. These rights never leave us, nor do they operate like a light switch. No man, whether government bureaucrat or thug, may justly trample one’s natural rights to self-ownership, property, or liberty. As Thomas Jefferson declared, these rights are “inalienable.”

Today, the questions we face are not new. In examining the domestic drone-killing memo we shall first look to the past.

Contrary to what some may think, not all went smoothly in the United States after our nation gained independence and established its constitution. These magnificent feats did not represent a great struggle that yielded an Eden. Rather, the lines were soon drawn among the Founders. Alexander Hamilton and his ideological co-patriots supported bigger government and wanted to establish something akin to Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson, his faults aside, resisted taking the country down such a path. The presidency of another one of these Founders bears responsibility for a gross Constitutional violation: John Adams.

During the Adams administration, a series of legislation known as the Alien and Sedition Acts were ushered in. These severely violated freedom of speech, making any criticism of government a crime. The acts were premised on paranoia of a violent revolution or war with France. At the time, France was experiencing her own bloody revolution, with many refugees fleeing to the United States. In addition, the United States was in a state of undeclared naval war with France. The Alien and Sedition Acts were exercised, with dissenting and anti-Adams writers tried.

John Adams was not the last president to clearly and openly violate the Constitution. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. Lincoln’s justifications rested in wartime and matters of practicality. The pragmatist purely concerned with practicality would no issue with Lincoln’s action. They would bring the fact that a war raged, one that would be the bloodiest in our history. Yet this still misses the point. Arguing that conflict justifies immoral actions would be unacceptable in all other contexts. Why should government be different?

Due the posed question, perhaps it would be wise to analyze this quandary. In the Founder’s context, government is a social contract, in the Lockean sense. According to Locke, a government ensures a social contract by not violating its citizens’ rights. And, as we might guess, the Founders applied this same philosophy to Britain.

There are other examples of government violating natural rights from United States history. Woodrow Wilson’s administration imprisoned Americans for criticizing their government and World War I, FDR famously had Japanese Americans interned. Numerous administrations instituted the draft, and the government intruded into the economy numerous times. The question must become how we will deal with the problem at hand.

In the past, legislation has been the key to solving constitutional infringement. While this is the most straightforward and conventional solution, it is not the only solution available.

At the present time, several states are considering taking action against the Federal government, in order to protect their citizens and their citizens’ constitutional rights. TheBlaze notes that “Montana, California, Oregon, Texas, Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota, Florida, Virginia, and Maine” are considering banning drones from their airspace. (Though Virginia “included a provision that would allow the use of drones only in the case of emergencies or missing children.”) These are steps in the right direction, though there could be some issues in these proposals.

Banning drones outright might not be the best solution. This seems much too sweeping and broad. Yes, there should be provisions against illegal surveillance, no matter who is snooping, but a complete prohibition seems to leave out positive roles unmanned drones might play. Again, any kind of spying should be prohibited, but is it not possible that the free market might discover some good use for unmanned craft? One cannot know.

In a broader sense, state level action is what our country needs, if legislators at the Federal level fail us. After all, we are not going against just internment or regulating free speech today (It’s tragic to think we’ve reached this point). Let us remember what is being discussed: a Federal government empowered to kill Americans as it pleases. We should also remember the power of precedence in our legal system.

For all that has been said, theorized, and proclaimed about government, history shows that empowered governments do not remain benevolent. Acton’s quip on power’s corrupting influence stands true. Adding to the evidence is a moral and philosophical issue. If I am not allowed to kill fellow citizens purely because I believe they are plotting against me, why should the government have this ability? As many patriots have done before us, it is imperative that we peacefully stand against statism, no matter how it manifests itself and what justifications it gives.

Christian Lopac | Wabash College | @CLopac

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4 Responses

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  1. Bryce
    Nov 10, 2014 - 03:20 PM

    The Constitution prescribes the means of suspending habeas corpus. In Article 1 Section 9, it states that habeas corpus maybe suspended in times of invasion or rebellion. However it doesn’t say WHO is authorized to suspend habeas corpus. Most assume it is the Congress since it is written in Article 1, which deals with the legislative branch. Abraham Lincoln suspending habeas corpus was not an act of defiance against the Constitution. Congress was not in secession when the southern states broke out in rebellion against the Union. Lincoln considered it imperative that it be suspended immediately to deal with the crisis at hand. He could not go to Congress because they were not in secession at the time. So he did it himself. Congress did eventually reconvene at the request of Lincoln and they suspended habeas corpus making it a nonissue. So the Constitution was not violated in this instance.

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  2. Tim
    Feb 14, 2013 - 04:51 AM

    To effectively protect our privacy and civil liberties, everyone who can should become a dues-paying member of the ACLU. The NRA is the most influential group in Congress because they have four million dues-paying members. If Americans cared as much about the issues you’re writing about and joined groups like the ACLU, we would see a responsive and transparent government. Join the ACLU! And the Electronic Frontier Foundation!

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  3. Chris Rushlau
    Feb 13, 2013 - 05:30 PM

    Power is discretionary. You can tell who has power by seeing who gets their whims fulfilled. Law does not make politics go away. I guess we can hope that law brings politics out in the open. So we can see what we signed up for, or what someone else signed us up for.
    Here’s an idea from the age of the Federalist papers: we have to track power blocs. Government is measured by how it manages power blocs, or how they manage it.
    The Israel lobby famously gets everything it wants from the government currently, including 55 standing ovations for its prime minister from our Congress.
    But I don’t think the Israel lobby runs the country. I think there is a WASP bloc still entrenched, essentially a rich female bloc (think of Barbara Bush saying that the African-American Katrina victims sheltering in the Superdome should be grateful for losing their homes: “it was the best thing that ever happened to them”), which the Israel lobby bows to.
    So how does law and democracy fight against the oppression of a power bloc? It is all in how you think. If you police yourself, you’re doing their work for them. Likewise censorship. Are you as fair as you can be to people? Do you idolize some persons and expect them to take care of you? Do you trust your own eyes? Are you willing to fight, to borrow the New Testament term, the spiritual warfare to keep the evil spirits from running the country by running your mind, heart, and soul? If it sounds like a science-fiction novel I’m describing, it’s what I think is happening. Isaac Asimov wrote a series of “Foundation” novels in the course of his long and scholarly life. In the early ones the power in the world was advanced sociology, so the experts could predict the future and run things for the best. By the end of Asimov’s life, it wasn’t a battle of the experts against the people, it was the good telepaths against the evil telepaths. When you set the mood, you’re making the ultimate political statement. Are we all in it together? Are we capable of being reasonable? Is God a loving God? Who’s in charge? Like in the psalms: the righteous people are in charge. Does your conscience offend you? Then change what you’re doing.

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  4. Jack Penland
    Feb 13, 2013 - 02:04 PM

    The opening sentence of your final paragraph sums it up nicely; empowered governments do not remain benevolent. Who was it that stated something to the effect that “A government that can give you everthing you want can take away everything you have?” (Paraphrase). You can liken government to a cancer that, if unchecked, will consume everything in it’s path. The fact that it will eventually also consume itself is scant consolation to the already digested. I wonder how long it will be before it is suggested that drones be used to kill “domestic terrorists” on US soil? Think it can’t happen? One hundred years ago, Income Tax was a small surcharge on a very small percentage of the population, which is how it came to be foisted off on us. That can hardly be said of it now. Governmental intrusions that one hundred years ago would have been deemed “conspiracy theories” are now commonplace, accepted fait accomplis. This is why every single action of the government must be questioned, and the actors held accountable. Congress, in allowing it’s authority to be usurped by a monstrous bureaucracy and a highly politicized Supreme Court, has abdicated it’s responsibility, but, I notice, is still getting paid. A Constitutional Republic cannot survive an ignorant, apathetic, selfish and immoral constituency. The author de Toqueville, in his classic “Democracy in America,” in the Nineteentb Century, said it best when he opined that our Republic would survive until the Congress realized it could bribe the public with the public’s own money.
    Thank You
    Jack Penland

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