I spent the summer of 1993 in Syria as a Malcolm Kerr Scholar with the National Council on U.S.-Arab relations.
My time there was spent learning about the Syrian people, their government and the many reasons I was glad to live in a free republic and not under the cruel Assad regime.
It did not take long in Syria to understand the dangers of living in a totalitarian state. Our first day there, as we were checking into our hotel in Damascus, three members of Syria’s mukhabarat — the secret police — rushed into the lobby, grabbed a man who’d just stepped off the elevator, carried him out the door and stuffed him into the back of an unmarked car.
Our guide explained the man had been accused of speaking out against the government.
One of our group asked the obvious question: “What will happen to him?”
Our guide only shrugged his shoulders, and replied matter-of-factly: “We don’t speak of this.”
A year later, I raised my right hand and swore an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, in large part to make sure that scene I witnessed in Damascus would never be a reality in the United States.
Yet, unidentified federal agents are kidnapping people off American streets, with no probable cause or due process, spiriting them away in unmarked vans for unknown purposes.
I understand, on some level, the desire many feel to send in federal agents to quell unrest. But, our nation was born from the unrest of people who insisted justice and equality outweigh short-term peace and quiet. And we — having seen what happens to free people when armed federal agents “enforce the peace,” from King George to today’s tyrants — have long demanded law enforcement in our streets be managed by local and state authorities.
This is a crucial bulwark between freedom and tyranny, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, in the 10th Amendment, which specifically designates policing as “powers not delegated to the United States,” and solely “reserved to the states.”
The Supreme Court affirmed this in 1995, striking down a law, passed by a Democrat-majority Congress, that made it a federal crime to have a gun in a school zone. Nixon-appointee Chief Justice William Rehnquist rightly determined that law would give federal agencies “general police power of the sort retained by the states.”
But, we too often surrender the freedoms won by our forefathers and upheld by our courts, out of fear of enemies who could never inflict as much damage as we do by subverting our own Constitution.
After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, we rushed to surrender freedoms, out of fear, in the Patriot Act, in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and by granting broad policing powers to federal agents, including the ridiculously broad powers of Border Patrol, which can conduct otherwise-unconstitutional searches and arrests within 100 miles of any border. That includes Portland, because it is within 100 miles of the Pacific Ocean.
And, since 2001, we’ve granted rapidly-expanding executive powers to presidents of both parties, with no concern for the long-term consequences. Now, all these measures, passed in the name of “national security,” are being used against Americans.
Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul correctly pointed out this week: “We cannot give up liberty for security.” The problem, of course, is we’ve already given away our liberty, out of fear and complacency, and once it is lost it is very difficult to regain — especially once federal agents begin acting more like secret police than agents of a free people.
Federal agents now feel empowered to go beyond even the expanded powers granted since 9/11, roaming far from any federal assets, detaining and disappearing people without authority and trampling peaceful protesters and their Constitutional rights.
And the president has declared his intent to deploy his private army of jackboots into other cities, all in the name of “law and order.” But, the president unravels his own lie when he specifically targets cities run by Democrats. The intent is not law and order, but rather to target dissent in cities run by political opposition — the very hallmark and an essential building block of fascism.
Constitutional scholars and free Americans of both parties — who have not come to love party above country — see this for what it is: the pretext to totalitarianism, and an attempt to capitalize on violence, made worse by militarized federal agents, to shore up the president’s waning popularity.
Michael Dorf, a professor of constitutional law at Cornell University, placed the president’s use of federal troops in American cities in proper context, in an interview with The Associated Press.
“The idea that there’s a threat to a federal courthouse and the federal authorities are going to swoop in and do whatever they want to do without any cooperation and coordination with state and local authorities is extraordinary outside the context of a civil war,” Dorf said. “It is a standard move of authoritarians to use the pretext of quelling violence to bring in force, thereby prompting a violent response and then bootstrapping the initial use of force in the first place.”
“Extraordinary outside the context of a civil war.” That is where we are, folks. So, what are we willing to do about it? What steps are we, as Americans, willing to take, before our freedom ends up under the heels of federal jackboots?
That is the question on which hinges American liberty. And if we are not willing to live up to this moment, we and our children will end up like my pacified Syrian guide, who could only shrug at tyranny, and pitifully mumble: “We do not speak of this.”