Gun Nuts and Chilled Speech
Okay, so now we’re all armed. Present company included. Great job, America. Now what?
This column originally appeared in the Long Island Press
The debate over gun control would be uproarious if it wasn’t so pitiful. In typical American fashion we have taken to the streets and airwaves in the aftermath of Sandy Hook to engage in an irrational debate that, once again, places misguided ideology over common sense and humanity. If we’re going to have this conversation, let us at least place the discussion within its proper historical context so we may raise a more troubling question:
Why bother taking the guns when you can indefinitely detain their owners?
Lost in the emotion surrounding the debate over the Second Amendment is a far more insidious assault on the First Amendment. In no way am I diminishing the consternation over our right to bear arms as citizens; rather, I’m making a pragmatic case for a far more clear and present danger than the idea that federal agents will show up at our doorstep to commandeer our weapons. Before we get to this larger and more important point, let us dispense with the ridiculous.
Of course, we shouldn’t sell guns to crazy people, just like we don’t give a driver’s licenses to blind people. Of course, citizens shouldn’t own military-style weapons with enough ammunition to wipe out a village. Newsflash: the government has neither the authority nor the desire to seize our guns. We hold the dual distinction of being the planet’s most armed nation and its biggest dealer of arms. What does this mean? The gun culture is here to stay because it’s profitable as hell.
And another thing: Stop yelling sanctimoniously about what the Founding Fathers would say. Find out what they did say. Media pundits insult our intelligence by twisting the meaning of the Constitution and the rationale behind it. So instead of arming yourself with high-capacity weapons, arm yourself with knowledge and learn about the Second Amendment from those who wrote it.
Founding Father Knows Best
During the two short years between the ratification of the Constitution and the introduction of the Bill of Rights, three of the greatest minds in America publicly explored the rationale behind the country’s founding document. A trio of intellectual giants writing interchangeably under the name Publius — Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison — produced a collection of essays now known as The Federalist Papers. They are essentially crib notes to the Constitution left behind by the Founding Fathers.
These are treasured breadcrumbs of reasoning that lead us to understand that the great military concerns of the day were whether or not to allow a standing army and how to prevent one state from acquiring military dominance over another. (The nascent nation could ill-afford Virginia to sack Rhode Island.) This dilemma was at the heart of the federalist argument for a centralized authority. At the same time, the Founding Fathers knew that the great balancing act of the day was in maintaining enough military force to defend against external foes while simultaneously preventing armed insurrections from within.
Publius reasoned that neither citizens nor tyrants should have the ability to circumvent our legal system, therefore arms and force should be evenly rationed but employed by a central government when necessary. (For the politically impaired, this is the part about a well-regulated militia.) The framers of the Constitution were dubious when it came to having full-time, professional soldiers. After all, these men were revolutionaries themselves who intimately understood the danger of uprisings. Moreover, America was also flat broke and could never have paid for a standing army. They did, however, believe Congress should have the ability to organize a militia when necessary.
It was Hamilton (as Publius) who offered the most succinct viewpoint on the military. “To render an army unnecessary will be a more certain method of preventing its existence than a thousand prohibitions on paper.”
To have an army or not? If so, how best to regulate it? This was the debate. The easiest way to raise a militia was to call upon the armed citizenry should the need arise. (This is the right to bear arms part.) More importantly, it was cheap. The ability to compensate servicemen would become one of Hamilton’s central arguments in favor of a national bank — a far more delicate subject at the time than the right to bear arms would ever be.
It’s fair to say even the Founding Fathers could never have imagined modern warfare and the rise of the military industrial complex. Nor could they have imagined the destructive capability of assault weapons in the hands of citizens. This much is clear from their writings: the Founding Fathers would have punished any idiot who attempted to stockpile enough weapons to take on the government long before they tolerated government prohibition of speech.
On several occasions our founders saw fit to violently quell popular uprisings in order to preserve the central authority of the union. In this there was great philosophical unity among them. They argued more about banking than guns and cared more about protecting speech than organizing militias. It was John Adams who created a divide among them when, as president, he passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, jarring both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison out of retirement; not because they were fearful of his demagoguery with respect to force, but because these acts took away a more sacred right: free speech.
This brings us to the larger issue at hand.
Just as Jefferson and Madison recoiled at the behavior of Adams once in office, the great intellectual giants of our day have come together to challenge President Barack Obama’s authority.
The man who released “The Pentagon Papers” and forever changed the way in which we view our involvement in Vietnam. The award-winning multilingual journalist who quit the New York Times because it was too tepid and conservative. America’s foremost dissident who has influenced generations of thinkers and helped shape liberal intellectualism. When Daniel Ellsberg, Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky, along with some of the world’s foremost political activists such as Jennifer “Tangerine” Bolen — the organizing force of the plaintiff’s team — join together to bring suit against you in U.S. federal court it’s fair to say you have a problem.
Such is the predicament Obama finds himself in today. The above group has brought suit against the government for infringing upon free speech as defined by the Constitution. Thus far, and thankfully, they are winning. Their lawsuit (which I refer to herein as the Hedges suit) not only challenges the government’s unconstitutional behavior, it casts a light on a dangerous trend in America and exposes a surprising secret weakness in the White House and the Justice Department.
“There are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America — more than six million — than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.” — Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, 2012.
The woeful mash-up of Conservatives, Libertarians, Tea Party loyalists and Democrats who wouldn’t know a liberal idea if the ghost of Gore Vidal whispered it to them, are so busy deconstructing America’s gun culture they have ignored a more alarming cultural trend: the culture of incarceration.
In addition to being the most armed nation in the world, America also has the greatest percentage of its population behind bars. While this trend has steadily risen over the past few decades, it has gained a level of acceptability in the post-9/11 era. Perhaps, this is why so few bristled at the passage of the provision the Hedges suit aims at.
The plaintiffs in this suit have made the case in federal court that the Obama administration and Congress violated the First Amendment with the signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012. The Act is a routine bill that organizes defense spending for the year and typically garners little attention from citizens and the media. But the 2012 Act contained a new provision authored in secret by Sen. John McCain — known as Section 1021 — that was so alarming it prompted the above suit.
Essentially, Sec. 1021 expands the scope of existing law that allows the government to hunt terrorists in connection with 9/11 to include anyone seen as providing “substantial support” of terrorism. Ever. Anywhere. The provision offers vague language that attempts to couch it within existing statutes but its very existence is evidence that the government is seeking more expansive authority.
In September of 2001 the White House put forward several provisions that gave the government the power to prosecute those responsible for the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The joint resolution — the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) — passed Congress quickly and included nearly everything the Bush Administration requested. Everything, that is, except a provision that could have been interpreted as granting the government the ability to militarily detain U.S. citizens. This denial was subsequently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Hedges suit argues that the broadness of Sec. 1021 and vagueness of the “substantial support” language endanger journalists and activists and theoretically expose U.S. citizens to indefinite military detention.
Katherine B. Forrest, district judge in the U.S. District Court Southern District of New York, presided over the opening salvo of the Hedges suit and delivered a resounding victory to the plaintiffs, and an injunction against enforcement of Sec. 1021, excoriating the government and its case in the process. In her decision she states, “The Government was unable to provide this Court with any assurance that plaintiffs’ activities…would not in fact subject plaintiffs to military detention.”
For its part, the government’s sole defense seemed to be inaction: If no one has yet been detained, then obviously there is no cause for alarm. Basically, their defense is that even though Sec. 1021 says that the government can punch you in the face if it doesn’t like your shirt, it hasn’t done it yet; therefore we must assume it won’t. Judge Forrest wasn’t buying it. Her decision examines various laws pertaining to what the government defines as criminal statutes related to terrorist activities of behavior in “material support” of such activities. In each case, laws are clearly designed to honor due process. She further argues that the plaintiffs are rightly concerned that Sec. 1021 falls outside the scope of constitutionality with respect to habeas corpus and is therefore not consistent with any legal precedent.
This is where it gets really, really interesting.
Judge Forrest: “Section 1021 appears to be a legislative attempt at an ex post facto ‘fix’: to provide the President (in 2012) with broader detention authority than was provided in the AUMF in 2001 and to try to ratify past detentions which may have occurred under an overly broad interpretation of the AUMF.”
President Obama doesn’t have a journalism problem. He’s not afraid of liberal scholars, protests, or homegrown terrorism on the rise because of access to Jihadist websites. Barack Obama has a Guantanamo problem.
Ah, Guantanamo. Hundreds of suspected terrorists or their affiliates have been brought here for questioning. Scores have been indefinitely detained. Recall then-candidate Obama’s assurance that Gitmo would be closed. Upon becoming president, it didn’t take long for the political reality to set in that the remaining prisoners weren’t coming ashore to stand trial anytime soon.
On the one hand, the government makes the case that Sec. 1021 is no different than existing authority granted under the AUMF. On the other hand, the government stands by the need for this provision to continue its mission to find and prosecute suspected terrorists, as though AUMF isn’t sufficient enough. Judge Forrest barely shields her disdain for this conflicting stance and rightfully concludes that “Section 1021 is, therefore, significantly different in scope and language from the AUMF.” She goes on to wag her finger at the attorneys for the government, saying, “Shifting positions are intolerable when indefinite military detention is the price that a person could have to pay for his/her, or law enforcement’s, erroneous judgment as to what may be covered.”
Back to Hedges et al. for a moment. Stymieing the government’s continued attempt to cover up potential war crimes at Guantanamo may have been an incredible, yet unintended consequence of the Hedges suit. Remember, the plaintiffs in the Hedges suit aren’t suing over Guantanamo. That’s a different fight. Rather, they take issue with the inherent danger of the language to citizens, activists and journalists. Nevertheless, Sec. 1021 is still on the books as the suit is pending appeal. And regardless of whether or not any U.S. citizen has been specifically detained as a result of its passage (and how would we know?) it must disappear.
For his part, President Obama issued a signing statement distancing his presidency from Sec. 1021. But actions speak louder than words and in many ways he has been far more active in assaulting civil liberties than President George W. Bush ever was. Whether through the wide use of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia or numerous examples of prosecutorial overreach — most recently the tragic case of “hacktivist” Aaron Swartz — or the failure to speak out against the alphabet soup of dwindling liberties (SOPA, PIPA, FISA) Obama has given the public little evidence that he cares about this issue. Perhaps even more troubling is that his tenure as a constitutional law professor has been touted so often that one can only assume he understands the complexity of the issue but has chosen to ignore it, or worse take advantage of it. Bush was able to play the no-nonsense (you’re either with us or against us) cowboy card. Obama has chosen to play the steely intellectual card, and in doing so has created legitimate cause for alarm.
All of which brings us back to the gun debate. As much as I am sympathetic to the right to bear arms, I refuse to capitulate to the cheap argument that it includes the right to possess combat-style weaponry. Furthermore, I’ve grown weary of the ignorant protestations from right-wing figures who poison the words of the Founding Fathers and miss the bigger picture altogether.
The more we divorce ourselves from the notion of liberty, the more abstract it becomes; the more divisive our discourse, the more perilous our future. The vociferous gun debate obscures the very real, current and existing assault on our civil liberties. And know this: Were they alive today, not only would Hamilton, Jay and Madison have joined Ellsberg, Hedges and Chomsky as plaintiffs in this lawsuit, they would challenge every right-wing blogger, talk radio host and television pundit who twisted their words to a duel.
With a pistol, not an assault rifle.
Illustration: Jon Moreno