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Wednesday, 18 January 2012 02:26

The Rise of the Authoritarian State in the US: Constitutional Rights Transferred to the Whims of People in Power

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In a chilling commentary in The Washington Post, noted Law Professor Jonathan Turley makes the persuasive case that the United States may have become the authoritarian state - in legally assumed powers - that it regularly condemns in nations around the world.

That is not an exaggeration. All these expanded abilities to bypass civil rights that are guaranteed in the Constitution have not yet been utilized by the federal government, but many of them have - and they are now law. This means, at any time, an incident perceived as hostile to the United States could initiate their broad use and turn America into an authoritarian state where habeas corpus no longer exists and indefinite detention does.

More disturbingly, there has been a creeping expansion in this nation of what constitutes a "terrorist." We now have media and, in some cases legal, categories for "environmental terrorists," "animal rights terrorists" etc. We are only one very short step away from movements that challenge the status quo of American government from being called "terrorist."

The sum is greater than its parts, as Turley points out, and that is what is so terrifying to those who value freedom:

While each new national security power Washington has embraced was controversial when enacted, they are often discussed in isolation. But they don't operate in isolation. They form a mosaic of powers under which our country could be considered, at least in part, authoritarian. Americans often proclaim our nation as a symbol of freedom to the world while dismissing nations such as Cuba and China as categorically unfree. Yet, objectively, we may be only half right....

These countries also have constitutions that purport to guarantee freedoms and rights. But their governments have broad discretion in denying those rights and few real avenues for challenges by citizens - precisely the problem with the new laws in this country.

In short, the Constitution and our legal system, until recent years, guaranteed individual rights to US citizens that could not be dismissed at the discretion of the president, Congress or the military. That, as Turley details in his list of ten new government powers that curtail individual legal protections, means our freedom resides not in the guarantees of the Constitution or the law, but rather rests upon the whims of individuals in power:

The framers lived under autocratic rule and understood this danger better than we do. James Madison famously warned that we needed a system that did not depend on the good intentions or motivations of our rulers: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

Benjamin Franklin was more direct. In 1787, a Mrs. Powel confronted Franklin after the signing of the Constitution and asked, "Well, Doctor, what have we got - a republic or a monarchy?" His response was a bit chilling: "A republic, Madam, if you can keep it."

Since 9/11, we have created the very government the framers feared: a government with sweeping and largely unchecked powers resting on the hope that they will be used wisely.

There is a big difference between rights that are based upon law and those that depend upon hope.

We have crossed into an age of legal authority that could allow for the worst to happen here.