This administration doesn't even know the meaning of "rights"

Americans' individual rights have never been as solid or universal as many believe them to be. There's a rich tradition in this country of throwing key parts of the Constitution out the window when we believe we're being threatened.

But past administrations have always been able to at least talk about civil liberties cogently. Not this one.

Consider this little tidbit from Attorney General Abu Gonzalez, as he defended the Bush administration's domestic spying and threatened to prosecute journalists who report politically embarrassing "national security" information that get's leaked to them:


…he added that the First Amendment right of a free press should not be absolute when it comes to national security. If the government's probe into the NSA leak turns up criminal activity, prosecutors have an "obligation to enforce the law."
"It can't be the case that that right trumps over the right that Americans would like to see, the ability of the federal government to go after criminal activity," Gonzales told ABC's "This Week."
Only someone who doesn't understand the fundamental meaning of "civil liberties" could make that last statement. Not only can it be the case that the First Amendment trumps "the ability of the federal government to go after criminal activity," it must be, by definition.

He's correct that the rights granted in the Constitution aren't absolute. You don't have the right to scream fire in a crowded whatever. But the rule of thumb goes like this: the more fundamental the right in question is, the higher the bar gets set for the government to infringe upon it. In Korematsu vs. The United States, the Supreme Court, while finding that the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was legal, insisted that government claims that an individual's or group's rights had to be dismissed was always "suspect," and that "courts must subject them to the most rigid scrutiny." Only if and when the government can show that it has a compelling interest can fundamental rights be abridged. It's known as the doctrine of "strict scrutiny."

Gonzalez' suggestion that something as vague as the government's need "to go after criminal activity" is enough to do the trick is frightening. And somewhat totalitarian.

The government doesn't have a right to go after criminals; it has an obligation to protect citizens from criminal activity. There's a huge difference there. The government has no fundamental rights. Representatives of the government enjoy procedural rights -- for example when they argue a case in court -- but the government itself doesn't even have a fundamental right to exist, much less a right to fight crime.

I could dismiss the Attorney General's statement as a poor choice of words, but it's a trend with this administration. Recall General Michael Hayden, Bush's nominee for CIA Director, telling a group of journalists that "if there's any amendment to the Constitution that employees of the National Security Agency are familiar with, it's the Fourth" and then insisting -- repeatedly and wrongly -- that the Fourth Amendment doesn't require the government to show "probable cause" when seeking a warrant.

Or consider all of the presidential "rights" inferred by the Unitary Executive Theory.

Forget about walking the walk -- it's frightening that we have a government that can't even talk the talk of civil liberty.
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