The majority of our forebears came to America to escape oppression and anti-Semitism in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe. Amerike, die goldene medina, was the land of freedom and opportunity. It was a country which was not ruled by a tsar’s fiat.
This country was founded because of similar feelings. American colonists did not want to live under the decrees of King George, denying them the rights of their British countrymen. The founders were thus suspicious of centralized power because they experienced its abuse.
To a certain extent, they went to the opposite extreme and experimented with decentralization. Thus, when founded, the United States was a confederation of independent states. This did not result in the cohesiveness the founders desired. Therefore, the form of government was changed to a constitutional, federal republic. These are three loaded words.
The United States is a representative republic, not a democracy. In a democracy, the majority rules; there are no minority rights, except as granted by the majority. In a republic, sovereignty is vested in the people and is exercised by the people, either directly, or through representatives chosen by the people. The difference is that in a democracy, sovereignty is in the group, while in a republic sovereignty is in the individual.
This difference is reflected in the Constitution and especially in the Bill of Rights, which guarantees individual rights. By protecting individual rights, minority rights are protected. To the Founders, the rights of individuals were not granted by a sovereign. They were natural rights which precede and supersede any government.
As memorialized in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The framers of the Constitution were concerned that the newly created federal government would infringe on individual rights and upon the rights and powers of the states that created the federal government. This is why the Constitution limits the power of the federal government and divides its power among three equal branches under a system of checks and balances: to prevent the accumulation of power by one person or group controlling the federal government.
In recent months, there has been much discussion about the Second Amendment and the right of individuals to bear arms. However, there is more to the amendment: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
The Second Amendment is the only amendment which states a purpose: “a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state.” The “state” being referenced is a State in the Union. The proponents of the Bill of Rights were concerned that a federal army could threaten the freedom and security of the individual states. Thus, the need for independent state militias.
Today, these militias take the form of the state National Guards. These are armies of the governors of the states and not of the federal government. Except in well-defined circumstances, federal armed forces cannot operate within the confines of the United States.
Much of this may seem like old hat to those of my generation, who studied American history, the Constitution, and civics in high school in the 1950s and ‘60s. These subjects were taught in depth and made us proud to be Americans. This is why our grandparents and great-grandparents left the world of the pogrom.
But look at the curriculum that our children and grandchildren are taught. Did they get the same working knowledge as we did? Do they feel the same pride?
To me, this is the importance of the Rand Paul filibuster over whether drones could be used against American citizens on United States soil. It is a teaching moment which brings us back to the origins of the United States, its government, and its legal system.
An administration memo justified drone strikes within the United States. Paul’s questions concerned significant constitutional issues having to do with centralized power, the ability of the federal military to operate within the United States not at a time of war or insurrection, due process, and individual rights.
Does the president have the authority to kill American non-combatants on American soil who pose no imminent threat with a drone? The answer is either a simple yes or no.
Paul filibustered 14 hours on this point. The Attorney General finally answered “no.”
Paul’s filibuster was also a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment. In the 1939 Frank Capra film, newly-elected Senator Jefferson Smith goes against the Washington political establishment on principle. In the course of the film, Smith states:
“Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: ‘I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will.’”
After all, isn’t that why our forbearers came to America?