October 15, 2008

On Inalienable Rights

Lately there has been a disturbing trend in the way Americans think about their rights. By "rights", I mean our God-given, inalienable rights, some of which are enumerated in our Bill of Rights, and some of which are taken for granted.

It seems that whenever recent presidents espouse a certain policy, and perhaps are backed up by the Congress, a segment of the citizenry takes the view that their rights are being taken away. The Clinton assault weapons ban of 1994 is a fine example of this. Gun owners across the country were confounded by this unprecedented gun grab, which as we now know was useless against combating crime. Criminals still found ways to access whatever guns they chose, and law-abiding citizens found themselves subjected to arbitrary restrictions on magazine capacity, strange bans of cosmetic features, and complicated grandfathering rules. Gun owners' complaints ran the gamut from grumbling to shouting about this heavy-handedness, but most centered on the notion that Clinton, the focal point of their outrage, had taken away some of their gun rights.

Fast forward to the aftermath of 9/11. At first, the country was united out of confusion and fear. But gradually, the Patriot Act and its associated fallout caused many citizens, and not just left-wing Bush-haters, to rail against this intrusion into their civil rights. Once again, rights, civil and otherwise, were being taken away. Few people had concrete examples, except perhaps detainees who languished in prisons with their fellow presumed terrorists. However, ominous letters to the editor began to appear, talking in vague terms about how the Patriot Act, and later FISA and the Patriot Act II, were taking our rights away. We were told that we must fight to get our rights back; the general solution was to impeach the president.

I want to address this paradigm shift.

First, let us examine the meaning of "inalienable," a word used by our Founding Fathers to describe our rights. The Cambridge International Dictionary of English definition is "unable to be removed," a simple but powerful definition. So, therefore, our rights are unable to be removed. Contrast that with the cries of "Our rights will be taken away!" I say that our rights are not taken away! Rather, we are being prevented by force from exercising our rights. Our rights are given by our Creator, or exist in the natural order, depending on your belief system. Regardless, no government has the power to take away our rights, since they are inherent. Government can only use force and tyranny to prevent us from enjoying them.

Our eighteenth-century peers knew this. British troops were coming to the colonies to disarm the citizenry at the request of Governor Francis Bernard, who was having trouble controlling the population. The people had made a demand that the governor convene an assembly of the populace, which he had refused. A letter appeared in the Boston Gazette on September 26, 1768, after the colonists learned of the troops' impending arrival:
It is reported that the Governor has said, that he has Three Things in Command from the Ministry, more grievous to the People, than any Thing hitherto made known. It is conjectured 1st, that the Inhabitants of this province are to be disarmed. 2d. The Province to be governed by Martial Law. And 3d, that a Number of Gentlemen who have exerted themselves in the Cause of their Country, are to be seized and sent to Great-Britain.

Unhappy America! When thy Enemies are rewarded with Honours and Riches; but thy Friends punished and ruined only for asserting thy Rights, and pleading for thy Freedom.
This letter was signed anonymously "A.B.C.", but is widely suspected to be the writing of Samuel Adams. Note the absence of any language talking of the British "taking rights away," Rather, Adams spoke of asserting rights and being punished for it. The British troops' agenda is appalling even today: disarming law-abiding citizens, imposition of martial law and imprisonment back in Britain for participating in any kind of demonstration of resistance against the unjust British policies. However, the colonists never believed that their rights were being taken away. They only believed that the tyrannical Royal Government was coming to put down their fight to exercise their rights.

Talk is ramping up yet again of all the rights that a possible Obama administration would seek to take away. I entreat my fellow lovers of liberty not to think this way. Think of the rights as being yours, that no one can take away. When we think of rights as being ours, there is a reason to fight for them. If we already think of them as lost, then there is precious little catalyst to go out and reclaim them. Our Founders knew that when an oppressive government prevented the exercise of rights, then it was time to rise up to throw off the tyranny. This is what we must do, not just against a President Obama, but anywhere we think that our rights have been suppressed.

Guest post by Meg.

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