An Ancient Tale Of Civil Liberties


Civil liberties - the rights and freedoms of individuals in a society - are often, sadly, underappreciated and underrespected, not only in the context of the dictatorships which openly trample upon them, but also within the very bosom of those nations which claim to cherish them most. In nations of this sort, the very existence of these liberties may have become so taken for granted, that many citizens, incapable of imagining life without them, may end up failing to understand just how critical they really are, and allow fear, anger, and demagoguery to gradually erode their rights, until they are left standing naked and alone, utterly exposed to the abuses from which they were once protected.

The American nation was born as a direct result of abuse. We have all read the history books. We remember the story of the trial of John Peter Zenger, the brave and idealistic printer who dared to criticize the government; and later, the tyranny of King George III - "taxation without representation", the quartering of British soldiers in American homes, the Boston Massacre - and, finally, the stinging words of the Declaration of Independence, which explained the revolt of America, and its vision of becoming something new, to the world: "… Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new Guards for their future security…."

As a result of its experience with government tyranny and abuse - the force which precipitated America’s own violent and impassioned birth, and separation from the British Empire - the founders of the new nation eventually put into place a "Bill of Rights" - a series of amendments added to the newly constructed Constitution - in order to guarantee the rights of individual citizens against the potential encroachments and transgressions of government. The result was a brilliantly conceived and crafted structure meant to endow the government with the authority needed to provide cohesion, order, and security to the nation it ruled, while simultaneously preventing it from using that authority to unfairly dominate, persecute, or mistreat its citizens. Among the guarantees of the Bill of Rights were such sacred rights as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of worship, the right to assemble peacefully to protest government actions, protection against arbitrary and unjust incarceration or torture, protection against unwarranted searches and seizures, and the prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments."

A crucial philosophical rationale for the creation of the Bill of Rights, besides the implicit fear of government, learned from the founders’ bitter relationship with Great Britain, was the idea that "democratic rule is not enough to guarantee the rights of the citizen." Explicit and enforceable constitutional guarantees had to be put into place, above and beyond the mere of institution of democratic rule in the place of monarchy, for the founding fathers were also very much afraid that a government, elected by the majority of its citizens (which, in theory, should make it accountable to their will), might, nonetheless, still prove capable of committing great injustices against a vulnerable minority. Most likely, they feared the specter of some wild democratic rabble one day seizing the property, and endangering the persons, of the rich (such as they were). But the minority could also be comprised of individuals of another religion, political persuasion, or, as our culture later came to see, race.

Naturally, a certain tension between governmental authority and individual liberties, is to be expected in such a system. What happens when the two societal needs conflict? When the rights of an individual seem to jeopardize the functioning of the State, or when the apparent needs of the State seem to threaten the liberty of the individual? Which dynamic is to prevail? As one political textbook skillfully articulates the question: "Democratic governments must somehow preserve political authority at the same time that they promote the liberties of their people. The issue becomes not a matter of liberty or authority but of liberty and authority. For without the minimum conditions of order, individual liberties are meaningless; concomitantly, perfect order is present only in the deadening security of a prison. The crux of the issue is, how much liberty and how much authority? How can a free and secure society achieve a balance between these two values?" [Richard A. Watson, Promise and Performance of American Democracy, 2nd Edition, p. 92.] In our country, there is a long and complex history of legal conflict and cultural debate over this issue, preserved in the record of our courts and in the annals of our political life. No doubt, at various times in our collective history, errors have been made in both directions. Today, experience and precedent have set some valuable guidelines, and yet, human subjectivity and judgment continue to play a crucial role in resolving the issue, since the law is always subject to change, via legislation or reinterpretation, and since new conditions, produced as history marches on, frequently exceed the scope of ancient traditions and precedents. For this reason, the critical balance between government authority and individual liberty remains constantly in danger of being upset.

On the side of individual liberty, ground is easily lost if common sense is dispensed with. Safety, security, and a collective ability to act must not be sabotaged or paralyzed by egotistic and unreasonable demands of the individual. No group can survive without a spirit of sacrifice and discipline, and if individual rights are championed to the point of threatening the existence of society, as a whole, then the very idea of individual rights is likely to be discredited, and finally swept aside as an impediment to survival. Without scruples, and some sense of responsibility and belonging to the whole, the individual, and the self-serving rights he demands, may become a destructive force, spelling the beginning of the end of civil liberties, altogether.

On the side of authority, ground is easily lost in times of stress and danger. Fear of real or imagined threats may panic individuals into surrendering their rights, in order to feel safer, and more protected. Whether the threat is from crime, terrorism, war, or "subversion", individuals may, during times when the perceived danger of these threats is high, allow and even beg their government to increase its authority to act, in order to protect them more effectively. At such times, civil liberties may come to be seen as a shield unfairly used by those plotting to destroy society, or as an obstacle in the path of decisive responses. In the same way that a car with a flat tire may not be able to be driven effectively down the road, so a society which adheres to complex and developed codes of civil liberties during a time of crisis, may come to feel hampered by its "rules", and opt to increase its velocity and maneuverability by taking off the "flat tire" of its moral restraints, and stepping on the gas. (As the ancient Romans said, "In times of war, the laws are silent.")

Again, balance is the key. Obviously, to use the most vivid example now facing us, if terrorism, armed with utterly devastating weapons of mass destruction, becomes a reality of the future, then the power of our government to act, in order to thwart that threat, must be increased, and the realm of civil liberties must correspondingly shrink. However, what is absolutely essential, if such a dark day ever does come to pass, is that civil liberties not disappear altogether, or lose all of their bite - that the people not panic, and not give away all of their rights to government. All it would take is fear, and some obvious efforts of manipulation propagated from high places - "we cannot let the rights of terrorists endanger the lives of our citizens" - to stampede large numbers of people into standing aside while the government produced new emergency legislation, and the courts misapplied the "clear and present danger rule", first formulated by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Schenck v. United States (1919), to gain nearly absolute control over every facet of American life, and undreamed-of powers to destroy the intellectual freedom and physical existence of all those it considered "enemies". Whenever necessity forces some compromise on the part of civil liberties, it is essential that the nature of the concessions made on behalf of security be precisely defined, limited to the circumstances and times in which they are required, and that, throughout it all, respect for civil liberties never be lost. (There are some who, feeling powerless in their own lives, seek to recapture their stolen or lost sense of "virility" through psychological identification with a "virile", "macho" State. Propelled by these internal dynamics, they may come to see "civil liberties" as "emasculating", something standing in the way of the bold and decisive action which they need to feel a part of, in order to recover their lost sense of power. In this case, they may end up despising civil liberties, which could thwart their vicarious resurrection through the nation’s unrestrained action. Despising civil liberties, they will also come to despise those who champion civil liberties, and all the anger that their powerlessness has forced upon them will be vented against these dissidents, on behalf of the government that wants to assume draconian control of society. Once the respect for civil liberties is lost, of course - and once this hostile attitude towards individual rights is developed - there will be little to stand in the way of tyranny. The mass of the deceived and the powerless will help a few, in government, to gain more power, and to crush all those who protest, sweeping them aside as "unpatriotic traitors" and "fifth columnists", never even noticing that it is, in actuality, not recapturing its lost power, but only giving it away forever.)

Probably, the greatest mistake that could be made at a time of crisis, would be for the majority in a society to say, "These new laws [violating civil liberties] are meant only to get the bad guys. They’re meant only to get the criminals. They’re meant only to get the terrorists. They’ll never be used against me." Are the laws precisely and clearly written to guarantee this? Or are you depending on the good will of the government not to apply the laws against you, even though it could? Once you give all your power to a government, you are at its mercy. If it says its law is meant to be used against terrorists, but it could be used against you, because it is not clearly-enough defined or limited to exclude you, then don’t assume that it won’t be used against you, sometime down the road. For who can be sure what the agenda of your rulers really is, or might one day be? Today it may be fighting terrorists. Tomorrow, it may be something very different, affecting your most cherished values. Why should you trust the government to that extent? The founding fathers, the very ones who gave this nation its original shape and vision, and set it, like a ship, into the sea of time to begin its voyage, did not trust government to that extent! That is why they made a Constitution, a Bill of Rights, three branches of government, a system of checks and balances. That is why Thomas Jefferson said, "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." They understood the danger of ambition and power, and the constant threat of exploitation and abuse for which we must ever be on our guard: not just in foreign lands, but most of all, within the citadels of our very own leaders!

The danger of allowing civil liberties to be discarded, just because one feels that others are the intended targets of the abuse, has never been better stated than in the following passage by Martin Niemoeller, a German Christian dissident against Nazism, who survived years of incarceration at Dachau as a result of his conscience, which kicked in just a little too late: "First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew; then they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist; then they came for the unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a union man. Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me."

Whereas many immediately rebel at any suggestion that the political situation in the USA could ever degenerate into something even remotely akin to the horror of Nazi Germany, it must be stated that some US administrations, in the past, have supported, and even helped to put into place, ruthless dictatorships in other parts of the world, ranging from the Shah in Iran, to Pinochet in Chile, to the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua. This is not calumny, but fact. The justification was that an iron hand was needed to protect US strategic and business interests from various (frequently "left-wing") threats. And those who implemented these policies quite probably believed that they were choosing between the "lesser of two evils." But the scope of the suffering they caused has led many sensitive people, both here and abroad, to question the validity of their perceptions, and their motives; while the point I am trying to make is simply that if our government has proven able to tolerate (and promote) awful abuses which were seen to be in its interests, in other lands, who is to say that one day it may not "cross the line", and see fit to tolerate and promote such abuses in our own land? (More could be said, about certain domestic governmental operations, from some COINTELPRO/FBI counterintelligence actions, such as the war against AIM - the American Indian Movement, in the 1970s - to the massacre of religious cultists at Waco, Texas, in the 1990s.)

Besides this, it is important to put things into an appropriate temporal perspective. Our democracy has been in existence for 226 years (as of the time I write this article), if you take July 4, 1776, the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to be its starting point. (But, of course, that date is actually more of a symbolic, than real, beginning.) Ancient Rome is credited with having been a democratic republic for over 450 years. In the manner of our democracy, Rome’s began as a relatively elitist affair, then gradually widened, in concept and practice, through the years, though never so much as ours. In the end, issues of unresolved class tensions, social polarization, and political strife destabilized the democratic system, leading to the rise of dictators known as Emperors, who assumed greater authority in order to maintain the social peace. My point is that Rome had a long-standing and well-developed democratic system, with hundreds of years of history, tradition, and culture behind it, and that, even so, changing conditions and attitudes eventually undermined it, leading to chaos, then dictatorship, and finally producing such unbelievable results as Caligula, Nero, and Commodus, despots and madmen at the helm of the world’s mightiest empire! The warning of the past should be very clear to us, today: Americans! Don’t take your democracy for granted, or believe that it is immortal merely because it’s the only system you’ve ever seen or known. Democracy, replete with the rule of law, and secure guarantees of liberty, is like a plant, that must be watered every day, by every generation, with respect, and with will. Neglect it, and it will die. Don’t wake up to its preciousness, once it is gone, for then, it will be too late!

While the possibility that our system might one day be overthrown by a military coup, such as routinely take place in so many other parts of the world, cannot be discounted, a more probable scenario for the end of democracy in America would seem to be that our own apathy and neglect might lay the foundations for its demise; that threats and fears, such as war or terrorism, might produce an overreaction, causing us to give away too many of our rights to the protective "father figure" of our government (like little children running into their parents’ bedroom after a nightmare, we would cry, "Daddy, save us! Save us!"); and that unscrupulous elements of our government, already democratically put into place, through elections, or appointment by elected officials, might then utilize their enhanced powers to re-create society as they wished.

I have already seen much evidence, in the goings-on of my daily life, that insecurity is rampant in our society, and that for many, who lack the skills, compassion, or sense of justice to negotiate, compromise, and understand, total control is the only form of safety which they can comprehend. This is a dynamic you can see in many workplaces, and even in certain personal relationships. For some government officials of the future, armed with sweeping new powers placed at their disposal, to use at their discretion, without effective legal brakes or restraints, the temptation to misuse their might might prove too much. Whether voices of dissent could actually defeat their "sacred projects" or not, the very existence of different opinions, by constituting a potential threat, could become anathema to them, goading them into seeking the kind of total societal control attempted by the fascist regimes of the 1930s and 1940s, by Stalinism, and by the imaginary nightmare-world of Orwell’s 1984. Is it possible, then, that the war against terrorism could one day place us at the mercy of our own government, which, utilizing laws meant to protect us against terrorists, gradually increased its powers to the point of being able to "fight the war" on a broader front, cracking down on imaginary domestic terrorist suspects, on terrorist "sympathizers", and on "unpatriotic" individuals (anyone who "interfered" with its actions by questioning any of its actions)? Is it possible that it could use such laws to erode our rich tradition of civil liberties, and gradually gain mastery over all facets of our lives, and even our thoughts? Think of the amazing new technologies that are rapidly becoming available, or at least conceivable: retinal scans; strategically-placed cameras and imaging systems, linked to computer banks of faces; equipment and procedures for monitoring Internet activity - every web site visited, every e-mail sent, every chat log created - as well as for tapping phone calls, or listening in to conversations in a house by picking up sound vibrations off of window panes from the street; omnipresent surveillance cameras, recording our every movement and association, even satellite snooping, and maybe, one day, robotic "flies on the wall"; vast computer storage files, containing unified data bases on every citizen - his ID, his work record, his purchases, including the books (ideas) he has come into contact with, verifiable from book purchase transactions and library records - maybe even, one day, computer chips implanted into people’s hands or foreheads, a kind of Total ID card/tracking device carried with us everywhere we go (this is how some Biblical literalists, today, interpret the "Mark of the Beast"). New possibilities, also, of genetic engineering, and perhaps creating the perfect "obedient" man, if not, at least, detecting potential rebels at birth, to help fine-tune and better direct the repressive resources of the State. In an environment of such frightening technical possibilities, it is now, more than ever, incumbent upon us to nourish and defend our essential human values, and to stand fast by the constitutional protections which provide us with the social space we need to live and act as human beings. Otherwise, we have no future, but to become pawns, sheep, or martyrs.

While to some, it may seem quite unbelievable that democratically elected officials could ever subvert our system to this degree, it is precisely in this way that Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany. It is a scenario that works. At that time, Germany was a democratic republic, but its commitment to democracy was damaged by economic suffering, wounded nationalism, and the fear which many had of Communism. Soon after taking power, the Reichstag, home of the German Parliament, burned down, destroyed by an act of arson, and the fire was blamed on the Communists. Whether the Nazis set this fire themselves to create a national crisis, and to terrify the nation with the specter of an imminent Communist revolution, or whether a Communist agent really was responsible for setting the fire (or a solitary "madman", as some now think), the results are clear: Hitler took advantage of the nation’s fear, and with tacit, and often enthusiastic public support, used special emergency powers, applicable in a crisis, to remove and later block leftist delegates from the Parliament, subsequently convincing those delegates who remained to perpetuate his powers with an "Enabling Act." He then used these extraordinary, and now "legitimized" powers, to arrest and silence opponents, gradually gaining control of the press, workers’ movements, cultural and educational institutions, youth groups, etc., while winning over the army and business elites, until the democratic republic which he had begun with was fully transformed into one of the most cruel and destructive dictatorships the world has ever known. The evolution from Chancellor to Fuehrer was complete.

Again, the point is not to make a parallel between Nazi Germany and America (or what America might become), which strikes most audiences, today, as drastic, but to demonstrate one possible avenue by which a democracy might be destroyed. Surely, a terrorist attack such as 9/11, embellished with radioactive materials (as in a dirty bomb), or an actual fission bomb, or by a well-executed biological or chemical strike, could produce a provocation reminiscent of the burning of the Reichstag. Would our society, then, have more sense than the Germans of the 1930s, to hold onto our civil liberties, even as we took the necessary measures to insure our physical safety and survival? A caution: if democracy is ever to be destroyed in our land, you may be sure that you will never see a swastika - not once - as it is usurped. Instead, you will see the American flag, and you will hear the American national anthem, and the ones who take your power away will not speak in a German accent, but in an American accent, perhaps in a "folksy", familiar, reassuring voice, that will make you want to invite them into your living room. Wolves in sheepskins. Beware of what lurks behind the "familiar."

Again - please don’t dismiss this as alarmist and exaggerated! Our founding fathers were worried about the very same thing, though they tended to see tyranny more in the form of King George III, or perhaps in the form of a wild rabble-rouser, someone like Tiberius Gracchus (as misrepresented by Cicero). In their days, comparisons with Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin - dictators with widely-circulated newspapers, the powerful new propaganda medium of the radio, motor vehicles, railroads, airplanes, and modern industry, making the control of large tracts of territory easier - were not possible. It is normal, today, however, that we should look towards the 20th-century examples of Fascism and Communism for the stuff of our nightmares; and imperative that we remind ourselves that the technological tools available to the State, today, for the domination of its people, DWARF the tools of only sixty years ago. In a world with such temptations, dangling in front of the eyes of unchanged human nature, as prone to fear and ambition as ever, alertness and passion for freedom are the keys to the survival of democracy. Whenever and wherever the people fall asleep, they shall awake in chains.

I go much more into these concerns in my book, The Message Of Rainsnow, and also make some effort to chronicle the potential metamorphosis of democracy into dictatorship in The Journey Of Rainsnow, in the chapter entitled, "Days of the Swastika." I recommend these works for those who desire to delve deeper into the issue.

And now to the ancient tale, which the title of this article has led you to expect. As is the case, many times, when dealing with a complex, contemporary and controversial topic, it is sometimes easier to reach the heart of the issue by bypassing its specifics altogether, since we may already have preconceptions and loyalties, regarding those specifics, that prevent us from continuing to interact with them with an open mind. At such times, a tale which captures the essence or crux of the problem, in a timeless and not overtly political way, may better serve to drive home the intended point. Thus it is that I turn to one of the classic fables of Aesop, the ancient Greek storyteller who, over five hundred years before the birth of Christ, dazzled Croesus, the King of Lydia, and his court, with his charming, yet secretly deep, tales of animals and men.

The world of the ancient Greeks was filled with political diversity and experimentation. It had its kings, and its democratic states run by assemblies of citizens; it had its tyrants, often autocrats who rose to power on the wings of the masses’ desires, then turned upon them, controlling them by force or manipulation; it had its oligarchies, states run by councils of the rich and powerful, and its utopian dreamers, who imagined altogether new - and sometimes impossible - ways of living. From this fertile world of political contrasts, Aesop doubtless drew many lessons, and one of the most important ones for us, today, is that embodied in the fable known as "The Hawk And The Pigeons." I include it, here, to state, in a more universal way, for those who might resist my political discourse, the essence of the warning I am trying to convey.

The Hawk And The Pigeons

Once upon a time, there was a hawk who had, for some time, been stalking a flock of pigeons that excited his appetite. But try as he might, he could never quite manage to surprise them, for always, as he swooped down from the sky, they seemed to anticipate his arrival, and to scatter to safety, finding one of various refuges in which to hide.

The hawk, driven by the overwhelming temptation of the flock, tried every maneuver he could think of to strike at them successfully. Thinking that they might be tipped off by his oncoming shadow, he waited for a cloudy day to plunge down from the sky. But his craft had no effect, at all. The flock escaped, down to the last pigeon.

Discouraged, yet still determined, the hawk decided to stay away for several days, to make it seem as though he had given up on his purpose and gone elsewhere to look for food. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, he tried again, falling like a deadly stone out of the sky, plummeting towards the pigeon flock with stunning speed and resolution. And yet, once again, once the drama had played out, every single pigeon was still alive, and the hawk was hungrier and more disappointed than ever.

"What can I do," he asked himself, "to better these evasive pigeons?!"

That’s when an altogether different strategy finally occurred to him. Positioning himself on the heights of an ancient tree, not far from where the pigeon flock had gathered, he called down to them: "Why choose this life of constant fear and anxiety, when, if you would only make me your king, I could patrol the skies for you, and protect you from any attack that could possibly be made against you?"

The pigeons, believing that the ultimate answer to their safety might, indeed, be the support of the powerful and dangerous hawk - for who would dare to attack him? - decided to place their trust in him, and to utilize his predatory might to their own advantage.

Unfortunately, no sooner had they proclaimed the hawk to be their lord and king, than he issued his first order: which was that, every day, from then on, one pigeon was to be brought to him for his dinner.

Application: Those who voluntarily place themselves under the power of a tyrant deserve whatever fate they receive.



- Let’s never forget the life-saving message wrapped up in this ancient tale! It has never been more important to embrace than today, 2500 years after it was written!



NOTES: This version of "The Hawk And The Pigeon" is a paraphrased rendition of the story as presented in Aesops’ Fables, in Grosset & Dunlap’s "Illustrated Junior Library" edition, 1947. P. 44-45.



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