I. Americans running scared?
After the attack on our country two years ago by Al Qaeda terrorists, many Americans feel the Bush Administration's steely resolve to fight an all-out war on terror is entirely justified, and they are exhilarated by the Administration's initiatives at home and abroad. Many other Americans, watching the political developments of the past two years, feel our country is going straight to hell, and that the Bush Administration has eroded our civil liberties to the extent that we are starting to betray what it is that initially made us Americans: namely the Constitution and the freedoms from government persecution that it guarantees.
Faced with these two possible reactions I would put myself squarely . . . in the middle. Like many I believe that aggressive initiatives are needed to fight Al Qaeda and keep them from pulling off further devastating attacks. I was entirely in support of military action in Afghanistan, as I'm in support of assassination of known Al Qaeda operatives, whether by hook, by crook, or by unmanned drone. On the other hand, as regards the domestic scene, I feel Bush and his supporters in government have passed legislation well beyond the call of duty, and that the spirit of self-righteousness that guides his policy is in itself liable to do America plenty of harm. This self-righteousness is damaging both inside America and in our relations abroad.
Many Americans think they're being patriotic when they support allowing our government to compile huge databases of information on our private lives: our email accounts, the library books we read, what we buy, our college transcripts, medical records, etc. Such citizen surveillance projects are in the works, and many feel that supporting them is patriotic because it is part of the war on terror. A name that might be familiar to such "patriotic" Americans is Benjamin Franklin. But Franklin's way of thinking of government is no longer so familiar. Franklin wrote the following:
They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
How do we size up to this concern of the Founding Fathers that we never let government infringe on certain essential liberties? Here, as I see it, is the most important single issue of this "war on terror." Recently we are handing over our freedoms by the handful, and all this because of a few bands of Muslim radicals. The legislation being passed in the name of our security is laying the institutional groundwork for an autocratic state. I don't think there is anything American about that.
Total Information Awareness (TIA):
Anyone who deliberately set out to invent a government program with the specific aim of terrifying the Orwell-reading public could hardly have improved on the Information Awareness Office. Tucked away in the outer reaches of the Defense Department, the office is headed by retired Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter, who brings his unique record of public service to this new post. For his role in the Iran-contra scandal, Poindexter was convicted of five felony counts of lying to Congress, destroying official documents and obstructing congressional inquiry into the affair.
The Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, still in the research and planning stages, is trying to find ways of better identifying potentially dangerous people by using video cameras and biometrics, and by processing large amounts of data from multiple sources. Given both the context and content of the program, its sponsors should hardly have been surprised by the public outcry. However revolutionary and innovative the program may be, this is certainly not neutral technology, and the potential for abuse is nothing less than enormous. If information that once took five people a week to find will now take one person seconds to find, then instant--and instantly updatable--computer dossiers on every citizen really do cease to be science fiction. If computers can learn to identify a person through a video camera, then constant surveillance of society looms within reach. Government agencies might gain the ability to locate every American citizen at the touch of a button, as they might begin to profile citizens' movements or communications for "desirability" or "undesirability". Or how does the idea of the government assigning every citizen a scorecard sound? Each citizen's score might go up or down depending on where one goes, whom one talks to, what one says or writes. Low scores would invite more intensive surveillance.
The legal system designed to protect our privacy has yet to catch up with this technology. Congress needs to take a direct interest in this project, and the secretary of defense should appoint an outside committee to oversee it before it proceeds any further. Privacy concerns need to be built into the technology from the beginning--if the public decides, after being fully acquainted with the possibilities, that it is to be built at all. But is the public really being presented with any options? And given the current environment of fear, will thorough debate about programs like TIA ever be conducted?
Finally, everyone involved might also want to consider whether Adm. Poindexter is the best person to direct this extremely sensitive project. Though his criminal convictions were overturned on appeal, his record of lying to Congress hardly makes him an ideal protector of the legal system, and his conduct of Iran-contra hardly makes him an advertisement for government competence. Adm. Poindexter's presence on this project, the lack of clear public information about it and the absence of any real oversight already indicate a serious lapse of judgment. How many more such lapses of judgment need to occur before Americans find they are living in a high-tech authoritarian state that takes every citizen's private life as its own publicly-funded business?
The program called Total Information Awareness is clearly unconstitutional. It is my thesis that the Constitution is a far better means of protecting Americans than Bush Administration appointees. To the extent that these appointees ignore the Constitution in their formulation of policy or in their pursuance of an illusory security, they are not merely acting unwisely, they are traitors engaged in changing America into something that it has never been and must never be.
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The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
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New York Times columnist William Safire notes the potential of this new TIA program as follows:
Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend--all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense Department describes as "a virtual, centralized grand database."
Here is how John Markoff of the New York Times describes the capability of the TIA program:
It will provide intelligence analysts and law enforcement officials with instant access to information from Internet mail and calling records to credit card and banking transactions and travel documents, without a search warrant. Historically, military and intelligence agencies have not been permitted to spy on Americans without extraordinary legal authorization. But Admiral Poindexter, the former national security adviser in the Reagan administration, has argued that the government needs broad new powers to process, store and mine billions of minute details of electronic life in the United States. Admiral Poindexter, who has described the plan in public documents and speeches but declined to be interviewed, has said that the government needs to 'break down the stovepipes' that separate commercial and government databases, allowing teams of intelligence agency analysts to hunt for hidden patterns of activity with powerful computers.
In an online essay Declan McCullagh wrote the following:
For a hint at what the future might bring, it's worth reviewing some of the projects already under way at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is the parent agency for Poindexter's Information Awareness Office. Combine that information with the technology trends toward smaller sensors, cheaper hardware and ubiquitous wireless networks, and the possibilities are immensely disquieting. We could face the emergence of unblinking electronic eyes that record where we are and what we do, whenever we interact.
Imagine a world where every street corner is dotted with disposable microcameras, equipped with face-recognition software that identifies pedestrians and constantly updates their individual files with up-to-the-minute location information. (Wearing masks won't help: many states already have antimask laws, and the rest would follow suit if masks became sufficiently popular.) The microcameras are linked through a network modeled on existing 802.11 wireless technology. The wireless mesh also includes cameras devoted to spotting and recording license plates and a third type that identifies people by the way they walk.
It's not that far from reality. Poindexter's office has an entire project area called Human ID at a Distance that's spending millions on researching biometric technologies, including face recognition and "gait performance" detection. Facecams already are in use in airports, city centers and casinos.
The ACLU article on TIA states:
[Implementation of TIA] would kill privacy in America. Under this program, every aspect of our lives would be catalogued and made available to government officials. Americans have the right to expect that their lives will not become an open book when they have not done, and are not even suspected of doing, anything wrong.
[TIA] harbors a tremendous potential for abuse. The motto of the TIA program is that "knowledge is power," and in fact the keepers of the TIA database would gain a tremendous amount of power over American citizens. Inevitably, some of them will abuse that power. An example of the kind of abuses that can happen were chronicled in a July 2001 investigation by the Detroit Free Press (and December 2001 followup): the newspaper found that police officers with access to a database for Michigan law enforcement had used it to help their friends or themselves stalk women, threaten motorists, track estranged spouses - even to intimidate political opponents. Experience has shown that when large numbers of Americans challenge the government's policy, some parts of the government react by conducting surveillance and using it against critics. The unavoidable truth is that a super-database like TIA will lead to super-abuses.
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The ACLU is sponsoring a fax campaign to President Bush asking for the elimination of the TIA program. Check at the website:
More about TIA and how you can help stop it at:
The Electronic Privacy Information Center is pursuing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Defense to obtain further information about the TIA program. Former senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.), a member of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, criticized the scope of Poindexter's program, saying it is "total overkill of intelligence" and a potentially "huge waste of money."
"There's an Orwellian concept if I've ever heard one," Hart said.
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Forward this to as many people as you can. Americans should be aware of where their tax dollars are going and what is starting to take shape in the land of the free.
The following letter has been bouncing back and forth between email in-boxes for the past couple years. I think I've gotten it at least four times in different versions. The most recently received version reads as follows:
Fw: Re: Quit complaining!
IMMIGRANTS, NOT AMERICANS, MUST ADAPT. I am tired of this nation worrying about whether we are offending some individual or their culture. Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, we have experienced a surge in patriotism by the majority of Americans. However, the dust from the attacks had barely settled when the "politically correct" crowd began complaining about the possibility that our patriotism was offending others.
I am not against immigration, nor do I hold a grudge against anyone who is seeking a better life by coming to America. Our population is almost entirely made up of descendants of immigrants. However, there are a few things that those who have recently come to our country, and apparently some born here, need to understand. This idea of America being a multicultural community has served only to dilute our sovereignty and our national identity. As Americans, we have our own culture, our own society, our own language and our own lifestyle. This culture has been developed over centuries of struggles, trials, and victories by millions of men and women who have sought freedom.
We speak ENGLISH, not Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, or any other language. Therefore, if you wish to become part of our society, learn the language!
"In God We Trust" is our national motto. This is not some Christian, right wing, political slogan. We adopted this motto because Christian men and women, on Christian principles, founded this nation, and this is clearly documented. It is certainly appropriate to display it on the walls of our schools. If God offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home, because God is part of our culture.
If Stars and Stripes offend you, or you don't like Uncle Sam, then you should seriously consider a move to another part of this planet. We are happy with our culture and have no desire to change, and we really don't care how you did things where you came from. This is OUR COUNTRY, our land, and our lifestyle. Our First Amendment gives every citizen the right to express his opinion and we will allow you every opportunity to do so. But once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about our flag, our pledge, our national motto, or our way of life, I highly encourage you take advantage of one other great American freedom, THE RIGHT TO LEAVE.
If you agree--pass this along; if you don't agree--delete it!
I figure if we all keep passing this to our friends (and enemies) it will also, sooner or later get back to the complainers. Lets all try, please.
The person who wrote this letter takes himself to be a perfect American, the kind intended by the Founding Fathers. But although I agree with some aspects of his thinking, I see in the main an angry and intolerant complainer, a man who has his own strict idea of what is "politically correct" and what is unacceptable. Like him I am a Christian, but unlike him I have to recognize that one of the things that has allowed America to continue as one of the world's most religious countries is precisely its repeated insistence that church be separate from the state. To this man and everyone who clenches their fist along with him I'd have to say: "Quit complaining indeed! You ought to see the struggle between different ethnic groups and different beliefs as exactly what this country has always been and exactly what makes this country strong and unique."
I'm also convinced that if a few of the sentences in this now-famous letter were changed, a few of the words, it would be perfectly suited to a conservative Iranian cleric opposing un-Islamic foreign ideas. How does the following sound to you?
"Allah before all things" is our national motto. This is not some right-wing clerical slogan only for the religious schools. We adopted this motto because Muslim men and women, on Muslim principles, fought to establish our Islamic revolution, and this is clearly documented. So it is certainly appropriate to display this slogan on the walls of our schools and on every page of our newspapers. If Allah offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home, because Allah is part
of our culture!
These precepts are suited to a theocracy like Iran. They can have no place in a country like the United States. Compare this "Iranian cleric" version to the similar sentences in the man's letter above and then decide for yourself what being an American really means.
A while ago you wrote to me:
You may think I sound bizarre, but I believe that our country has lost a great deal of attachment to scripture and to what it was founded on, namely, "One nation under God." This in turn removes us from God's favor. That is truly the worst place to be. I truly believe we desperately need a return to morality as taught in the Bible. We can't remain blessed unless we live in a state of grace.
If you write me in contradiction of my spiritual view, I will never be dissuaded from it. I am firmly rooted in this belief and I will never turn from it.
When I got this letter I didn't quite know how to respond, because I didn't have one fact at my disposal. I decided to look into it, and got my answer. The fact concerns the line you quote from the Pledge of Allegiance. You point out that America was founded on this notion of "one nation under God" and that we have drifted further and further from this.
I think America is in the main a Christian culture, and that much of its cultural greatness arises from the respect for the individual that a belief in the soul brings with it. But the idea that the United States (i.e., its Constitution, its political culture) was created by Protestant Christians is historically mistaken and is the result of a general public ignorance that current fundamentalist Christians are doing their best to increase.
". . .one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all."
The Pledge of Allegiance from which this comes was written in 1892, well after the country was founded. The phrase "under God" was added in 1954--yes, 1954--during the early years of the cold war. There was a felt need to distinguish our country at that time from the avowedly atheist Soviet Union. So the Pledge of Allegiance originally read "one nation, with liberty and justice for all"--no mention of God in the whole pledge.
But that is only the Pledge of Allegiance. The other great misconception--and it seems to be getting more and more prevalent--about the founding of our nation is that the Founders themselves were strict Christians who wanted to create a Christian nation, and that their Constitution reflected their Christian values.
In fact this is not the case, as even a shallow reading into history and biography will reveal. The Founders were generally philosophers inclined toward skepticism. They were deeply suspicious of the churches (Protestant included) and they were concerned to create a nation that would protect citizens from these churches. Christianity of course influenced them greatly (both consciously and unconsciously) but most of them did not identify themselves as Christians, and many of them went out of their way to insist that they weren't.
You know that I too am a Christian. This, however, does not encourage me to neglect history. In fact your idea that America is becoming less and less Christian is simply not true. America has always been a dialogue between believers and unbelievers. It should be something of an embarrassment to Pat Robertson and clan that among the unbelievers have to be listed names like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington.
Our Constitution was written by men who would have been deeply troubled by the sight of an American president mixing government policy with Christian doctrine. These men had seen what happens when church and state get mixed up, and they wanted to try a new experiment: an entirely secular state with no links to religion. It's an experiment that has worked very well and will continue to do so, if only America remembers its political roots.
Consider some of the following quotes and the following brief article I downloaded for the purpose of this letter.
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Most of the Founders considered Jesus a great leader and philosopher, one whose ideas started to get misrepresented as soon as he died, and one who, moreover, had obviously already been misrepresented starting with Paul, if not with some of the Gospel writers. Thomas Jefferson was in this camp.
"But the greatest of all reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers [i.e., the Gospel writers], and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man. The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent morality, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems, invented by ultra-Christian sects (The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of the Hierarchy, etc.) is a most desirable object." - Thomas Jefferson to W.
Short, Oct. 31, 1819
"It is not to be understood that I am with him (Jesus Christ) in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance toward forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it. Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others, again, of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being. I separate, therefore, the gold from the dross; restore him to the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some, the roguery of others of his disciples. Of this band of dupes and imposters, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and the first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus." - Thomas Jefferson to W. Short, 1820
"The truth is, that the greatest enemies of the doctrine of Jesus are those, calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them to the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come, when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." - Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, Apr. 11, 1823
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By Steven Morris, in Free Inquiry, Fall, 1995
The Christian right is trying to rewrite the history of the United States as part of its campaign to force its religion on others. They try to depict the founding fathers as pious Christians who wanted the United States to be a Christian nation, with laws that favored Christians and Christianity.
This is patently untrue. The early presidents and patriots were generally Deists or Unitarians, believing in some form of impersonal Providence but rejecting the divinity of Jesus. . . .
Thomas Paine was a pamphleteer whose manifestos encouraged the faltering spirits of the country and aided materially in winning the war of Independence: "I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of... Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all." From: The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, pp. 8,9 (Republished 1984, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY)
George Washington, the first president of the United States, never declared himself a Christian according to contemporary reports or in any of his voluminous correspondence. Washington championed the cause of freedom from religious intolerance and compulsion. When John Murray (a universalist who denied the existence of hell) was invited to become an army chaplain, the other chaplains petitioned Washington for his dismissal. Instead, Washington gave him the appointment.
On his deathbed, Washington uttered no words of a religious nature and did not call for a clergyman to be in attendance.
From: George Washington and Religion by Paul F. Boller Jr., pp. 16, 87, 88, 108, 113, 121, 127 (1963, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, TX)
John Adams, the country's second president, was drawn to the study of law but faced pressure from his father to become a clergyman. He wrote that he found among the lawyers "noble and gallant achievements" but among the clergy, the "pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces". Late in life he wrote: "Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, 'This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!' "
It was during Adam's administration that the Senate ratified the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which states in Article XI that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion."
From: The Character of John Adams by Peter Shaw, pp. 17 (1976, North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC) Quoting a letter by JA to Charles Cushing Oct 19, 1756, and John Adams: A Biography in his Own Words, edited by James Peabody, p. 403 (1973, Newsweek, New York NY) Quoting letter by JA to Jefferson April 19, 1817, and in reference to the treaty, Thomas Jefferson: Passionate Pilgrim by Alf Mapp Jr., pp. 311 (1991, Madison Books, Lanham, MD) quoting letter by TJ to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, June, 1814.
Thomas Jefferson, third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, said: "I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian." He referred to the Revelation of St. John as "the ravings of a maniac" and wrote: "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." -- Thomas Jefferson (letter to J. Adams April 11,1823)
. . . .
Benjamin Franklin, delegate to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, said: "As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion...has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity. . ." He died a month later, and historians consider him, like so many great Americans of his time, to be a Deist, not a Christian. From: Benjamin Franklin, A Biography in his Own Words, edited by Thomas Fleming, p. 404, (1972, Newsweek, New York, NY) quoting letter by BF to Ezra Stiles March 9, 1790.
The words "In God We Trust" were not consistently on all U.S. currency until 1956, during the McCarthy Hysteria.
The Treaty of Tripoli, passed by the U.S. Senate in 1797, read in part: "The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." The treaty was written during the Washington administration, and sent to the Senate during the Adams administration. It was read aloud to the Senate, and each Senator received a printed copy. This was the 339th time that a recorded vote was required by the Senate, but only the third time a vote was unanimous (the next time was to honor George Washington). There is no record of any debate or dissension on the treaty. It was reprinted in full in three newspapers--two in Philadelphia, one in New York City. There is no record of public outcry or complaint in subsequent editions of the papers.
This page is at http://www.necessaryprose.com/