Last December, the latest installment in perhaps the most loved and well-known science fiction saga of our time was released in theaters. Star Wars: The Force Awakens reminded fans why they loved Star Wars so much. Adored for its compelling plot lines, intriguing dialogue, and relatable characters, Star Wars is especially distinctive for its profound political commentary through the years. As I, like most fans of the franchise, was watching the movies again before the release of Episode VII, I was struck by a specific scene. It’s when Chancellor Palpatine convinces the Galactic Senate to grant him emergency powers to better handle the battle with the separatists. As the senate celebrates Palpatine’s leadership, Senator Padmè Amidala says, “so this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause.” This scenery is all too familiar today, against a backdrop of terrorist attacks and subsequent calls for drastically increased security measures. In these uncertain times, it is crucial for the people of this nation to uphold that which is certain: the Constitution.
In the words of Andy Andrews, “The danger to America is not a single politician with ill intent. Or even a group of them. The most dangerous thing any nation faces is a citizenry capable of trusting a liar to lead them. In the long run, it is much easier to undo the policies of crooked leadership than to restore common sense and wisdom to a deceived population willing to elect such a leader in the first place. Any country can survive having chosen a fool as its leader. But history has shown time and again that a nation of fools is surely doomed.” As citizens, we are called to remain informed and involved. For this great democratic experiment to continue to be a success, we must be attentive to the affairs of the nation. Thomas Jefferson said in 1789, the year the new Constitution was to be implemented, “wherever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Our founding fathers recognized that the integrity of the Constitution relies on the involvement of its citizens.
In recent years, we have become relaxed; jaded by the apparent hopelessness of the political system. Voter turnout has plummeted, as Americans have begun to believe that their vote will make no difference in the long run. Our chronic dislike of the establishment politician class stems from its constant abuse of power, lack of responsibility, and refusal to act transparently. How significant could one person’s opinion be, amidst a sea of corporate interests and unofficial bargains behind the scenes? “What happened here,” observed historian Milton Mayer, “was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security.”
While Mayer was describing the conditions which enabled the rise of authoritarianism in Nazi Germany, the accuracy with which it pertains to the actions of the U.S. government in recent years is indicative of the events that could follow. We live in an age when Congress has the audacity to hide an extensive surveillance bill that weakens American industry and security under the pretense of safety in a sure-to-pass budget, with no preparation. Surveillance of this level spits in the face of the Fourth Amendment, which protects the privacy of citizens, and prevents unreasonable searches and seizures. Essentially, CISA eliminates the need for a warrant, and instead harks back to England’s archaic practice of using “Writs of Assistance” which enabled British law enforcement to search the homes, papers, and belongings of all colonists in pursuit of illegal goods or suspicious behavior.
Thanks to CISA, the United States Government now has its own cyber-Writs of Assistance, which will be used to indiscriminately gather intelligence on the entire nation. The purpose of the probable-cause requirement established by the Fourth Amendment is to prevent the state from infringing on civil liberties by searching the private property of citizens until it has reason to believe that a crime has been, or is being committed. This probable-cause requirement has been blatantly subverted and abandoned by federal law enforcement in recent days. This isn’t a new occurrence, however.
In 2013, it was revealed that the National Security Agency had been collecting vast amounts of metadata on American citizens since 2001. Not only was this program ruled as a violation of constitutional limitations by a federal appeals court in 2015, but it was entirely unsuccessful. According to the White House, in all fourteen years of operation, the NSA’s surveillance program did not stop any terrorist attacks. It is evident that disregarding the Constitution does not contribute to the productivity of an anti-terror operation.
“But time produces also corruption of principles,” said Thomas Jefferson, “and against this it is the duty of good citizens to be ever on the watch.” Surrounded by national security threats and terrorism’s gaining traction in the West, we have been taught to blindly accept and comply with the government’s demands. Prevalent in society today is the mindset that constitutional liberties simply aren’t needed. Oftentimes when discussing privacy and surveillance, people justify government intrusions by claiming they don’t need privacy because they “have nothing to hide.” This sentiment is equivalent to saying, “I don’t need free speech because I have nothing to say.” It is a slippery slope from rejecting one right to denying the rest.
One of the many reasons the United States Constitution is so unique is that it effectively protects us from such an irrational response to danger. However, it cannot continue to protect us if we do not recognize its relevance in modern American society. In the wake of mass casualty events, people call for drastic measures to prevent future tragedies. We call for disarming the nation, increasing federal surveillance powers, revoking freedom of speech that “incites violence.” Following the San Bernardino attacks, President Obama responded, “Let’s make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional. Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear.”
While this statement is warm and fuzzy, it could not be further from the truth. Through the ages, it has been exhibited time and again that freedom is not more powerful than fear. The Constitution is what stands between human nature that values immediate security over long-term societal consequences and our liberty. Freedom is often left unappreciated in a society wrought with violence and terror; citizens become all too willing to give up their liberty in exchange for a false sense of security. The Bill of Rights is being attacked on all fronts, by the very people it was written to protect. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “how little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy.”
The freedom ensured by the Constitution has constantly been faced with threats from corrupt and ill-conceived notions, but liberty has always reigned victorious with the help of citizen involvement. If we wish to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” as the Preamble to the Constitution states, we must restore a passion for the foundation of this nation in a generation apathetic and oblivious to the gradual destruction of its freedom. In Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton asserted that: “It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” In light of this year’s presidential elections, it is our duty as citizens to take government into our own hands; to claim personal responsibility and to recognize our stake in politics.
Now back to a Galaxy far, far away. In Star Wars, Chancellor Palpatine is able to convince the Galactic Senate to grant him emergency powers that he would later use to further his tyrannical agenda only by the help of an uninformed and oblivious representative, Jar Jar Binks. The only reason he was able to accomplish his nefarious goals was through Jar Jar’s ignorance and lack of critical thinking. In a nation facing security threats and escalating calls for authoritarian response, we must not allow ourselves to become unwitting enablers of despotism. This year, as the United States selects its new Commander-in-Chief, we must continue to uphold the banner of freedom, which America represents to the world, without faltering.