by Lesley Swann, Tennessee Tenth Amendment Center
On a typical day, Mary leaves her home in the morning to go to work. Once on the road, her vehicle passes by multiple traffic and red light cameras that monitor her driving in the event that she might break a traffic law. Upon arriving at work, she is monitored by security cameras as she enters the building and rides in an elevator up to her desk. After work, Mary stops by her local grocery store to pick up a few items, where her every move is tracked by closed circuit security cameras from the time she enters the parking lot to the time she leaves. On her way home, she is stopped at a police sobriety checkpoint, where she is required by law enforcement to hand over her driver’s license for review and submit to a breathalyzer test even though there is no reason to suspect that she is impaired.
John travels by plane frequently for his business. Today, after picking up his ticket, he is selected for enhanced security screening. John knows that he can choose to opt out of the body scanners, which take naked pictures of his body through his clothes, because of the questionable safety of the devices. Instead he opts for a pat down. He is required to leave his personal items unsupervised while his body and genitals are probed and prodded by a TSA agent. While he is receiving his pat down, John also notices a small child being subjected to the same pat down. When John’s pat down is complete he is allowed to return to his property, he discovers a TSA agent going through his credit cards, cash, receipts, and other items in his wallet.
Obviously Mary and John are fictional characters, but their stories are real and shared by millions of Americans every day. Our world is one in which we have been so conditioned to tolerate gross invasions of our persons and property that we simply can’t fathom what it is to be truly “secure in our persons.”
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:
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.
To understand the Fourth Amendment, we need to go back to the conditions that led the Founders to write it into the fabric of the Constitution. During the colonial era, the British government would issue documents called writs of assistance to authorize law enforcement to perform searches. These writs of assistance were a major source of controversy in the years leading up to the American Revolution, as unlike a modern search warrant, the writs were vague in nature. A writ of assistance did not require probable cause in order to be issued, nor did it have to specify the place to be search or the items for which law enforcement was to search. Any items that were suspected to be untaxed or illegally imported could be seized – with or without proof of any illegal activity. Often the officials who seized these items could keep or sell whatever they seized, leading to rampant abuse of the writs of assistance.
The Founders wanted to prevent these kinds of governmental abuses in their newly formed republic. They wanted people to be truly free to live as they pleased without interference by an overreaching nanny state. Because of their wisdom, Americans were once free to travel from place to place without their every move being recorded on surveillance cameras, without drivers licenses, and without being stopped randomly by police or searched by Transportation Safety Officers in the name of “safety” when there was no suspicion of a crime. This is what it meant to the Founders to be secure in their persons.
The state and local governments are by no means innocent in this downward spiral of personal freedom and security. It is the state and local governments that have either implemented or allowed traffic cameras, red light cameras, and warrantless stops by police with no suspicion of wrongdoing – all in the name of “safety.” Further, the state governments have neglected their constitutional duty to interpose themselves between the federal government and the people when the federal government oversteps the boundaries set forth in the Constitution. Clearly the battle the be secure in our persons is not limited to the federal level.
Now the federal government wants to go even further. We have government health care that will likely overtake and wipe out private health insurance for most people, and as a result the federal government will now have access to all sorts of detailed information on the state of our breasts, prostates, and colons among all the other information they collect on us. Where in the Constitution does it say that the government should be able to surveil our colons? That’s right, it doesn’t. The government is probing more and more deeply into our lives, into places where the Constitution says it has no business being. So what the heck happened between then and now?
“If you want to control the future, you must strip the next generation’s ability to imagine anything different.” – Ernie Hancock
We Americans have become so conditioned to accept whatever our government throws at us in the name of “safety” that we have completely forgotten what it is to live free and be secure in our persons. Our lives are so filled by surveillance cameras, worries about terrorism, fears about food safety, fears about illegal drugs, and other issues that we have forgotten the basics of our republic’s founding. As Mr. Hancock’s statement points out, if we can no longer imagine what it is to be free, then our future is going to be one where we lose more and more of our freedoms to the surveillance of the nanny state. Patrick Henry didn’t give his impassioned speech demanding “give me safety, or give me death.” He was prepared to give up safety and in fact his very life when he said:
Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
What would Patrick Henry say if he had to go through airport security today? I imagine some TSA agents and all Americans present would get a very fiery and passionate earful about allowing the freedoms that he and the rest of our Founders fought so hard to gift us to waste away. Just as we imagine Patrick Henry giving TSA agents a tongue lashing, we also have to start imagining the world in which we want to live just as Mr. Hancock pointed out. This is not easy, as quite frankly, it’s a world in which most people alive today have never lived. It was a world in which our Founders had never lived either, but they dared to imagine a different world and worked to bring their imagining to reality. Thanks to them, that world existed here once, and it can again. Like our Founders, we must imagine that world and work to make it happen at all levels of government – federal, state, and local.
So one we imagine true freedom and security, how do we make it happen? Fortunately, our Founders foresaw the day when America might not be the free republic they created. They didn’t want future generations to have to suffer through a bloody war to reclaim the freedoms for which they fought. That is why the Founders gave us the tools to peacefully re-imagine our republic in the form of the Tenth Amendment to nullify the unconstitutional actions of the federal nanny state. It’s up to us to fire up our imaginations and step up to the plate and use the tools our Founders gave us to take back those freedoms so that we can once again be truly secure in our persons.
Lesley Swann [send her email] is the state chapter coordinator for the Tennessee Tenth Amendment Center and founder of the East Tennessee 10th Amendment Group. She is a native of Anderson County, Tennessee.
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