However malleable our Constitution may seem, it has endured as the oldest surviving written constitution precisely because of its solid foundation in democratic principles, individual rights, and the separation of powers. So how can it be, at the very moment we erect a museum (the National Constitution Center) in its honor, that the Constitution now faces some of the most serious attacks in modern history? Moreover, if the powers of the Constitution are derived explicitly from the consent of the people, how did we let the situation become so dire?
To answer those questions, the central issue becomes the will and power of the people. As John Marshall, Chief Justice of The Supreme Court, once said, the people make the Constitution, and the people can unmake it. It is a creature of their own will, and lives only by their will. Just for effect, try substituting the word will with knowledge, and youll soon understand the stakes involved. A brief look at the National Constitution Centers (NCC) survey on Americas constitutional knowledge gives cause for concern. For example, a whopping 62% of U.S. citizens were unable to name the three branches of the federal government. Even more shocking, one-third of all respondents were unable to name even one.
The Constitution, it would seem, has faded into the recesses of our collective memory, leaving behind a vague impression of our political system and civil liberties. Although nine out of ten Americans believe in the documents importance, their inability to recount its basic principles leaves the Constitution dangerously susceptible to government abuse. Add the recent fears over security to the problem of a misinformed populace and you create a dangerous opportunity for increasing government powers, including those of the executive branch.
Sacrificing civil liberties under the guise of national security is nothing new in American history. In fact, some of the worst constitutional violations on the record occurred during times of war, when the government sought to censor dissent and target racial minorities. Does the method sound eerily familiar? For a brief historical review, consider the Alien and Sedition Acts of the eighteenth century, the Palmer Raids and Espionage Act forbidding government criticism in World War I, and the forced internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. In recent history there are similar reports of government spying over anti-war activists during Vietnam and the infamous McCarthy hearings of the Cold War. All of these measures, committed in the name of patriotism, exploited Americas suspicions of the other in a rationale similar to the governments current rhetoric of us versus them. In this climate of collective angst and national patriotism, the Constitution, particularly in its defense of individual rights, is most at risk.
With Americans still reeling from the attacks of September 11, the administration passed a host of anti-terrorist legislation aimed at increasing emergency powers and police authority. With all of the hype over national safety, little attention has been paid to the constitutional protections sacrificed along the way.
The most controversial of all such legislation, the Justice Departments USA PATRIOT Act, is responsible for the majority of constitutional damage during the past two years. For example, since the PATRIOT Acts arrival in 2001, law enforcement agencies have the power to conduct secret searches of a citizens propertyincluding access to phone, Internet, and medical recordswith minimal judicial oversight. Under the same legislation, non-citizens can be detained indefinitely in six-month terms without a conviction or significant judicial review. Detainees can also be convicted on secret evidence and hearsay in the now-infamous military tribunals, which have been imposed by executive action. The tribunals are so constitutionally egregious that every major newspaper and legal association has issued a public statement in opposition.
Now, almost two years after the PATRIOT Acts passage, its finally getting the attention it deserves. More than 160 local governments and three states have passed resolutions opposing the Act, and the House of Representatives has recently voted to withdraw funds from two key PATRIOT provisions.
These actions are hopeful signs in the Herculean effort needed to restore crucial Constitutional protections and civil liberties. The tide is slowly turningand not a moment too soon. With our civil liberties on the line, the NCC reminds us all of the inherent fallibility of liberal democracy. Simply put, the Constitution is only as strong as the people willing to defend it.