America is looking less and less like America. And more and more Americans are worried about it.
What country is this? The president is claiming the right to keep his aides from testifying for Congress about the U.S. attorneys scandal; hundreds of men -- according to a Seton Hall study, many of them innocent -- are in legal limbo in Guantanamo Bay; U.S. agents are kidnapping people off the streets in Italy and Macedonia and `rendering' them to be tortured; the president and his lawyers claim the executive has the right to call anyone -- U.S. citizen or not -- an `enemy combatant' -- and the person who should decide what that means is the President himself; civil rights organizations say peaceful citizens' groups are being infiltrated and put under surveillance; and a new bill just made it easier, as Senator Patrick Leahy warned, for the president -- any president of whatever party -- to declare martial law.
Americans across the political spectrum are increasingly uneasy. We have always had a sense of our own invincibility in relation to our democracy: the system, many of us believe, simply rights itself. But we have to face the fact that when checks and balances are being systematically dismantled -- when the Constitution is under such sustained assault -- our assumption that democracy will protect us without our active intervention is dangerously naive.
The time has come for a grassroots democracy movement in America. I am relieved to be able to say that today the American Freedom Campaign (AFC) -- a new organization prepared to engage hundreds of thousands of American citizens in restoring democracy and the rule of law -- is ready for action.
The initial partners in the American Freedom Campaign represent a dynamic partnership of legal experts, human rights advocates, and grassroots expertise. Participating in the launch are the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch, and MoveOn.org. All Americans are welcome to join this campaign and it will undoubtedly grow larger and stronger over the coming months.
There is no time to waste. We have to get it -- in a hurry -- that the assaults we are witnessing are unprecedented and demand unprecedented responses from us. There have been times of state repression in our nation before now; as others such as Joe Conason, author of It Can Happen Here, and Bruce Fein, a founder of the American Freedom Agenda, have pointed out, `the pendulum' has swung to extremes before now: President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in some areas during the civil war -- but it was restored after the war came to an end. 120,000 Japanese American citizens were interned in detention camps (the fear was that they would engage in `espionage' and `sabotage') during World War Two -- and when that hysteria subsided, the camps were closed and these innocent Americans released. Both writers note that previous eras of repression had endpoints: the wars ended, the threat subsided -- but the War on Terror is defined as open-ended in time and in space: there will never be a day of victory, and the whole world is a battlefield. So we can't count on the pendulum to swing back as it always has -- that is, not without a citizen uprising in defense of liberty.
Other times and places are worth thinking about when we witness these events. History, which Americans never take to naturally, has a great deal to warn us about right now. The historical record -- and the contemporary record -- is incontrovertible on the fact -- a fact that flies in the face of the `democracy myth' we cherish, that we are somehow exempt from these pressures -- that while it is difficult to build and sustain a democracy, closing one down is actually quite easy. There is practically a blueprint for it, which would-be dictators and autocrats around the world have followed. All leaders who seek to close down an open society -- or push back a democracy movement -- do the same key things. Among other steps, they invoke an internal and external threat (it can certainly be real); create a surveillance apparatus aimed at ordinary citizens; establish military tribunals; infiltrate citizens' groups; make it easier to detain citizens; target key individuals with job loss or other penalties if they speak out; reframe criticism as `treason' or `espionage'; and pass laws that make it easier to circumvent or override a Constitution because of the threat that has been invoked or in the name of `restoring public order.' It is also clear from the record that the Founders were right to tell us to be vigilant in defense of liberty -- because democracy can become weakened and a point can be reached at which democracy cannot simply heal itself.
That is why everyone who is concerned about the abuses of power we are witnessing under the current administration should sign on to the American Freedom Campaign. As noted above, the AFC is backed by a dynamic coalition of some of the key organizations devoted to restoring the Constitution and defending freedom.
The mission of the AFC is to make the restoration of our democracy the paramount issue -- especially at the level of the presidential campaign, but also at the level of citizen education and citizen pressure on Congress. Its ten-point agenda will, among other things, restore the right to a fair trial; make sure journalists can't be intimidated with the Espionage Act; stop the president's -- any president's -- abuse of signing statements -- an abuse that can basically override the will of the people as expressed by their representatives; and keep the state from breaking into our homes, tapping our phones and reading our emails illegally.
These are not partisan issues. It is about power, not politics. While it is ideal from a citizen's point of view that leaders on both the left and the right are now pushing to restore our checks and balances, the issue transcends party affiliation. Without these horrific laws repealed, a President Hillary can be as dangerous to liberty -- and to American citizens -- as a President Giuliani.
It's a good time now for citizens, as they are signing up to lead this grassroots movement to restore the rule of law and to confront the excesses of the executive branch, to reread the Founders' debates. They would see how debased our discourse is right now. The excesses we are seeing in the power grab of the executive branch are presented to us in the name of patriotism; but if the Founders were around today, they would be outraged by the systematic dismantling of the checks and balances they put in place to protect us.
The framers and those who explained the new system to the public believed in their very souls that an American despot could easily arise -- in America; that the reason each branch should `check' the other is that leaders - even American leaders -- tend, as part of human nature, to abuse power if they are not checked. They knew from their own experience or their family's history how easy it is for an abusive leader to strip prisoners of their rights, send soldiers or agents of the Crown to break into people's homes and go through their personal papers without proper warrants, and punish those trying to assemble with their neighbors or speak up about government overreaching.
One reason we need a grassroots democracy movement in this time of constitutional crisis is that many Americans have only a hazy sense of what democracy is -- and what the Constitution really says. We are rarely reminded that the Founders enshrined our rights precisely because they or their parents had fled countries in which prisoners were detained without fair trial and turned into criminals and `traitors' for using the kind of language that makes up the Declaration of independence. It was because they understood repressive governments and abusive monarchs so well that they set up our Constitution and Bill of Rights to make sure those evils would never take root again on our soil.
Few of us are taught in detail how easy it is to repress democracy movements and close down open societies -- if you are willing to do a few key things. So that at just this moment of crisis, young people -- and many citizens in general -- are both disheartened and ill-equipped, lacking both the hope and the analytical tools they need to recognize the seriousness of these dangers and fight this fight.
But there has never been a more urgent time to change our minds and our behavior. The window can close -- yes, even in America -- if we fail as individuals to take up the patriot's task. Our country needs us active -- in the millions. The founders never intended for a professional caste to perform the patriot's task of defending liberty: they expected ordinary people -- farmers, small shopkeepers, schoolteachers -- to be on the front lines.
The Founders would have been appalled at the helplessness that most people feel today in the face of serious encroachments upon our freedom and liberty -- just as they would have been at the encroachments themselves. The system they set up -- if it is working properly -- is the most transformative and empowering of the individual on earth. They would have counted on each of us to rise up in defense of what they created and to directly challenge those who assert that they are not answerable to the American people -- and not bound by the American system and the rule of law.
So in the name of those men and women who had the courage to establish this nation, let us all rise up together. Join the American Freedom Campaign and help defend our democracy.
Naomi Wolf is the author of the forthcoming The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, Chelsea Green Publishing, Sept 2007