On December 31st, 2011, Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (the NDAA). This act—which provides funding for the United States military—is an annual affair, and most signings have not proposed anything outside of the ordinary. But this year’s NDAA was very different, as it contained a particular clause that posed a grave threat to the fifth and sixth amendments. That provision allowed the United States military to detain and hold American citizens indefinitely without trial. In one stroke, Barack Obama and the United States Congress discarded the centuries-old principle of habeas corpus, which had been so important to maintaining American liberties.
In some other time, perhaps before the ill-fated “War on Terror,” such an act might have seemed unusual, and Americans would likely have responded with protest and consternation. But the signing of the NDAA was only the culmination of a decade-long assault on our civil liberties by the federal government, one that began in the wake of the September 11th terror attacks. Following 9/11, the American Congress authorized the PATRIOT Act which, like its NDAA counterpart, stomped on the first ten amendments, in this case the fourth. Since then, the United States government has enthusiastically adopted techniques of torture, restricted due process, and has even used drones to kill American citizens.
In the wake of all these events, an eerie silence has characterized American lawmakers and, more strikingly, the American public. Only a lone senator (Russ Feingold) challenged the initial authorization of the PATRIOT Act, and its NDAA counterpart passed by a similar margin, 98-1. Initially, a few Democrat legislatures challenged these infringements on American civil liberties, but with the election of Barack Obama, those concerns seem to have evaporated. Instead of delivering on his promises of restoring civil liberties, Barack Obama has enthusiastically embraced Bush-era wiretaps and drone strikes. Through his actions, he has turned the Democrat Party from one of marginal opposition to unconstitutional actions to their greatest proponents. Only a few elected officials—most of them libertarian—have offered any real opposition to these measures, and their numbers have been too small to significantly curtail their progress.
The American public has been similarly quiet. Just like Democrat lawmakers, the few among the liberal left who originally opposed these assaults on the Bill of Rights suspended their opposition in the light of President Obama’s reelection. Today, opposition is centered only among movements disenfranchised by the American political system—namely the far-left and far-right. The media has been complicit in this civil liberties erosion as well. Although outlets such as CNN and MSNBC give endless attention to non-news such as Beyonce’s lip-syncing, the passage of the NDAA earned only very limited media coverage. The resultant portrait is of a complacent American public, one that does not challenge the growing encroachment of the federal government into their private lives so long as their party’s candidate is in power.
Yet, despite this complacence, there remains one issue that still has the ability to rile the masses to challenge their government: gun rights. Earlier this year, President Obama proposed a spat of new gun control legislation in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting. Immediately, the American public sprung to action. This same public, which had remained silent through a decade of government overreach, now spoke apocalyptically of the “rise of American tyranny” and our slow slide into “dictatorship.” With panic and hysteria, groups such as the NRA and Gun Owners of America warned that guns were the people’s last line of defense against the federal government and hinted toward the dire consequences that would occur should the federal government “try to take our firearms.” Their membership and gun purchases soared, and the American public dug in its heels for a protracted battle against the Obama administration.
Such a reaction might hint that the federal government intended to disarm all Americans. It did not. Rather, Obama’s proposed legislation focused primarily on “assault” weapons, a loosely-defined category of guns that many Congressional Democrats feel the public should not carry. Whether an assault rifle ban would have any crime-reducing effect remains to be seen; America’s culture of violence, rather than its gun laws, appear to be the driving factor behind our astronomical gun violence rate. Yet, for many in the gun lobby and their massive, mainly white male base of support, Obama’s proposed legislation was an act of a tyrannical government bent on destroying America’s civil liberties. These groups, which had been almost entirely silent as the federal government destroyed the fourth, fifth, and sixth amendments, claimed that their members were literally willing to die to defend the second.
This model of activism is dangerous and flawed. Rather than working vigorously to protect their civil liberties, Americans seem content to let the federal government take them, rather focusing their energies on preparation for an apocalyptic battle with the federal government that will, at least in the short term, almost certainly never unfold. In doing so, the American public has sunk into an ineffective and unproductive form of activism, signaling to their government that all non-firearm liberties are negotiable. If gun rights are the only rights that can drive Americans to protest, then NDAA and PATRIOT Act-type legislation will likely continue to mushroom unopposed. The ironic end result—a dramatically strengthened surveillance state—might be large enough to negate Americans’ gun rights anyway.
As America moves forward, the interests of the gun lobby will likely continue to take precedence over the interests of the public as a whole. It is important to recognize that groups such as the NRA owe their allegiance not only to their members, but also the large gun manufacturers which they represent. The interest of these lobbies is not the preservation of the Bill of Rights. Rather, they are more concerned with the maintenance of their businesses and financial future. Until their supporters realize this, gun-advocacy groups will continue to hijack the public debate, misleading Americans from true activism toward an incessant focus on only one of their myriad rights. In the face of a reckless and aggressive federal government, this is a mistake that we cannot afford to make.