The Rights We Don’t Defend
About 9 years ago, in Ho Chi Minh City, I sat between the Consul General of Russia and a British ESL teacher at a luncheon given by the Canadian Consulate to hear a talk delivered by the then soon-to-be-ex-Minister for External Affairs Canada. I am ashamed to say that I cannot remember her name, but I remember the content of her talk very well. The Patriot Act was 2 years old. The second Iraq war had just started.
Her talk was a rather long and impressive history of how governments, no matter what form they take, no matter what their political stripe, have historically responded to real or perceived national threats. She made three very powerful points:
1. Whether the threat is real or imagined or fabricated for political expediency, the response is always to erode the private rights of their citizens in order to ‘control’ or ameliorate the threat.
2. Governments inevitably overreact to the threat by taking away more far more rights and autonomies than are ever proved later to have been necessary or even effective.
3. When the threat is past, those rights are seldom, if ever, restored, except by revolution.
She eloquently tracked examples of this phenomenon across time, starting from the Magna Carta and, all over the world, from Napoleonic France, Stalinist Russia and Churchill’s Britain to (at that time) Bush’s US. It was an intelligent, clear-sighted and eloquent talk. But, most importantly, she said that populations had to find some way to put a tangible value on their rights as private citizens. Surprisingly, she spoke very eloquently about how dogmatically US citizens defended their right to bear arms, theorizing that the physical reality of possessing a gun made it possible to concretize that particular right, so highly valued in the US. Her point was that our more abstract rights – privacy, the pursuit of a living, personal freedom, gender equality, etc. are harder to hold in the hand, harder to perceive as having inalienable value, and therefore far harder to defend robustly.
Today’s reports in The Guardian and The New York Times confirming that the US government is, 5 years after the fall of the Bush government, still secretly collecting private phone communications reminded me of that talk almost a decade ago. The recent defeat in the US of the Manchin-Toomey Bill is an ironic counterpoint.
In the US, vastly more people die every year as victims of accidental or intentional gun violence than have ever died at the hands of ‘terrorists’. And yet the US will strenuously defend its right to the unrestricted sale of weapons. Meanwhile, it seems both uninterested and unable to defend its right to carry on a private telephone conversation or to the habeas corpus rights of detainees at Guantanamo - a prison run by and administered by the US. Various states have allowed unprecedented governmental interference in the reproductive rights of women, forcing them to have internal ultrasounds before allowing the the right to a legally permitted abortion.
Gun rights advocates argue that the right to bear arms enables the protection of all other citizen rights, but it’s pretty clear that the plot got lost along the way. The Gun Lobby and the NRA have so literalized and superficialized the Second Amendment that it no longer serves the purpose for which it was originally intended.
While clutching their guns in their cold, dead hands, they are slowly and surely standing by while their more abstract, and vastly more essential rights, have been taken from them.