One of the most pervasive myths within the United States is that our rights come from the U.S. Constitution. Even the U.S. Supreme Court subscribes to this myth whenever it searches the Constitution to determine whether people have a certain right or not.
Actually, as Thomas Jefferson observed in the Declaration of Independence, people’s rights are inherent to human beings. They are natural and God-given. They preexist government. That is, even if the Constitution had been rejected by the American people — even if the federal government had never been brought into existence — people would still have such fundamental rights as life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
Many years ago, I was giving a lecture to an assembly of students at a local high school here in Virginia. The students were shocked when I pointed out that there is no constitutional right to free speech and freedom of the press. They laughed and scoffed at such a ridiculous suggestion. They had been taught that the First Amendment gave people such rights.
Finally, after several minutes of standing my ground, one student astutely observed that the First Amendment doesn’t give people rights but instead prohibits the Congress, and implicitly the federal government, from infringing on rights that already exist.
Is that a distinction without a difference? Absolutely not! If people’s rights come from a piece of paper or even from the government itself, then they become government-granted privileges rather than natural, God-given rights. The government can regulate, suspend, or even revoke privileges. It cannot legitimately do so with fundamental, inherent rights that preexist the government itself.
An interesting question arises: Why did our ancestors immediately demand that the original Constitution be enacted so as to include the First Amendment, along with the other nine amendments that were adopted at the same time?
The answer is very simple: Because while they were permitting the federal government to come into existence — reluctantly, I might add — they wanted to make it clear that the federal government would not have the power to do bad things to people who criticized the actions of federal officials, something that tyrants had done throughout history.
Consider what is happening today, for example, in Egypt, where the country’s military dictatorship is arresting, torturing, brutalizing, and even killing people who dare to criticize the extreme military tyranny under which the Egyptian people have long suffered.
What does that have to do with the U.S. government?
Everything! It’s the U.S. government that has, over decades, funded, reinforced, trained, partnered with, and armed Egypt’s military dictatorship. U.S. officials are not naïve. They know full well what military dictatorships do to people, especially people who are opposing the tyranny that military rule brings to a nation. Military dictatorships inevitably kill critics or they take them into custody, deny them a trial, torture them, and execute them.
Egypt’s military dictatorship is no different, and U.S. officials are fully aware of that. Indeed, it’s because of the extreme brutality of Egypt’s military dictatorship that the U.S. government chose it to be one of its rendition-torture partners in the “war on terrorism.”
Despite the periodic public displays of handwringing and “concern” over what is happening in Egypt, U.S. officials love it. In the eyes of U.S. officials, especially within the Pentagon and the CIA—i.e., the national-security establishment — military dictatorship brings “order and stability,” which inevitably means a docile, submissive, and compliant citizenry, one that loyally supports the troops and praises them for the good job they are doing to keep the nation safe — one that doesn’t protest or question governmental policies and practices.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that throughout the many decades of Egypt’s military dictatorship and continuing even today, U.S. officials join with their Egyptian counterparts in labeling opponents of the Egypt’s military dictatorship as “terrorists.”
That phenomenon was demonstrated several years ago when U.S. officials prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated noted New York lawyer Lynne Stewart after she simply read a note from a client to the U.S. press that purportedly called on Egyptian citizens to take up arms against Egypt’s military regime.
That same pro-military-dictatorship mindset was reflected in Chile in 1973, when the U.S. national-security establishment partnered with the Chilean national-security establishment to oust the democratically elected president from office and install a brutal military dictatorship in his stead. When Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military regime began kidnapping, incarcerating, raping, torturing, disappearing, executing, and assassinating anyone who criticized the military tyranny (along with anyone who was suspected of being a communist or socialist), U.S. officials not only sealed their lips in the face of such tyranny, they immediately began flooding Chile’s brutal military dictatorship with millions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer money.
When U.S. officials support military dictatorships, it shouldn’t surprise us. By enacting the First Amendment, our ancestors were telling us that this is precisely the type of people that the federal government would attract to power — the type of people who see nothing wrong with silencing critics of governmental abuse of power.
Thank goodness for the wisdom and foresight of our ancestors in enacting the First Amendment. Just imagine what life would be like if federal officials were free to operate here within the United States without the constraints of the First Amendment.