A horrifying aspect of modern life is how nearly daily threats to fundamental freedoms and human rights require that citizens become politically aware and active.
Here we are struggling to put food on the table, cultivate a civilized private life, support things we care about, manage our households and otherwise meet all the challenges of modern life and then some jerk politician pushes some dangerous legislation that poses an all-out attack on everything we take for granted.
One of those things we take for granted is the freedom to disagree with the government and its policies.
Consider the Enemy Expatriation Act now being pushed by Republican Charles Dent of Pennsylvania and Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. This act adds to existing law that makes it a crime to support materially governments with which the U.S. is at war.
As Dent explains, the U.S. no longer limits its wars to governments. It takes on what it calls terrorists without regard to national identity. Therefore, he says, we need a new law that grants broader power to the state to crush its homegrown foes.
The Enemy Expatriation Act, therefore, allows the U.S. government to strip citizenship from anyone found to be “engaging in, or purposefully and materially supporting, hostilities against the United States.”
This proposal is surely the worst proposed law since the Alien and Sedition Acts, against which the entire citizenry reacted by making Thomas Jefferson president in 1800 so that he could bring some sanity back to public life. The new version of these old laws would effectively forbid speaking or blogging against any foreign policy-related policy of the United States, with the unthinkable penalty of permanent banishment.
When I heard the name of the law, I also thought of the World War I law called the Trading With the Enemy Act. It was designed to bring about speech controls during wartime. You would get jailed for expressing any doubt about the war. But the law never went away, and was the thing invoked by FDR in 1933 when he confiscated gold. So far as I know, this law is still on the books.
So anyone who tells you that the Enemy Expatriation Act is actually narrow, that it doesn’t forbid civil disagreement with the government, that it won’t actually bring about routine banishment of responsible critics, that anyone who sounds alarm bells is hysterical…don’t believe a word of it. Every new power government has government will use, and always and eventually in the worst possible way.
Bureaucracies love this sort of law. “It is the invariable habit of bureaucracies, at all times and everywhere,” wrote H.L. Mencken, “to assume…that every citizen is a criminal. Their one apparent purpose, pursued with a relentless and furious diligence, is to convert the assumption into a fact. They hunt endlessly for proofs, and when proofs are lacking, for mere suspicions.”
I’m not even sure that it is necessary to read the fine print to discover this. The chief sponsors are actually rather open about it. Their slogan seems to be “Government: Love it, or we’ll destroy you.” In their view, these are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary measures. One of those measures is for the U.S. government to begin acting exactly like the terrorists that the government claims to oppose.
This isn’t unusual. It always seems to happen in wartime. We fight tyranny abroad by becoming more tyrannical at home. We oppose internment camps abroad by building them at home for those who doubt the merit of the policy. We oppose the creation and proliferation of dangerous weapons abroad by creating and proliferating more of them ourselves. We fight Islamic extremism by instituting national thought and speech controls, punishable by expatriation.
The more objectionable and egregious a government policy is, the more the government depends on brute force to enforce it. So you can know for sure that when such laws are proposed, there are plans for the wars of the future to be even more objectionable, immoral and unjust than the wars of the past. If you have to criminalize and banish dissent, it is likely that every intelligent person is going to be a target.
But what of those people who really are seething in anger to the point that they actually do feel some sympathy for enemies abroad? Are the bill’s sponsors correct that such a person has relinquished his right to be a citizen?
Again, let Mencken speak: “The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.”
This seems about right. The traditional notion of American citizenship is very different from that of the Old World. It is not about loyalty to the regime. It is not about the willingness to hold your tongue when you disagree with the civic priority of the moment. It is about the love of liberty, and surely, being wholly free to disagree with the powers that be is the core of what it means to be free.
The ironic effect of a law like this is that the best citizens we have will end up being stripped of their citizenship, leaving only the cowards, sycophants and brainless as the model citizens with full rights to live here and vote. Granted, it is the dream of every government that all its subjects obey without question. The day that dream comes true is the day we should all welcome banishment.