Constitution protects universal rights

By Harrison Searles

Rachel Tumin/Collegian

On Tuesday, Congress soundly rejected an amendment to the 2012 Defense Authorization Bill 61 to 37 that would have repealed a controversial provision that mandated the military to detain suspected terrorists indefinitely.

Although supporters of the bill note that this would not apply to American citizens, protected from such actions by the Sixth Amendment, only the letter of the law supports their position. Despite that, the very concept of holding individuals without trial indefinitely is simply against the spirit of the Constitution that guarantees habeas corpus to American citizens. This is due to the fact that, in spirit, the Constitution is a document that does not bestow rights to American citizens, but one that charges the government to protect those rights already present independently of whatever is written in it.

What that implies is that people who are not citizens of the United States also have those rights. For our government, bound by the Constitution, to pass legislation that blatantly violates it is a signal to how little the government respects the spirit of its own laws. As such, it is not a relieving thought that the indefinite containment of the National Defense Authorization Act will only be mandate for those who are not U.S. citizens because it is still violating those rights that the Constitution guarantees and protects for Americans.

Laws are not meant to be weapons of the state, tools in the hands of tyrants for the violation of the rights of man or chains that bind man in serfdom to the will of legislators. To the contrary, the great statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero once wrote over two millennia ago: “We are in bondage to the law so that we might be free.” Laws are not there only to protect citizens from the actions of other people, but they also exist to limit according to principles known by all within society, the scope of government.

In bondage to the laws, to use Cicero’s phrasing, we are protected by unauthorized intrusion by the government’s officials and are hence free. As essential conditions of a free and open society, the laws must not be tools of the government – something akin to edicts and proclamations – but must be understood as means of protecting the sphere of an individual’s free action from that of coercion, be it from an agent of the government or another person.

The Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention understood this, and so the Constitution does not grant rights to its citizens. It is rather a protection of those rights, acquired independently of any piece of legislature explicitly designed to limit the scope of government. This is attested to most clearly in the Declaration of Independence when Jefferson and Franklin wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men… are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights… That to secure these rights Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their Powers from the consent of the governed…”

Although the Declaration of Independence is not a piece of law, those responsible for the drafting of the Constitution were all influenced by those ideas, and still held fast to them in 1787. This is further attested to by the fact that the Tenth Amendment states that those roles that have not been delegated to the Federal government. Therefore the Constitution derives its validity not from itself but from externals and the Federal government is not allowed to play a part.

It follows from all of this that even though the Constitution is intended to protect the rights and freedom of Americans, its principles are no less valid for aliens. The Constitution is only meant for Americans because the American government that it both justifies and delegates certain powers to can only legitimately use force in order to protect the rights of its own citizens. It was not the role of the newly formed American government, and nor is it today for the contemporary American government, to declare that it was right for it to enforce its laws in Canada, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

To the contrary, just like today, those who established the Constitution were codifying the laws for the United States of America, a nation with a specific regional authority. It was simply protecting the fundamental rights of its citizens. It is not the Constitution that are the origin of those rights, they have an origin outside of the whims of legislators; the Constitution just protects those rights against those same legislators.

As a result, to suggest that foreigners do not have the same rights that the Constitution protects for American citizens is simply not true. The Constitution does not formally protect the rights of citizens of other nations, but it accepts the fact that these rights are shared by all. Habeas corpus and the right to private property is something that is not special to American citizens because they are bound to the law codified in the Constitution, but the reason America is exemplary is that it has that system of government to protect those universal rights. To truly uphold the Constitution, in both letter and spirit, we have to accept that a theory of universal rights is a part of its fabric and thus we must respect the rights of foreigners just as we do those of Americans.

In the end, even though it might not be against written law for the United States government to hold suspected terrorists indefinitely, it is certainly against the spirit of the law. When a nation’s founding documents proclaim that man’s rights come not from the government – but are only secured by its law and legislation –  to not respect those very same rights in foreigners is a strong break in tradition. When the officials of that government continue to use those documents as an example for how exemplary America is, it is hypocrisy. The laws of the United States and habeas corpus earlier in Great Britain were codified to prevent abuse like indefinite holding and dropping two thousand pound bombs on non-uniformed targets.

The legislature contained in the 2012 Defense Authorization Bill is simply not in accordance with the spirit of a free society in which individuals are protected from the arbitrary will of the government. Instead, it is an instance of a perverse ideology that claims that individuals have rights because the laws confer them to an individual, an ideology that is simply not conducive to the maintenance of a free and open society.

Harrison Searles is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]