President Obama’s Call to Reject Fears of Tyranny is Premature

by Evan Bernick:

Recent scandals regarding the IRS, Benghazi, and the Associated Press show that President Obama was wrong. Americans must continue to remain vigilant for signs of tyranny.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Two weeks ago, President Obama strode the stage at Ohio State University’s graduation ceremony with all of the perceived authority of a reigning philosopher king. Then, he urged thousands of what he hoped were impressionable young men and women to reject calls to be wary of tyranny. Since doing so, an unholy trinity of apparent governmental abuses have given Americans ample reason to be wary. These abuses, if substantiated, are in fact instances of tyranny and we must declare them as such, loudly and publicly.

Thomas Jefferson's Quote on Tyranny

Why has this week been so difficult for White House press secretary Jay Carney? First, congressional testimony concerning the murderous assault on the American embassy in Benghazi provided damning evidence of an administration cover-up concerning both the nature of the attack and the speed of the government’s response. Second, IRS officials admitted that the agency had, in processing applications for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status, targeted groups with the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their names for additional tax scrutiny in 2011.  Finally, the Associated Press revealed that the Department of Justice had, in an effort to identify the source of an information leak, obtained telephone toll records from more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to the AP and its journalists without giving the AP notice and an opportunity to challenge the seizure.

In order to assess whether these activities are tyrannical, we must first define tyranny. As John Locke, Algernon Sidney and the American Founders and Framers who followed them understood it, tyranny consists in government-sponsored violation of individual rights. The American republic was forged through opposition to tyranny  The Declaration of Independence asserts that each individual’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness should be protected by the government, and denounces the British king for violating these individual rights. When the British king met these charges with force, the colonists responded in kind.

But neither the Founders nor the Framers despaired of the possibility of establishing a state that was not tyrannical. They set out to build a republic on a foundation of reason, in which individual rights could be protected and government abuses could be countered with ballots rather than bullets. In the introduction to the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote that it was its commitment to rational political life that made the American project unique: ““It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country… to decide… whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Because the primary means through which human beings reason with one another are the spoken and written word, the Founders and Framers vigorously defended freedom of speech and the press and regarded efforts by the government to limit them with deep suspicion.

How then, are we to regard the recent events? First, actively deceiving Americans about how the government is fulfilling its core function of keeping American citizens and their property safe is the political equivalent of fraud. It is as grievous a violation of their right to life as the outright initiation of force against them because it prevents them from evaluating whether or not their government is keeping them safe from those who would initiate force against them. Secondly, making it comparatively more difficult for conservative groups to gain tax-exempt status suggests government-sponsored discrimination in violation of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.  And, by failing to provide the AP with notice and an opportunity to challenge subpoenas for its toll records, it appears that the DOJ has violated the AP’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

We should not mince words: These actions are tyrannical. The practical consequences of such rights violations can be easily traced. If citizens are systemically deceived by information that comes through official channels, if they are discouraged from expressing ideas because they do not adhere to a political ideology, and if they are intimidated by unannounced searches and seizures from gathering information through independent means, then they can be kept obedient and ignorant. Under such conditions, they cannot have any idea whether or not their government is protecting their rights. A government that sought to create such conditions would have to be resisted forcefully as soon as its intentions became clear. By the time such conditions were created, it would be too late.

I do not believe that we have endured have a long train of abuses that justifies a turn to bullets rather than ballots. But we are facing an administration that feeds us fictions rather than facts about how it is carrying out its core functions and one that seems to have engaged in repeated rights violations. We must challenge those fictions and properly identify those violations, loudly and publicly, if we are to prevent such a train from forming. We must fearlessly reject Obama’s call to reject warnings about tyranny, because we are experiencing it now.


Evan Bernick is a Legal Associate at a DC think tank and a Legal Fellow with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

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