Be vigilant, jealous of freedom

Healthy dissent helps our government function properly

Posted: Friday, August 24, 2007

A friend recently accused me of dissent for publicly questioning the president's policies. My friend further suggested that dissent during a time of war was tatamount to treason, since it might demonstrate to the enemy a lack of public support.

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As it turns out, questioning the wisdom of the continuing occupation of Iraq does qualify as dissent. Nevertheless, dissent is certainly not treason. I love my country. I'm not trying to overthrow the government. I just don't happen to trust it around the silverware.

I might be happy to keep my mouth shut until the war was over, but this war is being waged against an idea, so all bets are off. It could foreseeably go on for years and years, or the idea could be entirely redefined, and then I'd never get to say my piece.

I'm becoming a big fan of the U.S. Constitution. I admit that I come late to the study of this great document. Maybe I was sick that day in school, or staring out the window.

What prompted me to recently read our Constitution was hearing someone say that our constitutional rights are under attack. Don't get me wrong: I take my rights for granted at least as much as the next fellow, maybe more. But I'm also by nature a suspicious person, and even a bit miserly. Whatever my rights might happen to be, I want all of them, and I don't much care for the idea of someone making off with this one or that just because my back is turned.

After reading the Bill of Rights, I find I like the rules just the way they are. For instance, I like the Ninth Amendment, which states that any issues not directly addressed by the Constitution should be relegated to the states. If the business at hand doesn't involve freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, etc., the federal government is supposed to stay the heck out.

I regard any form of government as a necessary evil, at best. State government is a lesser demon, closer and smaller than our federal government. But the federal government isn't our state government's big buddy. The federal government is a separate bureaucracy, often competing for the same money and resources as our state government. Like any organization, it has a life of its own and seeks growth independent of its original purpose.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." Vigilance against whom? Should we be wary of foreign powers, or enemies within and without? No. In 1799, he wrote, "Free government is founded in jealousy, not confidence. It is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind those we are obliged to trust with power. ... In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."

We need to remain on guard against none other than our own government. Governments are composed of human beings, inherently corruptible by power. Our Constitution was designed to function as a balancing power. It isn't a handbook of suggestions on how to behave; it is a set of chains that restrict the federal government from intruding into our lives and personal rights.

I think Jefferson was as fed up back then as we are now with protestations of innocence from public servants caught abusing their privelige. The Constitution was designed to get beyond that, to render human fallability irrelevant. It wasn't intended to stand by itself through all time as a bulwark against corruption. It remains our best defense, but it needs help.

It is essential to the process of good government that we, the citizens, continually question that government. The government is accountable to us. We elect our representatives to service us, not to serve as our masters. And if any of them cease to perform honestly or effectively, they need to be booted out. If there is a plan that is wrong, we, the citizens, need to speak up and have it changed.

Dissent is patriotic.

Dissent and vigilance are part of the process of good, properly functioning government.

• Derrick Snyder is a chef and instructor living in Juneau.

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