The public uproar earlier this year over unconstitutional provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act pushed Congress to pass Amendment 3018 last Thursday, banning a key provision of the NDAA that authorized indefinite detention of U.S. citizens.
Despite partisan shortcomings, Congress has shown that it can rally members of both parties to prevent the abridgement of essential civil liberties that are guaranteed by the Constitution: in this case, the fundamental right to due process of law.
Sponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), Amendment 3018 offers an example of the legislature taking a stand against excessive government power, which, if allowed to grow unchecked, would erode the constitutional foundations of this country.
Increased security measures have been a product of the post-9/11 era, marked by paranoia and a nearly unprecedented amount of executive power, often putting civil liberties on the backburner in the name of national security. The NDAA, which remains official law except for the provision that was banned last week, is only one example of legislation that reflects this.
The NDAA contains disconcerting provisions that reflect the current secondary status of constitutionally guaranteed rights in the United States. The section addressed by Amendment 3018, Section 1021, granted the government the power to indefinitely imprison any U.S. citizen suspected of anti-American activity. This not only gave the government too much discretion — it also violated the Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights to habeas corpus and due process of law.
President Barack Obama inexplicably signed the NDAA into law last December, despite citizens’ outrage that it would put our most basic constitutional rights at stake. To appease the angry public, Obama promised that though the NDAA was officially law, “under no circumstances will my Administration accept or adhere to a rigid across-the-board requirement for military detention.”
The issue is not whether or not the president would have used this power, but the fact that he even had such unchecked power in the first place. Congress’ response last week sends the message that it will no longer sit idly by and watch the executive branch throw the Constitution by the wayside in the name of national security.
Though the Constitution acknowledges that the executive branch needs more power to protect the nation during times of war, the government has become far too comfortable curtailing the civil liberties of its citizens by pushing paranoia of imminent destruction by enemies. It is one thing to detain someone based on evidence of subversive actions, but it is another thing entirely to make it nearly impossible for those detained to contest their charges.
Luckily, many lawmakers have also recognized the dire predicament such issues put the country in. Moments before the amendment was put to vote last week, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) posed a question that all Americans living in the post-9/11 United States should ask themselves: “What are you fighting against and for if you throw the Constitution out?”
The passage of Amendment 3018 provides hope that our elected officials know that the answer to this is nothing.
Congress’ pushback against the unconstitutional aspects of the NDAA shows that we are headed in the right direction. The government must not be allowed to exploit the fear of its citizens to scrap our nation’s foundational principles, whether in times of war or peace. The executive branch will not go unchecked or unquestioned as long as we have a vigilant citizenry that understands the importance of protecting basic democratic rights, such as the right to face one’s accusers in front of a judge and jury.
Acknowledging the potential of an overly powerful executive to morph into tyranny, Benjamin Franklin said it best: “Those who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
We must continue to demand liberty at all costs, or we will ultimately have neither liberty nor safety.
Sarah Cueva is a junior majoring in political science and Middle East studies. Her column “Leaning Toward Liberty” ran Mondays.