Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Senator Brown's bill is just wrong

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Saturday, May 14, 2010.

“Those who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” – Benjamin Franklin.

This famous quotation leapt to mind recently when Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown announced his co-sponsorship of legislation entitled the “Terrorist Expatriation Act”. This bill would expand State Department powers to strip Americans of their citizenship under a 1940 law, if the government determines they have joined or supported a terrorist-type organization.

These Americans would not have to be convicted of any crime. They would have the right to appeal the government’s determination - after the fact - through the court system. The Senator’s bill was filed largely in response to the recent car bombing attempt in Times Square by an alleged naturalized US citizen from Pakistan.

“We continue to defend our nation against shadowy extremist enemies whose tactics are ever-changing and evolving, but their goal of destroying our way of life remains the same," explained Brown, the country’s newest senator. “It is critical to our homeland security that we adjust and adapt our defense measures to keep terrorism out of our country.”

The law Brown seeks to expand was created as America was about to enter the war in Europe and battle the Nazi government. When Senator Joseph McCarthy started hunting Communists in the 1950’s, the law was given more teeth in response to the fear gripping the nation.

But it has rarely been used or enforced because the Supreme Court has consistently ruled citizenship can only be given up voluntarily. And that is as it should be, because citizenship is the single most important protection Americans have against unfair persecution, particularly by those in positions of governmental power.

The idea a senator from Massachusetts, where American liberty was conceived, could sponsor a bill that would strip citizenship from those merely accused of crimes or associations is frightening and ridiculous. The fact many well-known politicians from both parties are hesitant to immediately oppose it speaks to the political climate which today has politicians pandering to prevailing public opinion, rather than standing up for the principles upon which this great nation was founded.

There are strong laws and penalties in place for those who would commit terrorism and/or treason. But citizens of this country have certain rights, even if alleged to have committed criminal acts. Those rights were fought for and secured with the blood of patriots over the last 234 years. They belong to the people of this country - not its government.

Yes, the rights of American citizens sometimes make it difficult to provide for our security. Democracy and freedom are not easy. Maintaining them means forever balancing the rights of the individual against the needs of society. It is what separates us from most of the rest of the world.

Thomas Jefferson – hardly known as a liberal zealot – said: “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.”

People have the right to be safe in their homes. Those who violate the laws of our land should face the appropriate punishments. And those convicted of plotting the violent overthrow of our government should be dealt with to the extreme, be they US citizens or not.

But proposals such as the one put forth by Senator Brown are as clearly political and self-serving as they are unconstitutional. Brown’s proposed law brings back sad memories of the way this country treated Japanese-Americans during World War II. It may well be popular in the current political climate, and it might earn him some votes. But it will also lose him a great deal of respect.

If we are willing to devalue American citizenship in order to protect ourselves, then the terrorists have already achieved their major goal – to begin the destruction of our way of life from within. We cannot allow that to happen.

Old Ben Franklin was absolutely right in what he said. And despite the best of intentions, Senator Brown is dead wrong in sponsoring this un-American piece of awful legislation.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist who – contrary to popular belief – did not know Ben Franklin personally. He can be reached at

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