The title is a pretty simple statement and one could take it in a variety of ways. But given the recent national “conversation” on guns and the ramifications of various proposed solutions (which many haven’t thought out, in my opinion), let me focus this conversation on one aspect of why being America is hard: The Bill of Rights. Simply put, the hard issues that we face and that we’ll continue to face are found in The Bill of Rights. Let’s run through them briefly:
How many other countries allow such broad freedoms to its citizens? Recently, how many times have you heard talk of limiting what someone should be able to say. The political correctness crowd comes dangerously close to limiting freedom of speech. While not pushing for legislation or government regulation to do so, they do come close. Think about the ongoing HHS Mandate regarding mandatory conception coverage. The ONLY reason this is a debate here in the United States is because we have the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Some liberals would love, and have made noises about, working to limit conservative talk shows and press. Again, that starts to encroach on the First Amendment, which doesn’t delineate what speech, what religion, what purpose for assembly.
2nd Amendment – A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.
Again, in most countries, guns of varying sorts are highly controlled and restricted. The debate will continue to rage over this issue. But let’s put some historical context to this amendment. Many will argue that “keep[ing] and bear[ing] Arms” is largely associated with military activities. However, historically, there are other references to individual ownership and militia activities. This brings up point two: the Amendment reads “militia” not “army”. The Constitution provides for national defense through military forces but this specific amendment provides for the ability, if ever needed (and one hopes it isn’t), for regular people to form a militia for the “security of a free State”. That is, if we face invasion, or heaven forbid, a coup such that the national forces go against the will of the people. However unlikely that is to happen in the size of a nation we have presently, the authors provide that freedom explicitly as the Second Amendment.
3rd Amendment – No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
Again, the Bill of Rights provides guarantees to the individual. While this amendment is unlikely to be invoked or challenged, it does demonstrate the order of importance for our freedoms. First, during peace, the individual on their property has the freedom to refuse to, in this case, house soldiers. During wartime, legislation must be enacted in order to impinge on an individual’s right not to house soldiers. The government is therefore restricted from acting unilaterally in this area.
4th Amendment – The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Again, there aren’t many countries that honor personal privacy and limitations of policing to the extent the United States does. This is why we have heated debates over FISA, wiretapping programs aimed at counter-terrorism, and government collection of citizen’s cellphone location data. The debate on this amendment and on others frequently crosses into an evaluation of personal liberty versus national and personal security. It isn’t an easy issue to address. But we have the freedom to do so.
5th through 8th Amendments – all deal with the rights of people regarding the law, trials, representation, juries, self-incrimination, and cruel and unusual punishment.
These were powerful statements when they were authored and continue to provide the framework for a premier legal system for a country’s citizens. One that sometimes is hard to watch or bear but is rooted in these freedoms and guarantees.
9th Amendment – The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
This is one that frequently – and maybe too frequently – falls off the radar in discussions. Simply put, the authors recognized that they weren’t setting out to “create” or enumerate all the rights that citizens of the United States have and how they were protected. There were rights that they didn’t think of listing or addressing and there would be rights in the future that they couldn’t foresee. Some will argue that this amendment covers, for example, a woman’s “right to abortion”. But one could equally argue that it provides the unborn child the “right to life” or even the right for the father to have say in the matter.
10th Amendment – The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
Again, one that is frequently ignored by those in favor of a more powerful, larger federal government. There is reason to limit a federal government’s authority and power. There are things that can be done well at a national level but people have the freedom in this country to live in the state of their choosing and might want to move to a state that has certain specific laws that they feel more align with their beliefs, morals, and lifestyle. This is why a number of the national debates should be terminated with the simple deferral to the 10th Amendment. Let California, Idaho, Texas, Iowa, Delaware, or Florida decide on the matter.
These are why it is hard to be America and why it is great to be an American. I’m no Constitutional scholar but clearly these 10 Amendments (and the ones that come after them) give our nation great freedoms at a price of having the difficulty in governing using them.