As a teen I traveled to Europe, including the Soviet Union. I received a copy of the Soviet constitution, and I poked around in it. It guaranteed freedom of speech and religion, etc etc. Yeah, right, I thought, What a bunch of baloney! Just because they wrote it down doesn’t mean it’s true. Thank God I’m an American, where there’s a REAL Bill of Rights.
…Okay, fine, let’s make sure. I’ll list every Amendment in the Bill of Rights and, if it’s safe, I’ll indicate it with a nice green SAFE. If the politicos have tried to light a match to it, I’ll write SINGED. If, by chance, a battle rages for the life of an amendment, I’ll put IN FLAMES. And in the extremely unlikely event that one of our sacred first Ten Amendments has been destroyed by the onslaughts of politics and history, I’ll eulogize it with *SMOKING RUIN*.
Got it? Good. Let’s Go.
Amendment #1 SINGED Freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, petition
This one’s fairly robust. People can pretty much believe what they want, speak out, demonstrate, and so forth. We can yell to our hearts’ desire, and the only thing that regulates us is the other side yelling back. EXCEPT: recent Snowden revelations, that our phone and Internet use is monitored, may put a chill on speech.
Amendment #2 SINGED Right to bear arms
No, it’s not a hunting license inserted into the Constitution so that pioneers may shoot deer. It’s a deliberate push-back against the possibility of a tyrannical central government, a warning that a police officer or G-man must knock politely, warrant in hand, when investigating a crime. The Left, disbelieving that a liberal democratic government is capable of tyranny, simply wants all right-wing kooks to turn in their weapons. Recent Supreme Court rulings have bolstered this amendment, but a future liberal court could gut it with ease.
Amendment #3 SAFE No quartering of troops
This one is non-controversial. Americans have never had to put up troops in their homes. (It was a real problem, back in the day, for British citizens at home and in the Colonies. But America has long since built lots of very nice forts and bases with decent housing for our servicemen and women.)
Amendment #4 IN FLAMES No unreasonable search and seizure
Due process is under fire, both from the Feds and local authorities. First, our electronic communications are swept up wholesale by D.C. spy agencies without proper warrants (unless you consider the general searches approved by a rubber-stamp FISA Court as “warrants”). The excuse is that otherwise it would be more difficult to ferret out terrorists. This is like saying, “We’ll disregard your civil liberties if they’re inconvenient to us.” But every one of the first Ten Amendments is deliberately inconvenient to central authority.
Secondly, local constabularies nowadays have the right to confiscate your property and bank accounts if they merely suspect you’re involved in illicit drug sales. A number of businesses, especially restaurants that deal in large sums of cash, have gotten swept up in this dragnet. Police often may keep the proceeds, which encourages them to exaggerate their suspicions about the rest of us.
Amendment #5 SINGED Due process, no double jeopardy or self-incrimination
Without this amendment, a government that disliked someone could hound him or her with endless re-trials until a jury returned a guilty verdict. But even with this amendment, prosecutors have a clever workaround: they can pile on the counts until a defendant, even an innocent one, is forced to plead guilty. (This way, the prosecutor can pad his or her conviction rate, which is good for the career.) “Well, Mister Smith, you’re facing thirty-two charges, including aggravated assault, resisting arrest, striking a peace officer—” … “Hey, I did no such thing!” … “—lying to an authority, fraud, expired driver license, and jaywalking.” If you plead out, you’re marked for life, and if you insist on a trial, at least one of those many charges is likely to stick (since, given enough juries, mistakes will be made), and the court will throw the book at you for not pleading out ahead of time. Either way, you’re screwed.
Amendment #6 IN FLAMES Speedy trial, confront witnesses
This one gets eaten up by the Patriot Act and subsequent Military Commissions Acts that permit the Feds to arrest and detain, without court hearing or counsel, anyone it considers to be an enemy combatant. Basically you can be lugging bags of groceries on your way home, turn a corner, and get swept up in a rush of panicked anti-government demonstrators, find yourself hauled off in a paddy wagon, and then sent to a Romanian prison forever because the booking sergeant couldn’t find your wallet or purse and decided you were a non-citizen insurgent. How such laws ever saw the light of day, I can’t imagine. If it doesn’t get fixed, you can kiss this Amendment goodbye.
Amendment #7 SAFE Civil trial by jury
The seventh Amendment guarantees that you can have a jury hear your lawsuit. It’s one of the only portions of the Bill of Rights that hasn’t been “incorporated” (enforced onto state constitutions), but most localities respect it anyway. In any event, it’s … *yawn* … non-controversial.
Amendment #8 SAFE No cruel or unusual punishment
This one gets a lot of lively use, lately on whether capital punishment is so nasty it should be banned. The amendment, then, is functional, and many barbaric punishments have long since been prohibited under its authority.
Amendment #9 SAFE Unenumerated rights retained by the people
Basically, “Just because we didn’t mention a right doesn’t mean you don’t have it.” Your liberties, then, are open-ended, and the government can’t stop you from doing things just because they weren’t thought of when the Constitution was enacted. Examples: contraception, abortion, the right to privacy.
Amendment #10 *SMOKING RUIN* All other powers retained by the people
This amendment guarantees that powers not listed in the Constitution belong to the states or to you. Unfortunately, it got shot down during the 1930s and 1940s, when a conservative Supreme Court buckled under FDR’s threat to “pack” the bench with extra judges — liberal ones, at that — and the justices decided the president’s friends in Congress could pretty much enact any old laws they wanted. This removed the written limits on the legislature’s power to regulate commerce, as listed in Article I Section 8.
Before then, the United States had to amend the constitution to impose, say, a federal income tax, or to ban alcohol. Afterward, Congress could simply prohibit any drug it didn’t like, or tell a farmer what he could or couldn’t grow, or force you to purchase specific products, such as health insurance under ObamaCare. (Sure, the Court ruled that the penalty for non-compliance is a “tax”, but oh puh-leeze!) Basically the rulings mean that this amendment no longer has force. Decades ago, courts dismissed it as “a truism” that “added nothing” to the Constitution. In other words: Tough luck, suckers.
…Okay, we’ve finished our review of the Bill of Rights. Unlike the old Soviet farce of a Bill, ours is rigorously enforced— er, hold on a second, let me recount… Oh my gosh! Only four amendments are safe? Three are singed? Two are in flames? And one already is a smoking ruin?!?
Oh dear. I suppose my youthful faith in the strength of America’s Bill of Rights was misplaced. But maybe I shouldn’t even say that! After all … they’re listening.