Restore the Fourth

The protests mark growing dissatisfaction with the policy of the Obama administration which appears to view the US Constitution as a mere suggestion, rather than as a fundamental contract between a people and the representatives chosen by those people.

Mark Nelson
12 July 2013

Beginning as a computer game and later adapted into a children’s television game show, ‘Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?’ gives players a series of clues to track down and arrest international villain and superthief extraordinaire Carmen Sandiego and her team of evildoers. 

In both versions, the issuance of a warrant is a necessary step to victory, the manual for the computer version stating in bold letters: “Obtaining a warrant is very important. If you don’t have one, you won’t be able to arrest the thief once you catch up with him or her.” Judging from their violations of privacy, civil liberties and human rights, I guess no one in the Obama administration has played the game or seen the show.

As the international media asked ‘Where in the world is Edward Snowden?’, the underlying story which gave rise to Snowden’s evasion in the first place was being lost – namely, that the US government was warrantlessly collecting and monitoring massive amounts of private information, and more importantly, that they continue to do so. What else has the Obama administration been doing without a warrant? Well – aside from using drones to kill civilians and other ‘combatants’, whether or not they have a US passport or are on American soil, and even if there’s not enough evidence to convict them  in a US civilian court – not much. (Oh and by the way, the FBI has also been flying drones in American skies in order to conduct domestic surveillance). 

So on 4 July, rather than buying Chinese-made fireworks to celebrate their “freedom”, groups in local chapters of Restore the Fourth – a new civil society organization “protesting to restore the Fourth Amendment” of the US Constitution - which governs the use of warrants, took to the streets of cities across the United States. In New York City hundreds came together in Union Square, where speeches were given by privacy advocates and activists. Around the same number gathered in Washington, D.C., and smaller groups were visible elsewhere, including in my home state of Utah where the NSA’s largest data storage center is about to be completed

The protests mark growing dissatisfaction with the policy of the Obama administration which appears to view the US Constitution as a mere suggestion, rather than as a fundamental contract between a people and the representatives chosen by those people. While a few hundred protestors might seem unimpressive when compared with the millions who turned out in Cairo, mass movements against monolithic governments aren’t born in a day. The protests are a good starting point, but should not be seen as an end themselves. So what are the next steps? 

First, others must now be willing to show political courage and join the struggle against an increasingly totalitarian national security state. To ensure this, Restore the Fourth must make room for these newcomers, remaining an open and democratic organization that doesn’t fall prey to egoism. 

Next, Americans must recognize that actions by the US government, even those undertaken abroad, often have very real consequences on people’s lives. Therefore, Restore the Fourth must expand its focus toward ensuring that the protections contained in the Fourth Amendment are extended to all global citizens. It is possible for the US Congress to place extrajudicial limitations on activities performed by the executive agencies, and they should be lobbied to do so. This is particularly true regarding the use of drones. Moreover, new accountability mechanisms are needed to ensure that all governments, regardless of their military prowess, are held responsible by the new global community of civil society.

And finally, the US government – and the Obama administration in particular, which campaigned on a platform of increased transparency – should recognize the lesson that the Bush administration failed to comprehend: loyalty by the American electorate is brittle, and if an administration tightens its grip too much this loyalty will shatter. The stewardship over a democratic nation and its people must be held with care and fidelity to human rights standards.

So, while the beast of mobilization around this issue has not yet completely awoken, it has begun to stir. Civil society is making itself heard, and although the media would have the world continue to play the game of Where In The World Is Edward Snowdiego?, people will not disregard the more pressing issue. Organized groups will continue to call for democratic safeguards to protect both the American public and the wider international community from abuses of power. If international law is to have any meaning, then global civil society must unite and hold public officials everywhere to account.

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