In a couple of recent entries on this blog, I’ve mentioned the case of Frank and Belinda VanderSloot, a Latter-day Saint couple in the Idaho Falls area who have been the apparent targets — as chronicled, among other places, in the Wall Street Journal — of politically-related harassment on the part of federal agencies (including the Internal Revenue Service).
Here’s a quite similar — and quite disturbing — case of a woman from Texas.
This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Such evident harassment — it’s difficult to regard it as anything else — borders on the tyrannical, and all Americans should find it repugnant, whatever their political affiliation or ideological stripe. As the title of an important piece in Friday’s edition of the Christian Science Monitor — certainly no fringe right-wing rag — put it, “After IRS Scandal: Right-wing fear of government isn’t paranoid.”
Among other things, the Christian Science Monitor article discusses something called the “Reuther Memorandum,” a document commissioned by then attorney general Robert Kennedy roughly five decades ago in order to come up with ways in which the federal government could hinder the activities of conservative organizations and individuals — including even Senator Barry Goldwater, who would soon become the Republican nominee for the presidency. The Memorandum suggested putting conservatives on the Justice Department’s “subversives list,” limiting their access to the broadcast media by means of the Federal Communications Commission, and employing the Internal Revenue Service to shut off their funding by depriving them of tax exempt status and launching intrusive investigations of companies daring to advertise in conservative media.
Surely this sort of thing puts us on a slippery slope that can easily lead to unjust government intrusion and oppression of the kind that America’s Founders expressly and very deliberately sought to banish. Various court decisions over the past decades have held that such activities as flag-burning, public obscenity, and pole dancing represent constitutionally protected free expression. One can debate these matters — the latter two seem to me especially dubious — but there can be absolutely no doubt that the Founders intended to protect the right of political free speech. This was utterly central to their concerns. It was their principal focus. Accordingly, the Reuther Memorandum and the ongoing IRS scandal should worry everybody who cares about the Constitution of the United States.
I’m not saying that the kinds of proposed and possibly real government abuses to which I’m referring here are the equivalent of Nazism. They’re nowhere near that. Not yet, anyway. But the famous lament attributed (in somewhat variant forms) to the German Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller is nonetheless relevant here, as it is in many other situations:
First they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
For that matter, while I’m certainly not comparing federal government overreach to death, I can’t help but thinking of John Donne’s famous poem from the early 1600s, either:
No man is an island.
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were .
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Threats against the basic liberties of one group should be the concern of all groups, however much they may otherwise disagree.
The principal and irreducible function of any government is (or should be) to protect the lives and the rights of its citizens. And yet, whatever the eventual outcome of current investigations may be, whether they conclude that there was or was not deliberate wrongdoing on the part of elements of the Obama Administration, there are, surely, grounds for concern in these recent scandals. A clear prima facie case can be made that, in the matter of Benghazi, the government failed, whether through incompetence or because of some other factor, to take adequate steps to protect the lives of citizens overseas (including an ambassador) — and then, afterward, sought to conceal its failure. And, in the scandals relating to secret Justice Department acquisition of Associated Press phone records and to apparent targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service, an obvious prima facie case can be made that the federal government was actively violating the rights of certain American citizens.
Did Barack Obama directly order such intrusions? Very probably not. But, as I observed here the other day, that may or may not matter, strictly speaking. Irritated by Archbishop Thomas Becket, Henry II had only to pose the rhetorical question “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” He issued no explicit order to assassinate the Archbishop of Canterbury. But four of his knights immediately headed off and did precisely that. (See Kimberley Strassel’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal, in which she argues for a similar dynamic within the Obama Administration.)