We at the Milwaukee Renaissance have been advancing the notion of an “Ignatian Response to the Ferguson Tragedy,” now widened to An Ignatian Response For Our Times. We employ the term “Milwaukee” metaphorically, and not as the city so named, inspired by the meaning of the term among Native American nations, i.e. “where the waters meet.” Tom Coffin is a superb essayist, and happy to begin actively sharing his thoughts on various topics over the years. I am hoping this platform might accelerate Tom’s sharing his rich life’s experiences and observations in memoir form.
Education: SLUH class of 1963; BA 1967 St. Benedict’s College; J.D. Harvard Law School 1970.
Tom believes his 4 years at St. Louis U. High, a Jesuit school, 1959–63, had a more profound impact on his life than his 3 years at Harvard, in the 3 tumultuous last years of the 1960s, i.e. 1967–1970. He chose public service over private millions, and has served as:
We are now at a place where the President of this Nation literally hugs the flag of the United States while gleefully extolling the idea of snatching infants, toddlers, and thousands of vulnerable children from their undocumented immigrant parents and placing them in cages at secretive concentration camps in undisclosed locations. The ICE and other agencies implementing this cruelty have kept little or no records of which children are the sons and daughters of which parents as they are separated, increasing the risk that they may never be reunited. The Attorney General of the United States, the head of something called the Department of Justice (whatever that means anymore) quotes the Bible in a hollow attempt to invoke God’s blessing on malevolence that parallels the practice of separating the families of slaves in the pre=Civil War era. Propagandists follow up on the blasphemous distortion of Scripture by comparing the separation policy to summer camp for kids and telling us it doesn’t matter anyway because, hey, they’re not Americans.
The cruelty and inhumanity of this policy is overwhelming. No one could conceive of such depravity who has a moral compass, an ounce of compassion, or a soul that harbors any empathy whatsoever within itself.
This evil can only be described as sociopathic. It is monstrous in its contravention of the most basic moral principles and fundamental values of our country.
This administration, with its open and undisguised admiration for tyrannical rulers and murderous regimes, simply does not believe in, respect, or feel bound by our Constitution and its framework of democratic government. Rather, it insists on a governmental structure wherein subordinates pledge total loyalty and obedience to a titular head of State—i.e., a dictatorial structure where the ruler is above and beyond the rule of law because he is the law.
This objective is the end game of Trumpism. It explains the relentless assaults on a free press, the FBI, the existence of independent counsel and his investigation, the other branches of government, and the entire Constitutional system of checks and balances by theoretically co-equal branches.
I endeavored to explain this danger in an earlier essay “The Enemy Within” (http://www.milwaukeerenaissance.com/TomCoffin/). The threat has since evolved and become more imminent. For example, spokespeople for the administration float the ideas that the President could shoot the Director of the FBI and not be prosecuted, or pardon himself for any and all violations of the law.
The transformation of governmental framework, from liberal democracy to totalitarianism, does not occur suddenly when it emanates from within the framework itself. It happens incrementally, in small erosions which crumble segments of democratic principles that the people accept in silence or only tokenly resist. Thus we have the “fake news” mantra discrediting a free press, the “witch hunt” refrain to discredit any independent investigation into alleged misconduct of associates of the President by someone who has
not pledged fealty to the President, the encouragement of violations of civil rights by law enforcement, and the pardoning of those engaged in civil rights violations ( See “The Enemy Within”).
The family separation policy represents a bold advancement of the administration’s incremental movement strategy. The policy carries the fingerprints of White House adviser Stephen Miller, an outspoken proponent of nationalist extremism, as well as the Attorney General himself. Fortunately, it has evoked strong and passionate resistance that the administration underestimated. The outpouring of outrage has forced at least a temporary reprieve in the form of an Executive Order ceasing the forced separation of children from their parents. But the nightmare is hardly over as the government contemplates incarcerating entire families at compounds such as Army bases and other internment camps without any coherent plan regarding the duration of confinement while individual application for asylum are processed.
It is heartening to see, in addition to the public furor over the separation policy, that 75 United States Attorneys from across the country, the highest federal law enforcement officials in their respective Districts, have expressed their objections to the policy in a joint letter to the Attorney General. Having personally served for 21 years in the Department of Justice, I have been extremely concerned about the overt attempts by the White House to undermine the independent role of the DOJ to uphold the Rule of Law which is the foundation of our Constitutional framework , and to instead transform the Department into some subservient extension of the office of the President. The letter represents a commitment to uphold the Rule of Law and the integrity of the Department of Justice, and we can hope that they will remain loyal to the Constitution in their resolve.
The rest of the Nation must do so as well. At stake is nothing less than all the freedoms and rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and our sacred heritage that true patriots have defended with their lives for over 228 years. That Flag that we will honor this coming Fourth of July does not stand for whoever occupies the White House at any given moment—it stands for this Country, for the Constitution, for the People, and for our fundamental values and Democracy. It does not stand for oppression or cruelty, and it certainly does not stand for any form of autocracy.
In 1981 I was serving as a federal prosecutor in Eugene, Oregon when a shipment of Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic assault rifles arrived at the County Sheriff’s office. However, the Sheriff had not ordered the weapons—they had been purchased by several prosecutors and investigators within the District Attorney’s office. The Sheriff complained to ATF, the federal agency which enforces federal gun laws, and I coordinated the investigation on behalf of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
No prosecution ever resulted from the investigation as it was determined that no federal laws were violated in the transaction. But the recent spate of mass shootings perpetrated by domestic terrorists using semi-automatic military weapons reminded me of that 1981 event.
To explain, there was no federal or state legislation banning the sale of semi-automatic assault rifles back then because the arms industry was simply not marketing these weapons to the general public. Sturm-Ruger, the manufacturer of the Mini-14, limited its sales of such weapons to bonafide law enforcement officers (the reason the Sheriff complained to ATF in the first instance was that he disputed whether District Attorney personnel qualified as law enforcement).
In the course of the investigation I was told by ATF agents that Ruger had a policy of limiting its sales of Mini-14s to the military and police because these were anti-personnel weapons unsuitable for legitimate sport or hunting by the public.
But the decade of the 1980s saw a sea change in the attitude and marketing tactics of the arms industry and its close ally, the NRA.
As I have explained in an earlier article, The Distortion of the Second Amendment, the industry began funding articles and seminars to advocate its view that the 2d Amendment was actually disconnected from its prefatory clause, “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…”, and that its real purpose was to enable its citizens to rebel against its own Constitutional form of government (ignoring the paradox that the very same founders that drafted the 2d Amendment had, in the body of the Constitution, defined Treason as waging war against the government).
Thus, the sporting or hunting purpose of arms *1 was relegated to a nostalgic and irrelevant footnote of history in the arms industry’s new found purpose in the 2d Amendment of arming the public so its members could wage war against its own democratically elected government. *2
Here are some sobering and frightening thoughts that flow from the NRA/arms industry’s re-creation of the 2d Amendment and the acquiescence in their narrative by politicians:
*1The term “arms” includes, but is not limited to rifles or handguns.
*2 During the 2016 campaign, then candidate Donald Trump suggested at a rally the possibility of a “2d Amendment Solution” if he lost the election. The remark itself demonstrates the utter folly and dangerousness of the Amendment’s distortion.
*3The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA)
In a previous article, I described how, beginning in the 1980s, the arms industry and the NRA initiated a propaganda machine to recast the Second Amendment into some sort of deranged mandate to arm private citizens with military weaponry so that they could wage war and commit Treason against their own government (The Distortion of the Second Amendment). Their propaganda is nonsense. While the Supreme Court has recognized that the Second Amendment confers a limited right for a private citizen to possess a handgun for self-defense purposes in his or her home, it expressly declined to extend the contours of that right to military weapons (M-16 rifles and the like), and constrained its holding to the “sorts of lawful weapons that [citizens] possessed at home” at the time of the enactment of the Amendment. District of Columbia v. Heller, opinion of the Court, p. 55. As recently held by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, “weapons that are most useful in military service—M16 rifles and the like—may be banned” without infringement upon the Second Amendment right. Kolbe v. Hogan, 849 F.3d 114 (4th Cir. 2017).
But the Courts are not Legislatures. While they can limit the NRA/arms industry’s expansive and self-serving interpretation of the Second Amendment, they cannot enact the laws necessary to ban or curtail the commercial sale of military weaponry to the general public. Only Congress and State Legislatures have that authority and this is where the distortions of the Second Amendment and related misinformation tactics have been most effective. How often do we hear NRA spokespersons say they are only supporting the “constitutional rights” of gun owners by opposing virtually any and all efforts to control and regulate commercial gun sales? How often do we hear complicit and obeisant lawmakers explain that they cannot vote for sensible gun control legislation “because of the Second Amendment?” It is all a lie. The Constitution nowhere requires the arming of citizens with military weaponry. It is simply a convenient excuse for legislators to kowtow to arms industry demands by pretending their hands are tied by the Constitution. They are not. They can act if they have the courage to do so, i.e., to stand up to the pressure and financial clout of the NRA and arms industry. When politicians tell you they would charge into a school under siege by an AR-15 armed shooter to save the children, ask them why they are not courageous enough to protect the children by promoting legislation that would disarm the shooter in the first place.
A few more points I wish to make: A model of the NRA political tactics is found in its promotion of the so-called “Hearing Protection Act” before Congress, which is euphemistically characterized as legislation to protect the health of shooters by removing restrictions on silencers (a.k.a. suppressors) to reduce the noise from their firearms. Of course the title of the proposed act is a much better sound byte than the “Assassin Protection Act,” and I give their PR people credit for that, but are we really supposed to buy into the notion that this is about hearing loss issues when if you check the facts even the military, with all of its extremely loud military weaponry, does not use “silencers” for ear protection but instead opts for external ear protection product. https://everytownresearch.org/h-r-367-is-dangerous-and-unnecessary-would-make-it-easier-to-buy-silencers-illegally/.
A second point, these military weapons (silencers are merely h’orderves) the NRA/arms industry is pushing on the culture of America are exponentially more dangerous, destructive, and harmful to civilian life than the traditional handguns and sporting rifles of our parents’ generation. To put it in the words of an ER physician who responded to the school shootings at Parkland, Florida:
What I Saw Treating the Victims from Parkland Should Change the Debate on Guns, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/02/what-i-saw-treating-the-victims-from-parkland-should-change-the-debate-on-guns/553937/.
This is what military weapons are designed to do. They are not sporting or hunting weapons. They are killing machines, designed for mass annihilation and lethality against enemy combatants in warfare. What rational society authorizes the distribution of such weaponry to the general public?
Third point, the easy access to and availability of the mass killing machines to anyone who wants them. I went online, Googled “military weapons for sale,” and within less than a minute found sites for buying and selling not only AR-15s and other military assault rifles, but also machine guns, silencers, explosive devises, and other highly lethal weapons of warfare. See, e.g., http://proguns.com/ and https://www.gunbroker.com/. There is no shortage of such arms dealers within your communities.
My final point concerns the congressional immunity granted to arms manufacturers and dealers for any liability to the victims of these mass shootings that would otherwise arise from the production, marketing, and sale of military weaponry to the general populace:
Source: Gifford’s Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, http://lawcenter.giffords.org/gun-laws/policy-areas/other-laws-policies/gun-industry-immunity/.
It is no coincidence that this broad grant of immunity granted by Congress to the arms industry came shortly after the expiration of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB), which was enacted in 1994 after a series of mass shootings in which the perpetrators used semi-automatic assault rifles and handguns to kill or wound 98 people in Stockton and San Francisco, California, and in Killeen, Texas. The AWB by its terms expired after 10 years (in late 2004), and a different Congress not only refused to renew it, but reversed course and essentially encouraged the sales of assault weapons by enacting PLCAA, which effectively immunized arms manufactures and dealers from civil liability for the inevitable and eminently foreseeable mass shootings following the demise of the Assault Weapons Ban.
Such a double fronted blow by lawmakers—allowing the assault weapons ban to expire and immunizing the arms industry from civil liability for designing, producing, promoting, and marketing the weapons was a deliberate choice. It enhanced the revenue stream of the industry over the lives of innocent victims. It is analogous to—and even more irresponsible—than legislation which would immunize the auto industry from civil liability for marketing automobiles with exploding gas tanks, failing brake or steering systems, etc. Automobiles, at least, are not designed for the purpose of killing large numbers of people. Military weapons, on the contrary, are designed expressly for that purpose.
So how do we save our children from the golden calf of military weaponry that is the center-piece of the fake Second Amendment mythology? First, we must educate ourselves regarding the distortion, misinformation, and political strategies being employed to influence public opinion on the primary question before us: should military grade weapons, which have the primary purpose of killing large numbers of enemy combatants in warfare, be distributed to the public at large?
Second we must not allow ourselves to be fooled by the terminology employed by the arms industry in its efforts to wrap themselves in the flag and Second Amendment to justify unleashing these weapons on society. Silencers are not ear guards; AR-15s, mega capacity magazines, bumper stocks, and fully automatic assault weapons are not for hunting game.
Third, and most importantly, we must hold fast to the concept that we – the parents, teachers, children, and all the people placed in jeopardy by the wholesale distribution of military weaponry by the arms industry – have the moral and legal high ground on this critical issue: nothing in the Constitution mandates the sale of military weaponry such as assault weapons to the public at large. Our Right to Life, which is protected by our country’s founding documents including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, easily supersedes the commercial interests of the arms industry in selling such military grade weaponry to the private sector.
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are institutions among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…
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.
For approximately 200 years the universal, if not unanimous, interpretation of the Second Amendment was that it granted a collective right enjoyed by the states, not individuals, and thus that the Constitution provided no right for an individual to possess a firearm. As a result, the authority of state and federal governments to regulate and control gun ownership by the private sector was virtually unchallenged, certain segments of society (such as felons and the mentally ill) were precluded from owning firearms, military grade weapons such as fully automatic and semi-automatic firearms, silencers, and explosive devise were heavily regulated and/or banned, and background checks for gun purchasers were standard.
Beginning the 1980s, the NRA has sponsored legal seminars, funded legal research and promoted articles that advocated an individual, private right to possess firearms as the basis of the Second Amendment.1
Garry Wills, a noted historian and Pulitzer Prize winning author, has thoroughly examined and debunked much of the mythology created by the NRA-driven flood of articles and publications of recent vintage promoting this arms industry version of the Amendment, which its proponents describe as the Standard Model (of the Second Amendment).2
I will not repeat Wills’ in-depth analysis in full in this essay, but will instead highlight two main criticisms of the Standard Model that are illustrative of its fallacies. First, the Standard Modelers labor to untether the Second Amendment from its military moorings. The reason for their effort to edit out the “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…” clause from the Amendment is to undermine the state’s legitimate role in regulating… “the right of the people to keep and bear arms…” For example, the State, to further the effectiveness of its militia, stored rifles and ammunition in its arsenals, regulated the storage of gunpowder (away from villages and schools), and trained the militia in the use of arms and military tactics.
To put it in another way, the Standard Modelers present a purpose of the Second Amendment which assumes a schizophrenic collection of Founders of our country who desired to establish a Constitutional Republic that, notwithstanding its carefully balanced system of checks and balances and democratic processor of governance, endorsed and encouraged armed rebellion by royalists and all other insurrectionists.
This is the genesis of the “Second Amendment solutions” mantra that is heard from the fringe element that promotes assassination as a legitimate tool in the political arena. But beyond that rhetoric, it is an argument that the arms industry advances to open the door to the sale of more and more military weaponry to the private sector. After all, if the purpose of the Second Amendment is to enable the citizenry to revolt against the government, it cannot hope to succeed without access to equivalent military weaponry. And so, we now have the incremental move to allow the sale of silencers to the private sector (enabling snipers to implement Second Amendment Solutions as well as to stealthily murder our children), in addition to the semi-automatic rifles, and pistols, and mega-capacity magazines on the market. None of these made-for-war mass killing machines have any traditional hunting or other legitimate sporting function. They are designed for the purpose of killing large numbers of the enemy in battle. It is folly to allow arms dealers to profit by selling such lethal military weaponry to the general public under the fabricated and, frankly, idiotic rationale that our nation’s Founders intended to aid and abet the citizenry to commit treason by waging war against their own constitutional government. This grotesque distortion of the Second Amendment and its complicit acceptance by elected officials whose campaign coffers have been filled by NRA donations, has transformed our schools, shopping malls, churches, concerts, movie theatres, and all places of public gathering, into killing fields and slaughterhouses. It is simply a lie to say that this is what the Constitution requires. It emphatically does not. The same Founders who authored the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, also recognized and declared that each of us have an unalienable right to Life. “Unalienable” means that our right to live cannot be sold, transferred, or subordinated to the arms industry’s unquenchable thirst for profit. The Second Amendment does not override or negate the other rights enshrined in the Constitution and our nation’s heritage. We the People need to take back our schools, churches, places of public assemblies, our children’s lives, and the lives of all other innocents and make them safe again, protected from the profit-motive of the weapons industry and the “look the other way” legislators, whose political allegiance has been compromised by campaign donations. The trite and meaningless response of “our thoughts and prayers are with you” is an insulting shrug of indifference and rejection of any action to stop the flow of this weaponry into our culture. Our children deserve more from us.
While the Supreme Court, in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, ruled in a 5–4 split in 2008 that the Second Amendment did create an individual right to own a firearm for traditional self-defense purposes, that decision was limited on its facts to a handgun possessed by a homeowner within his own residence. More recently, on February 21, 2017, the Fourth Circuit in Kolbe v. Hogan, noted that the Heller decision specified that “weapons that are most useful in military service—M-16 rifles and the like—may be banned” without infringement upon the Second Amendment right and on that basis upheld Maryland’s Firearm Safety Act, which banned assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. As the Kolbe court explained:
There is hope that the courts will reject the NRA and weapons industry’s attempt to saturate our society with the most lethal military weaponry that in any sane country would be limited to military arsenals and strictly restricted to military use, in time of warfare, and under a rigid chain of command. The carnage and mass murders we are experiencing today is the direct and inevitable result of policies that expand access to such weaponry to the public at large.
My father-in-law, Lt. Commander Perry Teaff, and his lifelong spouse, Marguerrite, are being interred at Arlington National Cemetery this weekend with full military honors. He was a Naval pilot assigned to the USS Enterprise, which was headed into its port of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He was part of an advance scout squadron, which flew into the Japanese attack itself as it was happening. He was shot down by friendly fire mistaking him as part of the attacking force. He emerged from his damaged plane to climb into another aircraft on the runway, taking off immediately to engage the enemy. For this valor he was awarded the Navy Cross, the highest honor of the United States Navy. Later he fought at the Battle of Midway, crashing on take off from the Enterprise and losing his right eye upon impact.
In thinking of my father-in-law, I was reminded of not only his sacrifices, but of all the remarkable sacrifices the men and women of his generation made for this country. We are here today because of them. We will not be here tomorrow if we fail to follow their example and carry on their legacy.
That legacy implicates many virtues and traditions that are the foundation of this country: knowledge and respect for our Constitution and its principles of freedom and equality for everyone. Fairness and justice in our institutions. Equal opportunity for all in our society. Hard work and sacrifice for the betterment of all, not just a privileged few.
History is full of examples of those who have brought such gifts to this country and made it a much better place because of their talents. I will just highlight a few.
Frederick Douglass was an author, editor, and most important African American leader of the 19th century. Until his British friends purchased his freedom from his Maryland owner in 1847, Douglass was a fugitive slave everywhere he went for nine years. By law, he was considered stolen property, an alien and illegal black person in white America. Fugitive slaves in the North were viewed by many as a threat to white jobs, a menace to the social and racial order, and a legal challenge to slavery. Many have compared Douglass’ journey to the millions of people who have been forced to flee their home countries as refugees to beg for asylum.
In Douglass’ Our Composite Nationality, he stated, “We should welcome to our ample continent all nations, . . . tongues and peoples; and as fast as they learn our language and comprehend the duties of citizenship, we should incorporate them into the American body politic. The outspread wings of the American eagle are broad enough to shelter all who are likely to come. . . .”
Many great African American Leaders have advanced the cause of racial equality in this country in the wake of Douglass, including of course Dr. Martin Luther King who sacrificed his life in that epic struggle, reminding us that liberty does not come easily or without great price.
Albert Einstein immigrated from Germany in 1932. He was a strident critic of racism, calling it “America’s worst disease.” He believed that, “the world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
Jonas Salk was born in New York City in 1914 to Ashkenazi Jewish parents (his mother had immigrated from Russia at the age of 12). Dr. Salk went to medical school where he excelled in academic prowess and became absorbed in medical research, particularly in the science of virology. At the time, in the late 1940s, polio was considered one of the most frightening public health problems in the world. A 1952 U.S. epidemic of polio was the worst outbreak in history: 58,000 cases were reported including 3,145 fatalities and 21, 269 stricken with disabling paralysis. In 1955, Dr. Salk developed and introduced a vaccine for polio, which culminated in a worldwide polio immunization campaign using his vaccine that controlled and ultimately eradicated the devastating disease. Dr. Salk literally became a hero to the entire world. He was once asked who owned the patent for the vaccine, and he replied “the people.” It was calculated that a patent would have been worth 7 billion dollars. In short, Dr. Salk gifted the vaccine to mankind.
Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa grew up in an impoverished Mexican village, illegally hopped the fence into California, attended Harvard Medical School, and now works at Johns Hopkins Medicine as a neurosurgeon where he operates on about 250 brain tumors every year. Dr. Q, as he is known, describes the “American dream” this way:
Ibrahim Gassama immigrated from Sierra Leone. He has been a professor for the University of Oregon School of Law for more than a decade, helped free Nelson Mandela, oversaw the first free election in South Africa, and spoke with Fidel Castro about human rights and race relations in Cuba.
Andrew Cherng immigrated from China. In 1973 Cherng opened a restaurant, the Panda Inn, in California with his father, a master chef who had emigrated to join him. Ten years later he and his wife, Peggy, opened the first Panda Express in a mall in Glendale, California. The Cherngs employ 30,000 people and have raised more than $100 million for charity. In a Forbes interview this year he stated, “In America nothing will stop you but yourself.”
I could go on. The list of immigrants and the children of immigrants is really a list of our country. It is what we are. It is who we are. The key theme here is the American dream. It is not only a dream of opportunity, it is a dream of sharing, of sacrifice, of paying back to others of our community by donating our talents, our skills, and the fruit of our labors to the common good of all. In the words of President John F. Kennedy, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” That is the essence of public service. It is not at all the same as obedience to those in power. It is service to the people, to your fellow citizens. It is what Dr. Jonas Salk captured when he said that “the people” owned the patent to his vaccine.
Finally, I end on this note. I am told that in the Chinese alphabet, they were lacking in a character for the word “challenge.” Upon reflection, they combined the character for “danger” and the character for “opportunity” to create the character for “challenge.” There is both danger and opportunity in our society today, and therein lies the challenge before you. For 228 years this nation has responded to each challenge it has faced and has prospered because it has remained faithful to its Constitution and to its fundamental principles of freedom, of equality, of justice. This is your heritage. Carry it forward.
Our nation was founded on principles that our Founders determined to be sacrosanct and immutable:
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men
are created equal, that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among
these are Life,Liberty,and the pursuit of Happiness—
that to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted
among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent
of the Governed…” The Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776
We must never forget that the Founders of this nation were intimately familiar with a monarchical, or autocratic, form of government and the resulting tyranny that accompanies such a model of government—e.g., imprisonment without jury trial, punishment for “seditious” speech, judges who lacked independence and who served only at the pleasure of the king, denial of a representative voice in government, and other violations of basic human rights.
After overthrowing the yoke of a foreign king, they drafted a Constitution that was designed to ensure a representative form of government with formidable obstacles to the reincarnation of a tyrannical autocracy. Hence the checks and balances of co-equal branches of government, each with the ability to counter excessive exercises of power by the other branches.
The Constitution, with the first 10 Amendments (the Bill of Rights) was ratified in 1789. The Bill of Rights, authored by James Madison with input from Thomas Jefferson,expressly incorporated fundamental individual liberties, rights, and values deemed to be cornerstones of our framework of government.
That government—our government—has endured as a beacon of democracy for the world for over 228 years. Now, however, it is being assailed by the greatest enemy it has ever encountered. This is not an enemy from outside our borders, an invading army or axis of foreign powers. It is an enemy from within, an enemy that strikes at the heart of our nation by questioning and repudiating our foundational principles that gave birth to our very existence and have been our sustaining life breath to this very day.
I speak of an administration that has described the Constitution as an archaic document and an obstacle to effective government, encouraged law enforcement officials to use excessive force in arresting suspects, heaped praise on Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte for his utilization of vigilante death squads to murder suspected lawbreakers and drug users, and applauded and pardoned a renegade sheriff in Arizona for contemptuously and systematically violating a federal court order by continuing to illegally profile and detain Hispanics on the discriminatory basis of their race.
The president’s distaste for the Constitution extends to the 1st Amendment, particularly the part that states “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” As Madison emphasized at the time of its passage…”we cannot be subject to rules and laws that prohibit us from speaking our minds. Our press can print and circulate the news without fear of reprisal, even if that news is less than favorable regarding our country or government.”
The president’s hostility to the freedoms of speech and the press is well documented. His former Chief of Staff confirmed in an interview that the White House has considered amending or even abolishing the 1st Amendment because of critical press coverage of the president. Most recently, he has demanded that the publisher of a book which is critical of his administration cease and desist from distributing the book into the public domain. Yet such freedom to publish it is the very essence of the 1st Amendment. Moreover, the president has repeatedly maligned peaceful political protests, such as kneeling during the anthem, as a form of disrespect for the flag that should be punished by fines or other economic sanctions.
This latter issue begs the question—what, exactly, does the flag represent if not the Constitution of the United States, which is the soul of this nation? I suspect that this president equates the flag with—well—himself. Nothing could be further from reality. The flag stands for the country, whose existence is defined by the Constitution, defended by the the sacrifices and blood of the people for over two centuries. Without the Constitution, the nation is a lifeless corpse and it has no president. It is such an irony to witness the president exhorting law enforcement officers to violate the Constitution, railing against rights and liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights, condoning and even pardoning violations of the freedoms and rights cherished by our Founders, all the while sporting a flag lapel pin as he flouts and rejects what the flag truly represents.
In this hypocrisy, he mirrors the mythical Humpty Dumpty, who famously said:
“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, nothing more nor less.”
No, Mr. President, the Constitution does not mean just what you choose it to mean, nothing more nor less. Its meaning has been clear for over two centuries. It means what the Founders articulated, and what the Congress, Courts, and former Presidents who have served this nation have always understood and accepted it to mean. You took an oath to uphold and protect this Constitution. You have no right, no power, no authority whatsoever to discard it or define it by your whim and caprice.
I have a practice at Naturalization Ceremonies to quiz newly admitted citizens regarding their rights and obligations under our Nation’s Constitution-the document which sets forth the foundational framework of our entire system of government and the relationship between the government and “We the People”. I welcome them into this framework, and especially welcome and thank them for the diversity they bring to the United States, which is a great source of strength for our country. Finally, I remind them that they have an obligation to study and become familiar with the Constitution, that they are sworn to protect it and its ideals from any enemies, foreign or domestic, and that they must be vigilant in protecting the rights guaranteed to the people by the Constitution because those rights, if ever surrendered, will not be recaptured without an epic struggle such as our Founders experienced to produce a republic that has endured for 228 years thus far.
[St. Louis Post Dispatch essay on Tom’s welcoming speech to new citizens.
Given the times we now live in, my admonition to our new citizens is fitting for all of us lest anyone, whether citizens by birthright or naturalized, take for granted the liberties and rights we enjoy because of this remarkable document and through apathy or inattention allow the Constitutional framework to be eroded by modernist grumblings that the Constitution is archaic or obsolete, and that the check and balances of co-equal branches of government (Congress, Executive, and Judiciary) is an obstacle to a strong and effective government
We must never forget that the Founders of this nation were intimately familiar with a monarchical, or autocratic, form of government and the resulting tyranny that accompanies such a model of government - e.g., imprisonment without jury trial, punishment for “seditious” speech, judges who lacked independence but who served only at the pleasure of the king, denial of a representative voice in government, and other violations of basic human rights that the Declaration of Independence characterized as endowed by the Creator and unalienable, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thus they drafted a Constitution that was designed to ensure a representative form of government with formidable obstacles to the reincarnation of a tyrannical autocracy. Hence the checks and balances of co-equal branches of government, each with the ability to counter excessive exercises of power by the other branches. Rather than being an “archaic” document, the Constitution remains vibrant and youthful in the 21st century an remains steadfast on course. If it is an “obstacle” to the dominance of any one branch of government, it is precisely because it was intended to be an obstacle. The Founders’ system is working and their prescience is praiseworthy.
The Constitution, pursuant to the First Amendment, also establishes the press as a critical overseer of the three co-equal branches of government by guaranteeing freedom of speech so citizens can be fully informed of the actions and decisions of those branches. Secrecy is the weapon of tyranny. Disclosure is the antidote of “We the People”.
Without exception, every autocracy has clamped down upon and striven to eliminate freedom of the press. Without exception, every autocracy has doubled-down on efforts to control the information flow and spoon-feed the people only what it wants them to hear through state-controlled media.
A free press, the “Fourth Estate” in the balance of power constitutional structure, has been acknowledged as vital to a democracy by virtually every president, jurist, and member of Congress since our nation was founded. It is not an “enemy of the people”. It is decidedly the ears and voice of “We the People”.
Finally, I will address the “Rule of Law” which safeguards the structural integrity of our Constitutional framework of government. In a nutshell, no one is beyond the law, be he prince or pauper, president or senator, police officer or judge, rich or poor. We are all - each and every one of us with no exceptions - subject to the Constitution and laws of this nation.
A critical component of the Rule of Law is the ability to thoroughly investigate potential violations of the law by an independent body that is untouchable from influence, pressure, or suppression by any subjects of the investigation. Allowing obstruction or the frustration of an independent investigation by an official who is a subject of that investigation was one of a list of grievances that our Founders expressed in the Declaration of Independence when they complained that the king “has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers” and for protecting his troops for prosecution for criminal acts against colonists with “mock trial(s)”.
The Rule of Law is the very Spirit of the Constitution. Any breach or assault on that Spirit is an attack on the Constitution itself
Outreach To Jesuit Schools
I am one of a group of alumni from the St.Louis U. High(SLUH) class of 1963, committed to a 10 year “Ignatian Response To The Ferguson Tragedy,” hoping you will consider participation in a Gun Control Conversation among Jesuit schools across the nation.
We are empowered by the internet, both as a place to store and share conversations, but also a s a means to enhance exchanges with Skype visits on this subject, and others to come.
Our first offering are essays by retired Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin, SLUH class of 1963, St. Benedict’s College (1967) and Harvard Law School (1970). Tom served 24 years on the Oregon bench, was a San Diegto federal prosecutor for 21 years, an adjunct law professor focused on Criminal Procedure and Constitutional Law.