Perhaps the most interesting and eye opening conversation I have ever had occurred on a beach in Maui 19 years ago. I was there as part of the Young (stop laughing) Leaders Program of the Atlantic Council of the United States. The Atlantic Council had gathered a couple dozen of us from a number of different countries to discuss and debate some issues of the day. It was also hoped we would network with one another, learn new perspectives and so on.
I was standing on the beach that day with Jaroslaw Guzy. Jaroslaw had been the leader of the student arm of Solidarity in Poland in the 1980’s and had been imprisoned for his activities. As often happened in those times, the police came for him with a knock in the middle of the night.
We talked about how the Polish Constitution (indeed, the Soviet Constitution) included the rights we Americans normally associate with the Bill of Rights: freedom of speech, assembly, religion, the press and so on. Those things were all in there. What their Constitutions lacked, and ours had, was protections against unreasonable search and seizure and against the government taking away our liberty without probable cause.
It occurred to me that the freedoms we all take for granted, those of speech, assembly, worship, the press and so on, mean absolutely nothing without the parts of the Constitution that protect us against unreasonable searches and seizures and protect us against arrest without cause. It was an eye opener. The REAL genius of our Constitution is not those First Amendment freedoms we so often think about, it is rather the freedom from the government being able to search us, seize our property and arrest us without cause. The REAL genius of the Constitution can be found in the Fourth Amendment (Amendments 5-8 also address these protections). Because without the Fourth Amendment, the First Amendment means nothing.
This point often gets lost in debates about the true meaning of freedom. I was reminded of it again this weekend, reading the May 14 edition of The Economist, specifically the “Lexington” column (Save The Fourth Amendment). It is why I often get tired of certain commentators decrying what they sometimes call “criminals rights;” those are MY rights and I might not need them today but I might need them tomorrow and they are what truly guarantees my freedoms delineated in the First Amendment.
It is also why we here at ACI-NA often get into tussles with TSA over, for example, what they can and can’t do to passengers in public areas of the terminal and on the queue for security. We believe the Fourth Amendment means what it says. We understand why some might want to take a more expansive view of the amendment in a dangerous time, but it is precisely at such times when those protections are at their most important.
If you have a copy of the U.S. Constitution, read the Fourth Amendment (check out 5-8 too). And, imagine what things would be like without them.