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One Radical Opinion
by "Radical" Russ Belville
"Radical" Russ Belville was born on the first day of the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War in the town of Nampa in the "red" state of Idaho, where any opinion to the left of Reagan gets you labeled as "radical". He currently resides in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon (a.k.a. "Little Beirut") where he works in Information Technology. In his spare time, he enjoys writing about current events, playing the six-string bass guitar, and volunteering for liberal political causes. You can contact him via e-mail at letters 'at' radicalruss.net.
|Home||A Letter to Thomas Jefferson||<Back | Next>|
Dear Thomas Jefferson,
You're probably wondering what strange script and odd-looking paper this is. It would take too long to explain the details, but this letter is from the future. It is the year 2005, and we have discovered a method of sending correspondence back through time. This letter was created on a device that allows us to avoid the painstaking labor of using quill and ink and printing by hand. We've also changed our lettering; we no longer use F's in the place of some of the S's (we find your old writings somewhat hard to read because of that odd lettering, like how you write "Congrefs".) Furthermore, you'll find this very strange: this letter is printed on bleached wood-pulp paper, not the hemp paper you're used to, as hemp plants are now illegal. Yes, our government has criminalized the most useful plant in the colonies. We know that's hard for you to believe, but we don't have the time to explain that, either.
Our scientists discovered this method of sending time-travel letters, and the method only provides us with small windows of opportunity. As luck would have it, we found we could send you this one letter as you prepare to ink a few Amendments to the Constitution – something we consider the most important document of our time and refer to as The Bill of Rights. We have a few questions about this seminal document, perhaps you can address these issues as you write the final draft. With just a few clarifications to these first Ten Amendments, you could settle many issues in our times.
We've had many arguments about your First Amendment. It probably seems pretty clear to you, but it's led to major problems for us. For example, the part where you say "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." seems quite simple. However, in our time, it means that merchants can freely interrupt the sanctity of our homes with their sales pitches using a device we call a telephone. It means that the very rich can give limitless money (our courts have decided that spending money is equivalent to exercising speech) to their political candidates, to the point where one party in our two-party system has far more resources than the other, and no other parties even have a chance to compete. Some people are even arguing that, thanks to the First Amendment, women are allowed to take off their clothes and rub their bodies against men for money, artists are allowed to create and display the most tasteless, offensive art possible, and protestors can burn the American flag. So maybe you should be more clear on what exactly "speech" is.
We also need to know a bit more detail about "abridging" the freedom of press or speech and that right to "peaceably assemble". In our day, the president has taken to herding protesters into areas called "free speech zones" – meaning that we can only practice our right to "petition government for a redress of grievances" in fenced-off, well-guarded locations that are completely out-of-view to the president. You might say we're allowed to speak all we want, so long as we can't actually be heard. Also, most of the press these days is concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy owners who do their best to subvert opposing points of view. Do you consider the press to be truly free when only the very rich can effectively use it?
The other part of that amendment, the religion part, is really causing a lot of arguments. We've interpreted that you meant there to be a separation between church and state. Yet in some instances, we can make governmental recognition of God, on our money, in Congressional benedictions, for example, but not in other areas, like schools and courtrooms. Innocuous displays of holiday festivity like nativity scenes and Biblical displays like the Ten Commandments cause incredible arguments. So, could you be a bit clearer about it? We've got many people in the country today arguing that you and your contemporaries were all strict Christian men and that you meant for government to be run according to Christian theological standards. We've tried explaining to them that you were Deists, not Christians, and how strongly you wanted to keep the affairs of church and state separate, not only to protect the state from the church, but more so to protect the church from the state. Our arguments fall on deaf ears – these people are as far from your Enlightenment ideals as were the witch-burners in Salem from your not-so-distant past.
Another amendment that causes a lot of argument is the Second. We can see how you wanted to have an able citizenry ready to take arms against an aggressor. But now there are nearly 300 million of us (really! Oh, and by the way, Napoleon is going to offer you a great land deal in a few years – take it!) and we have muskets now that can fire hundreds of balls per minute, pierce steel, and be hidden under an overcoat. Many people have taken that "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" part to mean that we all get to own these kinds of weapons with very little intrusion from the government. But the "well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State" part gets lost in the shuffle. So, were you talking about a national military force when you wrote of this "well regulated Militia"? Because we have that, we call it the "National Guard" and they are quite "well regulated". (They're also currently fighting a war of aggression in what you know as Mesopotamia for reasons "necessary to the security of a free State" that have been proven to be lies, but again, it would take too long to explain it to you.)
The Third Amendment hasn't caused any arguments. It's been well over seven-score years since we've had any military engagements on our own homeland, so there hasn't been much need to quarter any soldiers in any house without the consent of the Owner. But since you're thinking about how we treat our soldiers, maybe you could take some time to flesh out exactly what rights and benefits should accrue to soldiers after their service to country. I think you'd be amazed if I told you some of the ways our soldiers have been abused by our civilian leadership. Could you ever imagine sending soldiers into battle without the proper ration of weapons, powder, and shot? Could you imagine sending a cavalry off to war without blankets and saddle for the horses? Our current administration has treated our soldiers as egregiously as that and then told us that we go to war "with the Army you have, not the Army you want or wish to have". Then when they return, we have broken our promises to them regarding pay, pension, and medical treatment. Maybe if you put some conditions in the Third Amendment we would be forced to take better care of our soldiers.
The Fourth Amendment, you might think, seems amazingly straightforward. But we live in an age where employers and governments routinely seize the urine of the citizens. Yes, you read that correctly, and it would be very hard to explain why they want our urine (it has a lot to do with those illegal hemp plants). So, is our urine something that should require a warrant? We've also recently had our Supreme Court rule that government can detain a citizen long enough to bring in a specially-trained dog to sniff around a person's "houses, papers, and effects" in search of contraband (again, primarily those illegal hemp plants) even without probable cause or any warrant "describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized". To our justices, a contraband-detecting dog sniffing your effects is not a search.
It looks like you took some time with the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. It would seem clear that in your view, a person must be presented with the charges and evidence against him, be given access to counsel, and be given the due process of law before and during incarceration. However, we are currently engaged against an enemy that can hide among us. Our president (who was originally appointed by the Supreme Court following a voting scandal in what you know as Spanish Florida... you might think about setting up some national voting regulations) capitalized on the fear of that unseen enemy to usher in a law that grants government the power to ignore the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment rights if it merely suspects a citizen may be one of these enemy combatants. On the declaration of the president alone, an American citizen can be apprehended, secretly jailed on an island, never given the assistance of an attorney, never allowed to communicate with family, and his person, houses, papers, and effects secretly searched. In some instances, the government is even allowed to torture these detainees. I'm almost certain you never intended for this to happen.
Speaking of the Sixth Amendment, what's your opinion on a "speedy and public trial"? You might want to set an exact time limit on that. And regarding "public", we now have the technology to allow people to view a trial from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away (we call it "television"). So does the public have to be physically sitting in the courtroom, or does it just mean the public should have the right to view the trial?
In your Seventh Amendment, you established a rule of law never before seen in civil law. You specified that "In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved." Only in our great country do the average citizens have this right to a trial by jury in strictly civil, monetary suits. It has been one of the few laws that have protected the common citizen, because in our time the merchant class have become huge fiscal powers whose riches rival that of nations and whose reach expands across the globe. When these powers (we call them "corporations") usurp the rights of the individual or through negligence cause the individual harm, we have your Seventh Amendment to thank for our right to sue these corporations for redress and punishment.
Now, however, we have an administration and president who are beholden to those corporate powers. Those corporations wish to do away with most of our right to hold them financially accountable for their actions (they like to call these actions "frivolous lawsuits"). If the president has his way, judges and juries will be required to enact monetary damages that fall beneath a limit so low that corporations will be financially encouraged to continue the actions that brought about the lawsuit in the first place. So please, could you maybe underline and emphasize these points more strongly?
Regarding the Eighth Amendment, would you consider death to be a cruel and unusual punishment? This could solve many arguments. You wrote in the Fifth Amendment that a citizen should not be "deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law", so it would seem that you did envision a due process of law to enact a death penalty. But we have science that has shown there are a significant number of criminals who were sentenced to death and later found to completely innocent. If death should not be considered cruel nor unusual, then is it acceptable to send an innocent man to his death, which we've shown is not only possible, but also likely? And if death is a reasonable punishment, is it reasonable to put children, or those with the mentality of a child, to death for a capital crime?
Finally, regarding the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, you might want to spend a lot more time fleshing out what powers are reserved for the States. Our government is currently ignoring the will of voters in eleven states regarding the use of hemp plants to treat illnesses (again, because the government has declared hemp plants illegal). In other areas, like setting the proper age at which citizens may consume alcoholic beverages, the government uses extortion tactics to force the states to do its bidding. We also have a major political issue regarding which rights should be denied or disparaged to a certain class of citizens, based solely on with whom a citizen chooses to form a relationship. Furthermore, we even have citizen groups and a minority of sympathetic courts who stand poised to force female citizens to bear children against their will. So, if you could take some time to enumerate a few more rights for the citizens in the areas of marriage, privacy, anonymity, sovereignty of self and body, reproduction, and identity, you could solve many of our most difficult issues in the stroke of a pen.
In closing, we want to thank you and your contemporaries for helping to found our great country, and congratulate you on the fine work you produced with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Just a few words about that, however. That Three-Fifth's Compromise isn't going to work out so well in about seventy years – slavery is the one issue that will nearly destroy this country (and you should be ashamed, Mr. Jefferson, to write "all men are created equal" while the darker-skinned men are slaving away on your property). You may also want to be a little clearer about the whole impeachment idea – should the private sexual relations of a president be subject to impeachment proceedings? Oh, and the part that says only Congress has the power to declare war – perhaps you should underline that and be a bit more specific about what exactly "war" is. I know, you'd think that "war" would be self-evident, but we've lived through times when thousands of soldiers have died in wars of a president's choosing that were euphemistically called "police actions".
Thank you, Mr. Jefferson, for your time. I hope these suggestions can help you construct a better set of amendments, leading to less confusion now in your future. You gave us a system of checks and balances, knowing full well the dangers from the tyranny of the majority. These rules of law have served us well for over two centuries. You've created the longest-lasting, fairest democracy on the planet. You are certainly a more learned and wise man than me, but I have the advantage of a history book that is your future. Please feel free to elaborate precisely on the rights of men, the limits of government, and the integrity of our checks and balances.
"Radical" Russ Belville