Is it deep denial or just shallow ignorance that accounts for otherwise intelligent Americans overlooking the founding history that shames this republic each Fourth of July?
One such citizen suggested calling off this year's parades, fireworks, and speeches because of U.S. torturing of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Such abuse, wrote Chris Satullo, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, violates prisoners' "inalienable rights" that "Founders ... pledged their lives and sacred honor" to defend for all human beings.
Did they really?
Lifelong torture and abuse of men, women and children was the very birthright of this slave republic, an unpleasant fact Satullo omitted in his rant about the universal rights of man. A dozen of the 55 Founding Fathers themselves owned human slaves, including Long Islander William Floyd, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, who once traded a slave for a keg of rum.
The current torturing of prisoners "on orders from the Oval Office," quite rightly disturbs Satullo. However, such abuses, he might have noted, are bottomed on a barbarism of human rights abuses that would, as Frederick Douglass stated, "shame a nation of savages."
From day one, President Washington — as commemorated by the historical group, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition — held nine slaves at the nation's first White House in Philadelphia, and he held hundreds of others in chattel bondage on his plantations.
The sly Benjamin Franklin, unlike Washington, went to his grave an abolitionist. But the angels awaited him with ledgers from Franklin's younger days as a slaveholder posting rewards for runaway human chattels in his Pennsylvania Gazette.
This factual interlude upon July Fourth mythmaking is all the more timely this '08 election year. The ancestors of Barack Obama's father escaped slavery and his mother's folks owned slaves. His wife's progenitors, however, did not escape slavery, a maternal legacy passed on to their daughters. Furthermore, because of his Kenyan ancestry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, and possible next U.S. president, has been subjected to what Jean-Paul Sartre might call the discriminatory "circumstance" of blacks in America.
This reality stands in judgment not only of the "birth defect" of this republic but also of the continuing denial of freedoms to the descendants of those slaves once held in bondage.
As the Bush-Cheney administration continues its abuse of prisoners — and the erosion of civil liberties at home — the hills resound with echoes of hypocritical holiday speeches. They boasted about strictures against cruel and unusual punishment, human rights of the individual, freedom of speech, religions, as well as of equal protection under the law, guarding against such state excesses as unreasonable search and seizure.
This latter provision colliding headlong with the hot-button issue of guns-on-the street was sorely tested in a recent New York court case. It might have further eroded civil liberties were it not for Justice Gustin L. Reichbach. This rare legal scholar understands that justice must indeed be colorblind and that the state must not be allowed to deprive citizens of liberty for a short-term appearance of street safety.
The case of the People of New York v. Garry M. Lopez, in state Supreme Court in Brooklyn, involved city police stopping two men on a bicycle traveling the wrong way on a one-way street. When the rear passenger ran away, the officer gave chase and Lopez was seen discarding what turned out to have been a pistol. Though the officers' "instincts" proved fruitful, Justice Reichbach ruled that the act was triggered by "the improper pursuit."
Such "arbitrary" stop-and-frisk police encounters, Justice Reichbach ruled, detect no violation 90 percent of the time — and that "minorities are significantly more likely" to be targeted. Such operations against whites are less arbitrary, more efficient, and thus more likely to lead to an arrest. Challenging police "suspicion" in the chase-down of Lopez, the passenger, as unreasonable, the judge suppressed the discarded weapon and voided the arrest in the "bicycling while black" case.
Reichbach scolded both police and the "sensationalist press" for a lack of sensitivity in matters of civil liberties toward minorities. In such cases, the Constitution, he said, values principle over expedience. Benjamin Franklin, yes the slaveholder, held that those who give up liberty to obtain temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.