Civil rights on the animal farm


I had not yet made my grand entrance to what used to be called junior high school, when an elementary school teacher assigned the first book report that I was to write. Fortunately I had an older sister to go to for such weighty subjects as to what book I might read. My sister, convinced that I was much brighter than I was, tossed what looked like an easy short read in my direction. The book was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The cover was yellow, the book relatively thin and the story was about animals. What more could a precocious elementary school kid wish for?

The George Orwell that most of us have heard of wrote the legendary 1984. Philosophers, scientists and politicians have spent mountains of words arguing over weather George Orwell’s dark utopian vision has indeed come to pass or whether 1984 is simply a few more years in front of us. Less well-known is the parody of socialism spoiled by communism represented by the allegorical Animal Farm.

I read the book innocently enough and wrote the report. My sister helped me enough for me to realize that the book was not strictly about animals but rather about important people making grandiose promises of a better life while simply creating a worse system than they overthrew. Whether I understood the relationship between Marxism, Socialism, and Communism is an easy “no way.”

The theme of Animal Farm has been replayed an infinite number of times both before and since the author’s brilliant critique of good ideas gone bad. Who does not know a story about someone promising a better day, only to turn out much worse than was represented?

President Obama was elected, at least in part, on promises of an administration unsullied by a disrespect for civil rights and liberties shown by his predecessor. Waterboarding, Guantanamo Bay, unnecessary secrecy, abuse of power generally and all of the bad associated with the Bush II War on Terrorism would be a thing of the past. A new day was to dawn in the hopes, dreams and visions of those who thought the Administration would put people ahead of institutions.

The brave new world of Washington today has a National Security Agency monitoring every phone call in the United States, listening to the chit chat of foreign leaders and gathering information like a hungry vacuum cleaner that sucks in dust and dirt. The question as to whether all of this is necessary to defeat terrorism is almost beside the point. Where is the debate and the outcry from those of us who have supported civil rights and liberties with the last ounce of our strength? Where are the congressional hearings, the litigation and the marchers in the streets? Apparently it was a bad thing for the Richard Nixon administration to break into the psychiatrist’s office of Daniel Ellsberg or to spy on the Democrats but it is okay for the current administration to spy on the world!

Every once in a while I get a call from someone, and I do talk to every caller to my law office, telling me that the government is spying on him. I have always treated those people as pleasant but slightly off their rockers. After all, who would want to listen to the conversation of some poor guy who is just trying to feed his family and write an e-mail to an old friend oversees? Now it turns out that all of those crazy people were really not so crazy after all! Government snooping really is everywhere, all the time, unregulated and not even fully understood by the populous.

After 9/11, I was one of those who carefully looked at the Patriot Act which seemed to infringe upon civil liberties. The law was to make it easier for the government to obtain search warrants, to perform searches by wiretap and to check citizen computer use. Like many others, I decried this slippery slope predictable from big government using modern means to fight the War on Terror.

It is somewhat ironic that the government cannot get its health care website working properly but it has no trouble listening to Germany’s Angela Merkel talk to her environmental minister about sulfur pollution. Will wonders never cease?

It would be a mistake to think that the War on Terror does not require innovative techniques to catch the bad guys. When a civilian bus was recently bombed in Israel, fortunately causing no casualties, the government of the Gaza Strip recognized by most of the European union as legitimate cheered what easily could have been a human massacre. Hamas was said to be engaging in a legitimate war against innocent civilians. Surely those who wish to tear down Western society will stop at nothing and require strong countermeasures to inhibit their evil motives. My daughter rides the bus every day in Jerusalem going to and from her job taking care of children in one of the most peaceful and cosmopolitan cities in the world. Never do I have a good night’s sleep worrying about her and praying for her safety. With that thought in mind, does it matter whether I give up my civil liberties to stop the murderers of the Middle East and beyond?

Both Republicans and Democrats find themselves in something of a quandary as to how to handle the Snowden revelations about America’s collection of what seemed like trivia to many people. Republicans do not want to seem soft on those who would cause murder and mayhem in our nation but by the same token it is hard to resist the temptation of calling President Obama a hypocrite and beating up on the liberals a little bit. Democrats, on the other hand, do not want to be accused of being softies on the War on Terror but they are still not comfortable criticizing their own President. Republicans look opportunistic and hypocritical criticizing Barrack Obama on civil liberties issues while Democrats can easily be seen as spineless wimps.

There certainly are a few exceptions both with the Republican and Democratic parties. Some individuals of courage and commitment have spoken out against Washington’s appetite to invade almost everyone’s privacy and are calling for some examination of the necessity of the degree of intrusion which currently exists. Even the Administration is starting to feel the need to take a look at what it is doing.

All of the current responses to the trampling of the Constitution by big government are anemic. What is needed is a serious inquiry led by honorable people from outside the administration and outside Congress to determine the extent of the spying, how it is really related to national security and whether a more effective job could be done by less unctuous means. The fact that the government is getting “all” the information does not mean that it is getting what it needs or what will really help the War on Terrorism. Many high public officials have openly admitted that the United States is in a worse position today in fighting the War on Terrorism than it was after 9/11. A distinguished panel of jurists from both political parties aided by attorneys general who are no longer in government service and ex members of the intelligence community should be jointly appointed by the President and Congress to assure that we will have a security program in this country which is more effective and more in keeping with our constitutional guarantees.

Let us never forget that the Constitution of the United States would never have been passed by the colonies had it not included the add-on Bill of Rights. The old Soviet Union also had a terrific Constitution; the problem is that it was not followed. Having words on paper which high public officials from the executive, legislative and judicial branch totally ignore is nothing more than words on paper.

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm the Seven Commandments were inscribed on the side of the barn. The simple overriding principle was “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Like Julius Caesar on his way to overthrow the senate, we may have already crossed the Rubicon. Those who promised us a better way have merely institutionalized the unimportance of the citizens who elected them. In the United States our Constitution may say that all people are created equal but clearly we have allowed the political establishment to add, “but some people are more equal than others.” It looks like George Orwell was right again.

Rieders, who practices law in Williamsport, is past president of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association.