If the government can tell you what you can and cannot do within the privacy of your home, whether it relates to what you eat, what you smoke or whom you love, you no longer have any rights whatsoever within your home.
If government officials can fine and arrest you for growing vegetables in your front yard, praying with friends in your living room, installing solar panels on your roof, and raising chickens in your backyard, you’re no longer the owner of your property.
If school officials can punish your children for what they do or say while at home or in your care, your children are not your own — they are the property of the state.
If government agents can invade your home, break down your doors, kill your dog, damage your furnishings and terrorize your family, your property is no longer private and secure — it belongs to the government. Likewise, if police can forcefully draw your blood, strip-search you, and probe you intimately, your body is no longer your own, either.
This is what a world without the Fourth Amendment looks like, where the lines between private and public property have been so blurred that private property is reduced to little more than something the government can use to control, manipulate and harass you to suit its own purposes, and you the homeowner and citizen have been reduced to little more than a tenant or serf in bondage to an inflexible landlord.
Examples of this disregard for the sanctity of private property — whether in the form of one’s home, one’s possessions, or one’s person — abound. Here are just a few.
• In San Rafael, Calif., it is now illegal to smoke a cigarette or other tobacco product inside “apartments, condos, duplexes, and multi-family houses,” while in Florida and elsewhere throughout the country, home vegetable gardens are being targeted as illegal.
• In Ohio, it’s illegal to alter one’s car with a hidden compartment if the “intent” is to conceal illegal drugs. Although Norman Gurley had no drugs on his person, nor in his car, nor could it be proven that he intended to conceal drugs, he still was arrested for the “crime” of having a hidden compartment in the trunk of his car.
The most obvious disrespect for property rights comes in the form of the tens of thousands of SWAT team raids that occur across the country on a yearly basis. Usually undertaken under the pretense of serving a drug warrant, these raids involve police arriving at a private residence in SWAT gear, armed to the hilt, kicking down doors, apprehending all people inside the home, then determining if a crime has been committed.
Unfortunately, we in America get so focused on the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of a warrant before government agents can invade our property (a requirement that means little in an age of kangaroo courts and rubber-stamped warrant requests) that we fail to properly appreciate the first part of the statement declaring that we have a right to be secure in our “persons, houses, papers, and effects.” What this means is that the Fourth Amendment’s protections were intended to not only follow us wherever we go but also apply to all that is ours — whether you’re talking about our physical bodies, our biometric data, our possessions, our families, or our way of life.
Nevertheless, the reality of our age is this: If the government chooses to crash through our doors, listen to our phone calls, read our emails and text messages, fine us for growing vegetables in our front yard, jail us for raising chickens in our backyard, forcibly take our blood and saliva, and probe our vaginas and rectums, there’s little we can do to stop it. At least, not at that particular moment. When you’re face to face with a government agent who is not only armed to the hilt and inclined to shoot first and ask questions later but also woefully ignorant of the fact that he works for you, if you value your life, you don’t talk back.
However, once the dust settles and you’ve had a chance to catch your breath, I hope you’ll remember that the Constitution begins with those three beautiful words, “We the people.” In other words, there is no government without us — our sheer numbers, our muscle, our economy, our physical presence in this land. There also can be no police state, no tyranny, no routine violations of our rights without our complicity and collusion without our turning a blind eye, shrugging our shoulders, allowing ourselves to be distracted and our civic awareness diluted.
So where do we begin? How do we go about wresting back control over our freedoms and our lives in the face of such seemingly insurmountable odds?
There’s an old saying, albeit not a very palatable one, that says “when eating an elephant take one bite at a time.” The point is this: When facing a monumental task, take it one step at a time. In other words, we’re going to have to wage these battles house by house, car by car, and body by body.
Most importantly, we’re going to have to stop the partisan bickering — you can leave that to the yokels in Congress — and recognize that the suffering brought about by a police state will be the great equalizer, applying to all Americans, regardless of their political leanings.
As John Adams rightly noted, “The Revolution was affected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.”
It’s time for a second American Revolution. Not a revolution designed to kill people or tear down and physically destroy society, but a revolution of the minds and souls of human beings — a revolution promulgated to restore the freedoms for which our founders sacrificed their fortunes and their lives.
John Whitehead is president of the Rutherford Institute, a civil-liberties organization based in Charlottesville, Va.