29 March 2011

Oath Keepers founder: 'neither party has any fidelity to the Constitution.'

The way Radley Balko tells it, "When you run down the list of issues the Oath Keepers are worried about, it reads a lot like a bill of particulars from the American Civil Liberties Union....And yet the group is a frequent target of the left." Balko interviewed the founder of Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, for the new issue of Reason magazine. Some of his questions imply that Rhodes bears some responsibility for the left's perception that he's an enemy because of the timing of Oath Keepers' founding, while Rhodes blames the apparent misunderstanding on both timing and partisanship. Here are some key excerpts.
Reason: There's one criticism of your group that's similar to those directed at the Tea Parties. You've said that Bush was just as hostile to the Constitution as Obama has been, indeed that most of the worst executive power grabs began under Bush. So why did Oath Keepers spring up only after Obama took office?
Rhodes: I just hadn't gotten the idea yet....But it's true. All of this began or really started to get worse under Bush. That's when you had this wave of unconstitutional federal power....But now you have Obama, who has not only not renounced those powers but has expanded them. He also now claims the power to assassinate American citizens his administration deems enemy combatants with no oversight. That's just frightening.At this point I do really wish I had started Oath Keepers during the Bush administration. It would have been a good test. My guess is that I'd have started with a lot of liberals joining up, and you'd have seen conservatives and neocons howling that I'm a traitor. I think it's just human nature and the cycle of politics. When the left is in power, they forget about the Constitution because it limits what they can do. So they characterize people who stand by the Constitution as reactionary or dangerous. But when they were out of power, they were citing the Constitution all of the time. They were quoting Ben Franklin about sacrificing liberty for security. And it's the same for the right. The Republicans clamoring for the Constitution now had no respect for it when Bush was in power. They thought he could do no wrong.
Rhodes goes on to predict that "when we get a Republican president again, we'll get more members who identify with the left. I do think more and more people are understanding that neither party has any fidelity to the Constitution, and you are starting to see some honest liberals and some honest conservatives who are more willing to criticize their own side while in power."

That prediction may be too optimistic, not because leftists won't regain constitutional scruples when Republicans regain power, but because leftists most likely have an aversion to Oath Keepers as its presently perceived. As Balko notes, "Unlike the ACLU, the Oath Keepers are staunch defenders of the Second Amendment," and that makes them gun nuts in many eyes. But Rhodes insists that Oath Keepers is not intended to carry out an armed insurrection. Instead, he insists, "the entire point of Oath Keepers is to advocate nonviolence. We're telling police and soldiers that if they're asked to do something unconstitutional, or asked to violate the rights of Americans, that they should put down their guns. We just saw this with the Tunisian military, by the way, when it refused orders to fire on protesters."

Oath Keepers' image problem has to do with more than guns, however. While Rhodes, a Yale Law grad, acknowledges Bush's infringements on civil liberties, many other Oath Keepers have objections to Obama that go beyond war-on-terror issues. Rhodes admits that some Oath Keepers are "birthers," while others are "truthers," and refuses to state his own position on either topic. "It just doesn't make sense to take positions on issues that may alienate some of our members and that aren't relevant to our goal," he tells Balko. That's an alarming statement, since its really an admission that facts are irrelevant to the goals of a group supposedly founded on the most scrupulous reading of the Constitution. Rhodes himself may be neither a birther nor a truther, but he's apparently not so strongly convinced of the errors of either group to insist on correcting them. That sounds as if he's willing to tolerate quite probably irrational fears and conspiracy theories among his membership. Balko challenges him on conspiracy theory in a practical context, asking whether Oath Keepers are "most worried about [scenarios that] seem like those that are least likely to happen" while ignoring everyday infringements on constitutional rights like "stop-and-frisk searches, SWAT raids for consensual drug crimes, civil asset forfeiture," etc. Rhodes answers "you start with the most potentially damaging policies, things like internment camps, martial law, detaining American citizens without a trial....These are also the issues where I think it's easiest to build a consensus."

Rhodes denies that he's promoting his own interpretation of the Constitution as the exclusively correct one. "It isn't really about me coming down from the mountain with tablets inscribed with what orders you should and shouldn't obey," he says, "But there are some core principles, things that should never happen, and things that the government should know we will never allow to happen." He believes that it's every American's responsibility to "start thinking about the Constitution," while soldiers and police need to realize that "their first loyalty is to the Consitution and the rights of American citizens. Their first loyalty shouldn't be to their commanding officer." His is a radical refusal of deference to political authority. "Some have the mistaken idea that you're always to enforce the law -- leave it up to the politicians, lawyers, and judges to figure out what's wrong after the fact," he tells Balko, "That's not what the Founders intended." True for some, perhaps, but in the absence of a constitutional prevision for vetting laws before they're signed, there seems to be some need for deference pending an "after the fact" appeal to the Court that has emerged, since 1803, as the ultimate arbiter of constitutional law. If that seems to put armed forces in an uncomfortable spot, the remedy should be some form of nonpartisan judicial preview rather than the anarchy inherent in Rhodes's recommendations. If Rhodes is confident that there is a correct reading of the Constitution, he should be confident in delegating that reading to some recognized and accountable authority. But if he has no faith in any delegated authority's ability to interpret the Constitution consistently and conscientiously, he may as well give up on the document itself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, since the founders are all dead and dust, there is no way to question them on this subject. But to form a group who has even a minority membership of paranoid conspiracy theorists and gun nuts marks it as a group to be avoided by any sane, rational person.

Also, both the police and the military already are required to take oaths to defend the constitution and the citizenry - so why the need for a second oath?

And just who's interpretation of the Constitution are it's members supposed to advocate for? Either we recognize the legally and Constitutionally elected government to be the authorized entity for interpretation of the Constitution or we assert every individual's right to interpret the Constitution as he/she pleases. That path leads to chaos.

The Constitution itself contains a self-correcting measure built in. It's called "democracy" and we can assert it's influence every couple of years, depending on the seat in government.

Finally, I refuse to acknowledge the credibility of any group who claims to be "non-violent", but emphasizes that they are "staunch defenders of the second amendment."