Living in a representative democratic republic such as ours means that each person has the right to stand outside the halls of government and express his or her opinion on matters of state without fear of arrest. That's what the First Amendment is all about.

It gives every American the right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances." It ensures, as Adam Newton and Ronald K.L. Collins report for the Five Freedoms Project, "that our leaders hear, even if they don't listen to, the electorate. Though public officials may be indifferent, contrary, or silent participants in democratic discourse, at least the First Amendment commands their audience."

As Newton and Collins elaborate: "'Petitioning' has come to signify any nonviolent, legal means of encouraging or disapproving government action, whether directed to the judicial, executive, or legislative branch. Lobbying, letter-writing, e-mail campaigns, testifying before tribunals, filing lawsuits, supporting referenda, collecting signatures for ballot initiatives, peaceful protests, and picketing: All public articulation of issues, complaints, and interests designed to spur government action qualifies under the petition clause, even if the activities partake of other First Amendment freedoms."

Unfortunately, through a series of carefully crafted legislative steps, our government officials - both elected and appointed - have managed to disembowel this fundamental freedom, rendering it with little more meaning than the right to file a lawsuit against government officials. In the process, government officials have succeeded in insulating themselves from their constituents, making it increasingly difficult for average Americans to make themselves seen or heard by those who most need to hear what "we the people" have to say.

In a unanimous 9-0 ruling in United States V. Jones, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that police must get a search warrant before using GPS technology to track criminal suspects. But what does this ruling, hailed as a victory by privacy advocates, really mean for the future of privacy and the Fourth Amendment?

While the Court rightly recognized that the government's physical attachment of a GPS device to Antoine Jones' vehicle for the purpose of tracking his movements constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment, a careful reading of the court's opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, shows that the battle over our privacy rights is far from over.

America's troops may be returning home from Iraq, but we're far from done paying the costs of war. In fact, at the same time that President Obama is reducing the number of troops in Iraq, he's replacing them with military contractors at far greater expense to the taxpayer. In this way, the war on terror is privatized, the American economy is bled dry, and the military-security-industrial complex makes a killing - literally and figuratively speaking.

It's been a year of populist uprisings, economic downturns, political assassinations, and one scandal after another. Gold prices soared, while the dollar plummeted. The Arab Spring triggered worldwide protests, including the Occupy Wall Street protests here in America. Nature unleashed her forces with a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, flooding in Thailand and Pakistan, a severe drought in East Africa, and a famine in Somalia. With an unemployment rate hovering around 9.5 percent, more than 4 million Americans passed the one-year mark for being out of a job. After a death toll that included more than 4,500 American troops and at least 60,000 Iraqis, the U.S. military officially ended its war in Iraq. At the conclusion of their respective media-circus trials, Casey Anthony went free while Conrad Murray went to jail. And Will and Kate tied the knot, while Demi and Ashton broke ties. All in all, it's been a mixed bag of a year, but on the civil-liberties front, things were particularly grim.

MQ-1 Predator Drone

Welcome to the new total security state. The U.S. government now has at its disposal a technological arsenal so sophisticated and invasive as to render any constitutional protections null and void. And these technologies are being used by the government to invade the privacy of the American people. Several years ago, government officials acknowledged that the nefarious intelligence-gathering entity known as the National Security Agency had exceeded its legal authority by eavesdropping on Americans' private e-mail messages and phone calls. However, these reports barely scratch the surface of what we are coming to recognize as a "security/industrial complex" - a marriage of government, military, and corporate interests aimed at keeping Americans under constant surveillance. The increasingly complex security needs of our massive federal government, especially in the areas of defense, surveillance, and data management, have been met within the corporate sector, which has shown itself to be a powerful ally that both depends on and feeds the growth of governmental bureaucracy.

For all intents and purposes, the Constitution is on life support and has been for some time now.

Those responsible for its demise are none other than the schools, which have failed to educate students about its principles; the courts, which have failed to uphold the rights enshrined within it; the politicians, who long ago sold out to corporations and special interests; and "we the people," who, in our ignorance and greed, have valued materialism over freedom.

We can pretend that the Constitution, which was written to hold the government accountable and was adopted on September 17, 1787, is still our governing document. However, the reality we must come to terms with is that in the America we live in today, the government does whatever it wants. And the few of us who actively fight to preserve the rights enshrined in the Constitution (a group whose numbers continue to shrink) do so knowing that in the long run we may be fighting a losing battle.

A review of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution shows that the Bill of Rights may well be dead.

"We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular. This is no time for men ... to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities." - Edward R. Murrow, March 9, 1954

When the World Trade Center crumbled to the ground on September 11, 2001, it took with it any illusions Americans might have harbored about the nation's invincibility, leaving many feeling vulnerable, scared and angry. Yet in that moment of weakness, while most of us were still reeling from the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of some 3,000 Americans, we managed to draw strength from and comfort each other.

Suddenly, the news was full of stories of strangers helping strangers and communities pulling together. Even the politicians put aside their partisan pride and bickering and held hands on the steps of the Capitol, singing "God Bless America." The rest of the world was not immune to our suffering, acknowledging the fraternity of nations against all those who take innocent lives in a campaign of violence. United against a common enemy, inconceivable hope rising out of the ashes of despair, we seemed determined to work toward a better world.

Sadly, that hope was short-lived.

"I have begun the struggle and I can't turn back. I have reached the point of no return." - Martin Luther King Jr.

The official dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial was scheduled to take place on Sunday, August 28, the 48th anniversary of King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. (Because of Hurricane Irene, it has been delayed until September or Octorber.) If anyone deserves a national monument in his honor, it would certainly be Martin Luther King Jr., a man who inspired countless Americans, including myself, to take a stand against injustice.

King was an amazing individual: courageous, passionate about freedom, willing to tackle large-scale issues (such as materialism, militarism, and the Vietnam War), and relentless in his pursuit of justice; he stood his ground, even in the face of death threats and opposition from friends and associates. A warrior and a visionary, King saw firsthand what tyranny looked like and worked tirelessly to oppose it. As King observed, "The universe is on the side of justice."

"A person should feel secure in their own home. No matter black, white, Hispanic, Asian - I don't care who they are - they should feel secure in their own home. The police have no right to come in your house and push you around and beat you up and do the things they did on March, 15, 2009." - Ryan Deaton, defense attorney for Marco Sauceda

Too often, we elevate the events of the American Revolution to near-mythic status and forget that the real revolutionaries were neither agitators nor hotheads, neither looking for trouble nor trying to start a fight. Rather, they were people just like you and me, simply trying to make it from one day to another, a task that was increasingly difficult as Britain's rule became more and more oppressive.

Caught up in the drama of Red Coats marching, muskets exploding, and flags waving in the night, we lose sight of the enduring significance of the Revolution and what makes it relevant to our world today. Yet the American Revolution did not so much start with a bang as with a whimper - a literal cry for relief from people groaning under the weight of an oppressive government's demands.

On May 26, 1776, John Adams - who represented Massachusetts at the Second Continental Congress - wrote exultantly to his friend James Warren that "every post and every day rolls in upon us independence like a torrent." Adams had reason for rejoicing, for this was what he and others had hoped and worked for almost since the Congress had convened in May of the previous year. It helped, to be sure, that George III had proclaimed the colonies in rebellion, and this encouraged the Americans to take him at his word. Later, George Washington proceeded to drive General Howe out of Boston. This demonstrated that Americans need not stand on the defensive, but could vindicate themselves in military strategy quite as well as in political.

However exciting to some, America was going through the difficult process of being born. In any event, the stage of history was being set. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced three resolutions calling for independence, foreign alliances, and confederation. Some wanted unity and voted to postpone the final vote for three weeks. This allowed time for debate and for the hesitant and fainthearted to come over or step out. In the meantime, Congress appointed a committee to prepare a "Declaration of Independence." This committee consisted of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson had come to the Continental Congress the previous year, bringing with him a reputation for literature, science, and a talent for composition. His writings, said John Adams, "were remarkable for their peculiar felicity of expression." In part because of his rhetorical gifts, in part because he already had a reputation for working quickly, in part because it was thought that Virginia - as the oldest, the largest, and the most deeply committed of the states - should take the lead, the committee unanimously turned to Jefferson to prepare a draft declaration.

The Fourth Amendment, which assures that "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated," was included in the Bill of Rights in response to the oppressive way British soldiers treated American colonists through their use of "Writs of Assistance." These were court orders that authorized British agents to conduct general searches of premises for contraband. The exact nature of the materials being sought did not have to be detailed, nor did their locations. The powerful new court orders enabled government officials to inspect not only shops and warehouses, but also private homes. These searches resulted in the violation of many of the colonists' rights and the destruction of much of the colonists' personal property. It quickly became apparent to many colonists that their homes were no longer their castles.

Fast-forward 250 years and we seem to be right back where we started, living in an era of oppressive government policies and a militarized police whose unauthorized, forceful intrusions into our homes and our lives have been increasingly condoned by the courts. Indeed, two recent court decisions - one from the U.S. Supreme Court and the other from the Indiana Supreme Court, both handed down in the same week - sound the death knell for our Fourth Amendment rights.

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