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Legislative alchemy can turn explosive

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By Antony Davies
Sunday, March 25, 2012

Charcoal is harmless -- put a match to it and you can grill hot dogs.

Sulfur is harmless -- most of us use it to fertilize our lawns.

But mix them together properly and you have an explosive.

Our government recently passed two laws that separately chip away at our freedom. But when taken together, they bring us to the brink of martial law.

Signed into law in January, the National Defense Authorization Act allows the federal government to detain indefinitely and without trial anyone it believes is providing support to terrorists. The government already had this power over combatants on the battlefield. What is new is that this law extends that power over American citizens within the United States.

Under the new law, if the government suspects that an American citizen is supporting terrorist forces, that citizen can be handed over to the military for indefinite detention. This is particularly alarming as we've become far too glib in our use of the word "terrorist." Even school children have been charged with terrorism for playing cops and robbers.

Signed into law this month, the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act makes it illegal to protest in any area that is under Secret Service protection -- regardless of whether the public knows the Secret Service is present. The law only applies to "disorderly or disruptive conduct." But as the Occupy Wall Street movement will attest, what constitutes "disorderly or disruptive conduct" is entirely a matter of police opinion.

By invoking these two laws, the government can take steps toward permanently silencing protesters by putting a protest area under Secret Service protection. Do or say something the government doesn't like and the police can arrest you for being "disorderly or disruptive." If, in the government's opinion, your protest substantively supports terrorists, then you're off to a military prison. No trial. No lawyer. No appeal.

We got to this point because we've forgotten what liberty is.

Catholic bishops want religious liberty to be free from contraception mandates. But they were happy to throw economic liberty under the bus when they asked the government to nationalize health insurance.

In demanding the right to occupy public spaces in protest of corporate speech, Occupy Wall Street sought civil liberty for the "99 percent" at the expense of the political liberty of the 1 percent.

Tea partyers call for economic liberty but, by a margin of 2-to-1 in a recent Gallup poll, want to prohibit the civil liberty of same-sex unions.

Republicans want more economic liberty but less civil liberty.

Democrats want more civil liberty but less economic liberty.

The truth is that no single liberty can exist without the others because all of them are manifestations of the same thing: freedom. When we offer to give up one liberty in exchange for keeping another, we take the first step toward tyranny by permitting the government to decide which of our liberties it will and will not honor.

Liberty is ours because we are human, not because we are governed. A good first step to restoring liberty is to repeal the laws that prevent us from speaking out clearly, loudly and freely against the government.

A good second step is for Americans to stand together in defense of all of our liberties because the loss of just one is the beginning of the loss of them all.

Antony Davies is an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University and a senior scholar at George Mason University's Mercatus Center in Fairfax, Va.

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