Constitution Day 2013

09-17-2013

With last week’s observance of the 9/11 anniversary still fresh in our memory, the aftereffects from that calamitous day on our constitutional liberties over the last dozen years are an appropriate matter for reflection.

Close on the heels of what is now dubbed Patriot Day and National Day of Service and Remembrance comes Constitution Day on September 17. Few things bring into such clear focus the importance of our Constitution as how we handle threats to our security without violating the principles and values that most define us as Americans.

Whether it be constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure, or freedom of speech, religion, and the right to bear arms, we are continually called upon to weigh our freedoms against the value we place on reducing threat. To wrestle with these tensions is a fundamental expectation of an informed citizenry in a democracy.

President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Morrill “land-grant” Act and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, also saw fit to suspend the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, thereby stripping detainees of a fundamental right. In World War II, Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps in California for no other reason than race-based suspicions of disloyalty.

What seems so important for our security in times of distress can appear counter to our values or even shameful in retrospect. Revelations regarding monitoring of communications by the government based on the threat of post-9/11 terrorism offer a more recent example. It’s hard to know what collective perspective will emerge about the news of the day given the passage of time.

Yet by one scholar’s very current assessment, our rule of law has stood the test of such tensions better than some might have expected. Writing in “Assessing the War on Terror,” an incisive compilation edited by MSU Distinguished Professor Emeritus Mohammed Ayoob and published this September 9, contributor David Cole argues that “restraint of government was brought about neither by judicial enforcement of constitutional law nor by legislative checks on executive power, but by civil society’s demands for adherence to basic principles of human rights.”

You must understand such principles to be able to demand they be honored, and that is central to our goal of developing citizen-scholars at MSU, graduates who are prepared not only to succeed individually but to contribute and engage collectively for the common good. We are privileged to have scholars such as Dr. Ayoob helping put such important but difficult issues into perspective, as he has done time and again over the years.

As MSU once again observes the anniversary of the 1787 ratification of the Constitution, other MSU faculty will be offering contemporary perspectives on that foundational document in the coming days. I urge our Spartan community to take advantage of those opportunities to better equip ourselves for stewardship of our constitutional democracy.

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