by Robert Gore, Straight Line Logic:
If the US government prosecutes Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, it will mark a point of no return.
We’ll never know what “average” Germans thought on November 11, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht. Perhaps a few recognized it for what it was: a turning point, an acceleration of Germany’s descent into hell. America’s Crystal Night looms, and if it occurs, only a few will recognize it for what it is.
The fate of Julian Assange is the fate of one man, but it is also the fate of one of our most important freedoms. There won’t be shattered plate glass from vandalized businesses littering the streets, synagogues smashed, graves unearthed, or people herded onto trains. But his prosecution by the US government would destroy an inestimable value, one enshrined in the First Amendment, for which generations of Americans have fought and died: the right of the people and its press to inform the people and to hold their government to account.
Aside from armed resistance and revolution, the one defense individuals have against governments is intellectual: the concept of individual rights. There is an argument as to whether those rights come from our Creator (Thomas Jefferson) or from our basic nature as humans and the requirements of our survival (Ayn Rand). Despite starting from different premises, both arguments lead to the same conclusion: individuals have inherent, inalienable, inviolable rights, and the only legitimate function of government is to protect those rights.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were explicit attempts to delineate a set of principles that recognized individual rights and tried to restrain government power. Though real-world implementation has fallen short, often far short, they were towering conceptual achievements.
In 1933, the year Hitler assumed power, the government began enacting laws that restricted Jews’ rights to earn a living, gain an education, or work in the civil service. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship and forbade them from marrying non-Jewish Germans.
Kristallnacht’s hooliganism was encouraged by the German authorities, and none of the perpetrators bore any legal consequences. More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and deported to concentration camps. The government would not protect Jews from the depredations of thugs and the government itself was a thug. Kristallnacht was a point of no return: Jews no longer had any legally enforceable rights. Soon enough no German would.
In America, there is no one villain or group that one can point to as responsible for the erosion of rights. Begun the day the Constitution was ratified, it’s been a gradual process. We’ve reached the point where only a few of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution and Bill of Rights still receive any measure of government solicitude.
Property and contract rights are out the window; the government routinely abridges them. You have no right to your own income, or to conduct your legitimate business or trade free from government regulation and interference. Much of the Bill of Rights is either irrelevant now or has been rendered a dead letter. In terms of individual rights, only the Second Amendment’s much infringed right to bear arms, and the First Amendment—the prohibition against the government establishing a religion, free speech, press, and assembly, and the right to petition the government—are still hanging by a thread.
Which is why the fate of Julian Assange takes on such significance. While the government has prosecuted those like Chelsea (formerly Brad) Manning who have stolen government secrets and classified information, it has not prosecuted the press individuals and organizations who have published them. That is WikiLeaks’ business model: it receives, vets, and publishes stolen information, often from governments.
The government has not gone after publishers because it would be a frontal assault on the First Amendment that it would probably lose. Any exception would swallow the general rule of press freedom. Say the Supreme Court recognized an exception: classified information whose publication would constitute an imminent and grave threat to the security of the United States. Who decides what’s an imminent and grave threat? The government would have the power to classify whatever information it pleases under that exception and put those who publish it at risk of prosecution, their only recourse years of costly litigation spent arguing that the information didn’t fit the exception.
Many Trump admirers resist the notion that their man is interested in the acquisition and use of power, but his and members of his administration’s hostility to individual civil liberties belies that resistance. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a gung-ho supporter of the civil-liberties-eviscerating-government-power-expanding War on Drugs and civil asset forfeiture.