Observing on a small, portable black-and-white television in my New Jersey bedroom the Gestapo-like behavior of the Chicago police in silencing the free speech of young Americans via brute force, primarily because of their opposition to a demonstrably ill-advised war being waged half a world away with tragic consequences to brave U.S. soldiers I began to understand the absolute necessity of a Bill of Rights that safeguarded the minority from the tyranny of the majority.
A few short years later, I watched transfixed on a larger and now color TV the appropriate humiliation and ultimate political demise of President Richard Nixon, who possessed and executed the evil notion that he could silence critics by persecuting those on his enemies list and committing crimes like burglary against them. I realized then we as a nation are governed best when governed least.
It seemed a reasonable conclusion that the American experiment at its core was one grounded in the philosophy that each of us gets to think, say, and do we what we personally desire so long as in embracing those precious rights we do not infringe on another's ability to be similarly engaged.
Of course, we occasionally banded together as a nation on matters of critical consensus. The Nazi menace had to be stopped. A national highway interstate highway system needed to be built. Disenfranchised and discriminated against, black Americans deserved unfettered admission to the full pursuit of life, liberty,
and property guaranteed the rest of us.
What we most certainly did not want as a free people, however, was an all-powerful government regulating innocuous behaviors, some of them vital (speaking, thinking, and worshipping) and some of them largely inconsequential, in at least the political context (drinking large, sugary beverages, smoking dope and sleeping with whomever).
In sum, a 1960s liberal didn't oppose a private religious institution's membership from proscribing certain behaviors on moral grounds, but a '60s liberal sure as hell opposed the same behavior from its government. The religious institution rather innocently implicated volitional compliance. The latter institution more sinisterly signaled governmental coercion. It compromised freedom.
I hope, probably misguidedly, that recent revelations of the federal government's misuse of the Internal Revenue Service to harass taxpayers based on their political ideology are incorrect. I pray that the emerging story that federal resources were utilized to eavesdrop on journalists is wrong. And I am certain that if such nefarious actions are afoot, we as a nation are most assuredly in big trouble, just as certain as I was that we as a people stood in jeopardy so many years ago when it was largely the Republicans, not the Democrats, who presumed that victory at the polls justified political thuggery.
Maybe I'm a dinosaur. Maybe the ends justify the means. Maybe we can regulate ourselves into a better nation.
But I doubt it. As Ben Franklin remarked, "those who would trade essential liberty for temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Brian C. Johnson practices law in Salt Lake City. He is a former assistant professor of law at the University of Tulsa.