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Birman: Nothing to Hide but Everything to Fear

One of the most haunting impressions of my Soviet childhood was stories my grandparents told about the Black Raven. As a small boy, I was terrified of this polished and poised creature of the night, usually sighted as it crouched to swoop upon an unsuspecting victim and carry him away, never to be seen again.

The Black Raven, however, was no avian figment of the human mind. Rather, this secret-police sedan — named for the Russian symbol of death — was a very real fixture of life in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

Those who saw the Raven stop outside their building of communal flats contemplated last words to families as they waited tensely for the dreaded knock. Its reverberations from another door brought a macabre sense of relief, lasting only until the Raven’s next appearance. Such was the abject terror of living in the claws of despotism. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t tempered by that infamous platitude: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

How very different from a life in America, secured from fear by the assurances of individual liberty.

But in the 17 years since I became an American, we’ve been averting our gaze as these sacred assurances slowly waned. With enactment of the 2012 defense authorization bill, we look away again as Congress exposes Americans to the specter of prison without charge or trial and smothers that basic right of free citizens to invoke the law against their government.

Predictably, proponents of dispensing with the antiquated and inconvenient notion of due process would have us believe that warnings of the tentacles of tyranny are so much flimflam.

They declare that they didn’t change existing law. That would be satisfying, if not for the inconvenient fact that there is no existing law on military detention of Americans on American soil. Rather, the past two presidents have simply asserted that power as lurking within the Constitution.

The constitutional duty of Congress was to restrict that toxic overreach. Instead, we codified it. Never mind that our nation successfully meted out justice to traitors for more than two centuries without destroying our commitment to the principles of freedom that define us as Americans.

Supporters go on to say that this law was written to apply only to terrorists. That would likewise be comforting, except that it consigns to indefinite detention of anyone who the government suspects has “substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.”

What does it mean to “substantially support”? And who or what are “associated forces”? And above all, are we to retain our freedom by submitting to the untested breadth of those words?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who exposed the secret network of Soviet indefinite-detention camps, wrote of a similarly broad and vague law that ultimately enabled the gulags.

“One can find more epithets in praise of this article than [the great Russian authors] once assembled to praise … Mother Russia: great, powerful, abundant, highly ramified, multiform, wide sweeping, which summed up the world not so much through the exact terms of its sections as in their extended interpretation.

“Who among us has not experienced its all-encompassing embrace? In all truth, there is no step, thought, action, or lack of action under the heavens which could not be punished by the heavy hand of this article.”

Perhaps there is an explanation for the acceptance these empty assurances have found. After all, our nation is only familiar with the travesties of tyranny by reputation, from the words and suffering of others.

But Americans should know that, to eyes familiar with tyranny by experience, Congressional consent to these broad new powers marks a major milestone on the road to serfdom. Before it’s too late, let us resolve to renew and reinvigorate our vigilance for freedom.

Until such time, we are left with a familiar refrain as the proponents’ last refuge: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

That, too, rings hollow. In a nation that casts aside the shield of individual liberty for the fig leaf of faith in a benevolent government, citizens with nothing to hide have precisely everything to fear. The long story of humanity is very clear on this point: Benevolence is fleeting.

And once it’s gone, we are at the mercy of that old Black Raven.

Igor Birman, chief of staff for Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), arrived in California as a Soviet refugee at the age of 13.

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