A few years ago, a young friend joined us older guys for a beer at our local spot. He’d been watching a lot of Fox News and had had Rush Limbaugh on the radio that afternoon, so when the conversation moved from sports to politics, he emoted his anxieties.
“I’m afraid for my liberties.” President Obama was going to confiscate his guns and pass laws without the approval of Congress, he said with genuine concern.
Playing the role of Uncle Paul, I tried to allay his concerns. Obama wasn’t going to take his guns or his beer. Americans aren’t about to allow the government to take away their liberties, I said.
Now, after 18 months of this interminable campaign, I’m not so sure he didn’t have a legitimate concern, but not about the now-departing Obama. The greater danger in this regard are the very conservatives he’s so sure would protect his assault rifles. I’m not sure about their willingness to protect any of our other rights.
Donald Trump’s assaults on civil liberties have been well documented. He’s enunciated policies that attack our freedom of religion and the press, and he’s proposed elimination of due process in some cases. Even with Trump’s election looking less likely, my concerns remain because of the North Carolina political environment.
Sen. Richard Burr has attacked his opponent, former state Rep. Deborah Ross, on civil liberties grounds. Ross, as a young lawyer, was the executive director of the state’s ACLU chapter, and Burr is loading the TV and Internet with accusations that she’s pro-flag burning and anti-sex offender registry.
That Ross denies both charges is immaterial to this column. Instead, I’m concerned about the civil liberty implications of Burr’s attacks.
Flag burning is distasteful, but it is a form of political speech, the heart of freedom of speech. If the First Amendment only protects what is popular, then it protects nothing.
The sex offender registry raises serious civil liberty questions. It eliminates the notion of paying one’s debt to society and starting anew. We need a serious discussion of the registry and how to protect our children, but we don’t get that in Burr’s political ads; we only get knee-jerk oversimplification.
Voting is at the heart of our civil rights, yet the General Assembly, with Gov. Pat McCrory’s assent, passed a series of measures aimed at suppressing the vote of minorities and young people. The voter identification law recently overturned by the courts was not intended to fight almost non-existent voter fraud. Its purpose was to make it harder for Democratic-leaning voters to vote. And if that isn’t enough, the legislature has decided it will pick our legislators and congressmen with outrageously gerrymandered districts.
When North Carolinians rallied at the Legislative Building to “petition their government for a redress of grievances,” our legislators had them arrested.
So, young friend, I share your concern about the threat of our liberties. But the threat comes not from the White House but from the conservative leadership right here at home.
Paul O’Connor has written about North Carolina state government and politics for 35 years, He teaches at the School of Media and Journalism at UNC.