Alan Barth, A Sunday Morning Reading

Alan Barth, American journalist (1906-1979). He must be spinning in his grave.

From The Rights of Free Men (1984):

Those who so glibly dismiss as “mere legal technicalities” the procedural guarantees of the Constitution limiting law-enforcement activities forget that nothing is more basic to civil liberty than freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment by policemen who are masters, not servants, of the law. The most characteristic symbol of the police state is the ominous rap on the door at night. Freedom from the fear of that rap is the basic condition for the exercise of every other form of freedom. “The history of liberty,” Mr Justice Frankfurter once observed, “is the history of the observances of procedural safeguards.”

For as long as men have sought to be free, arbitrary arrest has been a mark and measure of despotism. In every land and time, men have protested and fought against it. It has been a principal cause of every major uprising against established government. It was one of the grievances of the English barons against King John in 1215 and prompted their insistence in Magna Carta that “no free man shall be taken or imprisoned … except by the legal judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.” Bitter resentment against capricious arrest and incarceration was one of the prime causes of the French Revolution. And so the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen stipulated that “No man should be accused, arrested, or held in confinement except in cases determined by the law, and according to the forms which it has prescribed.”

Arbitrary arrest and arbitrary searches conducted under the infamous writs of assistance and general warrants were among the bitterest grievances against George III recited in the American Declaration of Independence. When they established their independence Americans were determined that no government of their own creation should ever engage in these forms of despotism. Accordingly, they imposed heavy restraint upon police activity in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. 


It is far easier to lose liberty than to win it. The loss comes about, like so many losses, from forgetfulness, from carelessness…. Again and again in recent years — in the name of national security, in the name of public safety, in the name of convenience masquerading as necessity — we have tolerated constitutional short-cuts which involved serious trespasses on individual rights….

The Constitution is a limitation not alone upon the government. It is a limitation on the people, on us. Sometimes it keeps us from doing what we would like to do. That is the purpose of a Constitution. That is the essential meaning of limited government. That is the indispensable condition of a government of laws….

[F]ree men can never rely upon courts alone for the preservation of their freedom. Courts can give warning of danger. But they are really powerless to protect us from ourselves. They can remind us of our heritage. But they cannot preserve that heritage for us.