Speech Delivered by Vice President Al Gore

Thursday, June 24, 2004, 12:30pm

Georgetown University Law Center

When we Americans first began, our biggest danger was clearly in view: we knew from the bitter experience with King George III that the most serious threat to democracy is usually the accumulation of too much power in the hands of an Executive, whether he be a King or a president. Our ingrained American distrust of concentrated power has very little to do with the character or persona of the individual who wields that power. It is the power itself that must be constrained, checked, dispersed and carefully balanced, in order to ensure the survival of freedom. In addition, our founders taught us that public fear is the most dangerous enemy of democracy because under the right circumstances it can trigger the temptation of those who govern themselves to surrender that power to someone who promises strength and offers safety, security and freedom from fear.

It is an extraordinary blessing to live in a nation so carefully designed to protect individual liberty and safeguard self-governance and free communication. But if George Washington could see the current state of his generation?s handiwork and assess the quality of our generation?s stewardship at the beginning of this twenty-first century, what do you suppose he would think about the proposition that our current president claims the unilateral right to arrest and imprison American citizens indefinitely without giving them the right to see a lawyer or inform their families of their whereabouts, and without the necessity of even charging them with any crime. All that is necessary, according to our new president is that he ? the president ? label any citizen an ?unlawful enemy combatant,? and that will be sufficient to justify taking away that citizen?s liberty ? even for the rest of his life, if the president so chooses. And there is no appeal.

What would Thomas Jefferson think of the curious and discredited argument from our Justice Department that the president may authorize what plainly amounts to the torture of prisoners ? and that any law or treaty, which attempts to constrain his treatment of prisoners in time of war is itself a violation of the constitution our founders put together.

What would Benjamin Franklin think of President Bush?s assertion that he has the inherent power ? even without a declaration of war by the Congress ? to launch an invasion of any nation on Earth, at any time he chooses, for any reason he wishes, even if that nation poses no imminent threat to the United States.

How long would it take James Madison to dispose of our current President?s recent claim, in Department of Justice legal opinions, that he is no longer subject to the rule of law so long as he is acting in his role as Commander in Chief.

I think it is safe to say that our founders would be genuinely concerned about these recent developments in American democracy and that they would feel that we are now facing a clear and present danger that has the potential to threaten the future of the American experiment.

Shouldn?t we be equally concerned? And shouldn?t we ask ourselves how we have come to this point?

Even though we are now attuned to orange alerts and the potential for terrorist attacks, our founders would almost certainly caution us that the biggest threat to the future of the America we love is still the endemic challenge that democracies have always faced whenever they have appeared in history ? a challenge rooted in the inherent difficulty of self governance and the vulnerability to fear that is part of human nature. Again, specifically, the biggest threat to America is that we Americans will acquiesce in the slow and steady accumulation of too much power in the hands of one person.

Having painstakingly created the intricate design of America, our founders knew intimately both its strengths and weaknesses, and during their debates they not only identified the accumulation of power in the hands of the executive as the long-term threat which they considered to be the most serious, but they also worried aloud about one specific scenario in which this threat might become particularly potent ? that is, when war transformed America?s president into our commander in chief, they worried that his suddenly increased power might somehow spill over its normal constitutional boundaries and upset the delicate checks and balances they deemed so crucial to the maintenance of liberty.

Categories: Politics