The Eternal Flame has burned continuously since Jackie Kennedy lit it in Arlington Cemetery on November 25, 1963 during her husband’s state funeral. Today, fifty years to the day after it was lit, hundreds have come to take photos of the flame flickering in a cold breeze, while others stand silently watching flowers laid at its granite base.
At his inauguration, President Kennedy spoke of a “torch” passed to a “new generation”:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
Fifty years after his assassination, this torch has been neglected, and the flame has nearly gone out.
Since JFK was killed, the Civil Rights movement has achieved important successes. But the present state of freedom and human rights in the U.S. is like a wound left unattended, and every day the hemorrhaging grows worse. Our government is systematically eviscerating our freedoms and those of people around the world. There are several signs of this: the police state, the huge numbers of citizens incarcerated, illegal NSA surveillance, and drone warfare.
The Police State
There are more uniformed police–800,000–than ever before. (Only China has more.) And this number does not include the numbers of hired armed private security officers on duty.
Paramilitary policing has quickly spread across the country. Today there are more than 1,000 U.S. police forces with SWAT or SWAT-type units. In 1980, nationwide, they carried out an average of eight paramilitary raids a day; now there are well over 100 per day. SWAT teams rely on speed and force, which result in many errors.
An Incarcerated Nation
Rates of incarceration are at epidemic levels with over one and a half million people in state and federal prisons, five times more than in 1980. There are more people incarcerated than high school teachers. And this number ignores the tens of thousands more languishing in city and county jails. Five percent of the world’s population live in the United States, yet 25% of the world’s incarcerated population are imprisoned here–more than all European nations combined. Half of all inmates are serving time for mandatory sentences for drug offenses.
Many prisons are run by corporations for profit. The “Prison Industrial Complex” has to keep cells full to keep profits flowing. Mandatory life terms for repeat offenders infringe on human rights. The excessive size of the American prison system is an indictment against human rights in this country.
The Surveillance State
The National Security Agency has harnessed advances in technology to systematically surveil every citizen’s cellphone meta data and email. The NSA has created a surveillance state in a way the Stasi of East Germany could only have dreamed of.
The NSA has gathered data on every American as well as world leaders and foreign citizens. In the guise of protecting the U.S. from terrorism, they operate on a “collect everything” philosophy, encroaching on the constitutional protections from illegal search and seizure. They have essentially erased the Fourth amendment.
Even the judges of the FISA court, a secret court empowered to oversee the NSA, has expressed misgivings about their own ability to reign in the NSA. Judge John Bates wrote, “NSA’s record of compliance with these rules has been poor.”
Reporter Glenn Grenwald and his husband, David Miranda have been threatened with prosecution for having reported the NSA’s unconstitutional breaches of law.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have created a climate of fear in countries which previously looked up to the U.S. as an example of democracy and freedom.
Drone warfare used in undeclared wars against countries like Yemen and Pakistan are perhaps the most egregious example of a government gone awry in its stated purpose to spread democracy and human rights.
Over the last ten years the U.S. has deployed drone robots against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But the killing of innocents is creating a far-reaching fallout, turning an entire generation of people to revile and seek vengeance against the U.S. The drone warfare campaign is largely kept secret, and if not for the exposure of whistle-blower Bradley Manning, serious incidents of killing innocents would never have come to light.
Drone advocates say they are increasing security, and the machines are necessary in the war on terror because they have pinpoint accuracy. But these are myths.
Drone attack systems are fully robotic killing systems despite what military chiefs say. This is because killing is accomplished remotely by machine, without human touch from launch, seek-and-destroy and return to home base. Drone attacks are for the convenience and safety of the aggressor.
Drones have erased hundreds of years of human rights gains made through courts of law and legal review. They have gone around legal requirements such as habeus corpus, evidence review, legal defense and jury determination of guilt or innocence of the accused. Convicted felons on death row are afforded more due process than those killed by drones.
The torch of human rights and liberty JFK spoke of has practically been extinguished from the domestic landscape and abroad. A flickering flame, it is reserved for etchings on white stones at a tribute memorial somewhere. The Eternal Flame at Arlington National Cemetery still burns a hazy orange surrounded by a carpet of immaculate green–only a symbol of John Kennedy’s promise.
The torch was inherited by a generation who was not vigilant. Since they have abdicated the responsibility Kennedy entrusted to them, we and coming generations must pick it up and relight it. If we cannot rekindle the flame, it will be a promise that died with Kennedy. Otherwise, the post-constitutional era in which we live will only become darker.