But for better or worse, it is Constitution Day. Let’s look at how the Constitution has fared in the past 12 months.
The major news item on many sites a year ago today was congressional testimony by General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that he was prepared, if necessary, to recommend dispatching ground troops to the Middle East to fight directly against the Islamic State. One year later, there are still no boots on the sand—but the United States is more and more deeply enmeshed in a war that now seems more like a world war than a regional conflict. The fighting and the bombing is flooding Europe with refugees; it is drawing a newly aggressive Russia into an apparent military alliance with the odious Syrian government. It is clearly the most important and dangerous conflict anywhere in the world today.
Remarkably, however, the United States Congress is no closer to even debating, much less authorizing, this portentous military mission, than it was when it heard from General Dempsey.
Obama introduced an authorization bill that the Republican leadership scorned for not going far enough, and there the issue has languished for a year. Obama claims authority to proceed under the 2001 authorization permitting him to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” ISIS didn’t exist in 2001 but, hey, close enough for government work.
The fact that both parties seem to think the status quo is peachy tells us something important about the Constitution—namely, that no document means anything if our leaders decide not to honor it and our people are so divided they will not force them to.
By contrast, the past year has seen an astonishingly positive dialogue about a central value in the Constitution—the “equal protection of the laws.” Last year at this time, violent protests and riots wracked Ferguson, Missouri, and some other cities, sparked by the shooting deaths of unarmed black civilians. For some reason, Ferguson (and the heavy-handed military response by largely white police to a black crowd that had gathered to “petition the government for redress of grievances”) crystallized for Americans, black and white, what has been obvious but unvoiced for some time—that in many places around the country, the law enforcement and criminal-justice systems systematically subordinate and terrorize people of color.
Ferguson, and the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, have forced a new look by ordinary people at the racial situation in the U.S. Americans have also begun to grapple with the Civil War and its radical constitutional legacy—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. For a century and a half, some Americans have angrily claimed to be the most faithful stewards of the Constitution while at the same time defiantly brandishing the banners of treason. The sudden turn against the Confederacy and its trappings may be belated, but I honestly didn’t think I would live to see it. It is a sign of a country confronting constitutional promises it made a century and a half earlier and has never dared to fulfill.