Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Man's Home Is His Castle

Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia

There were many memorable moments during the Senate Watergate Committee's hearings in the summer of 1973. They call them "sound bites" today, which isn't a bad description since such quotes almost always bite someone.

If you talk to folks who remember the Watergate scandal, you'll get a lot of responses — but no clear consensus — to the question, "What was the most memorable moment (or sound bite) for you?"

That is kind of a difficult question for me to answer because my family spent most of that summer out of the country, and we missed seeing and hearing many of the iconic moments when they happened. We kept up with the news — as did most of the Americans we encountered — through foreign editions of the news weeklies (TIME and Newsweek) or, when my parents were especially eager to learn what was happening, through daily editions of the International Herald Tribune (which is published today — and, I suppose, was published 40 years ago — by the New York Times).

Over the years, I have seen video clips of most, if not all, of those moments — several times. And, although it is a tough choice, I have concluded that my personal favorite "sound bite" came 40 years ago today when Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia was questioning John Ehrlichman, a former aide to Richard Nixon.

It was the second of five days of testimony for Ehrlichman. On the first day, he had defended, on grounds of national security, the break–in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist — which, in fact, was intended to gather information that could be used to discredit Ellsberg in the eyes of the public. Ellsberg was a former military analyst who played a key role in the release of the so–called Pentagon Papers, an insider's history of American involvement in Vietnam.

Several senators objected to the break–in, but, as I say, Ehrlichman defended it. The next day, Talmadge was clearly wrestling with issues that had been raised earlier.

"Now, if the president could authorize a covert break–in [of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office] and you do not know exactly what that power would be limited," Talmdage said, "you do not think it could include murder or other crimes beyond covert break–ins, do you?"

"I do not know where the line is, senator," Ehrlichman replied.

"Where is the check on the chief executive's power as to where that power begins and ends, that is what I am trying to determine," Talmadge told him. "Do you remember when we were in law school we studied a famous principle of law that came from England, and also is well known in this country, that no matter how humble a man's cottage is that even the king of England cannot enter without his consent?"

John Ehrlichman testifies in July 1973.

"I'm afraid that has been considerably eroded over the years, has it not?" Ehrlichman asked with what could only be described as a snarky grin on his face.

That grin remained frozen as he listened to Talmadge's reply — and the thunderous ovation it received. Perhaps he knew the cameras were focused on him as Talmadge made his response.

"Down in my country we still think it's a pretty legitimate principle of law," Talmadge said as a wave of approving applause swept over the room.

All my life (which, I admit, was quite brief at that time), I had heard that "a man's home is his castle," but I never completely understood what it meant until I read this exchange in one of those periodicals I mentioned earlier.

It left quite an impression on me, formed the foundation of everything that I believe and hold dear as an adult.

A man must have some domain that is his and cannot be violated without his consent — unless a warrant is issued, and that requires pretty solid evidence that something illegal is going on.

That is freedom. No American citizen can be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures. It is a privilege that cannot be found everywhere, but it goes with being an American. It is why so many people around the globe still want to become Americans — even when there are so many other people who would like to do us harm.

American citizenship is about more than a person's physical address. It is about being treated with common respect and dignity.

Even in America, though, there is not total freedom. There are rules we all must observe.

People like to believe they have unlimited freedom in America, but that is not, never has been true. With freedom comes responsibility.

When I am away from my home, I take it for granted that I will have to observe rules that are made by others. When the light is red, I have to stop and permit others to go past me, even if I am late for something. I must wait my turn for anything I want to buy — even if the people ahead of me showed no respect for the rules that restrict the number of items to be purchased in certain checkout lines. At work, I must follow whatever rules have been set by the boss — even if I think some or all of those rules are unfair and/or unreasonable.

But, when I am at home, I need only concern myself with my agenda. That can mean a lot of things, but mainly it means that I am in control of my particular patch of earth. It does not matter if I rent it or own it outright. It is my home.

I do have to be considerate of others. If I live in an apartment (which I do) and it is late at night, I can't play my stereo or my TV loud enough to keep people who are trying to sleep awake. But, as long as I do not intrude on other people's space — or break the law — I am free to do as I please in my own space.

A person cannot always explain or justify things he/she does in private, but it is someone's personal space, and justification is not necessary. Not even a king — or a president — may violate my personal space or demand justification of anything.

It was true in 1973, and it is still true today — even when surveillance is applied to things that didn't exist 40 years ago, like email and cellular phones.

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