A Reflection on The Constitution, Freedom,
and Death on the Battlefield
by Ronald J. Buttarazzi Sr.
Some politicians with authoritarian proclivities would scrap or substantially modify the Constitution and Bill of Rights to overcome what they characterize as “gridlock”- in order to achieve their own ambition for unlimited power. The would be self-appointed rulers of our Republic want to rule without constitutional restraints. One means of doing this is to select jurists who are willing adherents to a particular ideology to achieve ideological goals rather than be bound by their oaths to uphold the Constitution. In so doing, the goal is to politicize the court into an oligarchy of the elite privileged few to rule America rather than jurists who would apply Constitutional standards as a measuring stick of the validity of statutes.
In his First Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln acutely observed:
“At the same time, the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made, in ordinary litigation between parties, in personal actions, the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.” (Fornieri, 2003, p. 572)
A republic is not smoothly efficient. The passing of proposed statutes in a Republic is a messy process of debate, scrutiny and compromise. The possibility of gridlock is built into our Constitutional system of checks and balances. Our government is intentionally inefficient. The Legislative branch of government is made up of the House of Representatives- the forum of the people and the Senate with only two senators from each state so that each state has equal representation in the upper house.
In order for a proposed piece of legislation to become a law, the proposed legislation must be passed by both The House of Representatives and the Senate referenced as the Legislative branch of government. After the Legislative Branch passes a law, the president may either veto it or sign it into the law with the duty to enforce the law as the Executive branch of government. Even when a law is passed and signed by the President, the law still remains vulnerable to constitutional attack by Judicial review by the Supreme Court-the Judicial branch of government.
The separation of the powers of government, the legislative power-to make laws, the executive power to veto such proposed laws and to enforce them and judicial review by the Supreme Court are the bulwarks of our freedom. Anything less than that means that we would no longer would be a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
In the 51st paper of The Federalist Papers, James Madison warned our forefathers of the necessity of such restraints required in the exercise of governmental power:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessar. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls of government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this, you must first enable the government to control the governed: and in the next place to control itself.” (Alexander Hamilton, 1961, p. 322)
The ballot alone is insufficient. The machinery of government must have built in safe guards. The Reichstag passed The Enabling Act of 1933 that made Hitler the dictator of the German people. The result was an efficient calamity to the whole world, the persecuted and to the German people themselves.
Let us not forget the Bill of Rights which cloak each person with immutable immunities- like a shield for each person protecting him or her from the exercise of the arbitrary power of government i.e -midnight knock. In totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany-the Gestapo would arrive at your home early in the morning and before the sun had risen- arrested you without charges and deported you to a concentration camp where you might be murdered without any intervention of the legal system.
For those of us of an earlier time, we view limitations of freedom speech such as speech codes in our universities with increasing skepticism and alarm.
The price for that freedom in our Republic – so unique and -yes so exceptional- in world history has been paid by our own, on battlefields like Lexington and Concord, Gettysburg, Bastogne and Monte Casino.
No, we cannot recall them all in a moment this Veteran’s Day. But perhaps we can retell the story of two soldiers in their late teens or very early twenties. Let us bring to mind a scene from World War II in France. Two infantrymen in fox holes a few feet apart from each other heard the swishing sound of mortar shells and watched explosions sprouting geysers of dirt jumping from the earth leaving craters in the ground. Closer and closer cam the sounds, the thuds and showers of dirt closing in on the two of them trapped inside of a mathematical grid like a checker board- whose squares were being closed one after another. The two had been comrades since basic training, and as they shared the same discomforts of cold, rain and muddy fox holes: they joked, told stories of their families and their dreams and became closer and closer to each other-one was Jewish-Lou Epstein and one was Catholic-Leo Hetzler.
And then the mortar round struck another square in the checker board -in the square where Lou Epstein was -and Leo screamed for a medic as he lay Epstein’s head on a field pack. Epstein quipped and joked to encourage Leo during the twenty minutes as his life flowed out of him into the dirt of the French battlefield. After the war Leo Hetzler became a Catholic priest and eventually the chair of the English Department at St. John Fisher College. In 1994, Fr. Hetzler became national chaplain of the Combat Infantryman Association. Last year on May 18, 2017, Fr. Hetzler joined “my best friend” Lou whom he had never forgotten and the rest of his friends under white crosses and stars of David. You may see the two soldiers together in photos on a You tube presentation titled Soldier Father –videotaped by Dave Esposito- August 24, 2014.
As we celebrate Veterans’ day, we remember the sacrifices of our service people from Lexington and Concord to the last ambush in Afghanistan. It is for us to fully appreciate and preserve the gifts of our freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and Bill of Rights so that their sacrifice not be in vain.
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay (1961). The Federalist Papers. New York and Scarborugh, Ontario: Times Mirror.
Fornieri, J. R. (2003). The Language of Liberty . The Political Speeches of Abraham Lincoln , 572. (J. R. Fornieri, Ed.) Washingon DC, United States: Regnery Publishing Company.
Ronald J. Buttarazzi Sr. is a Retired Perinton Town Justice and Retired New York State Assistant Attorney General.