What Obama Could Learn From Paterson

Lame-duck governor's inspiring words in defense of liberty

As Paterson put it on the day of the signing: "Today, we have an opportunity to set the scales of safety and liberty in balance before we lose something we cannot get back."

At stake is not only an Obama break with the Bush-Cheney "dark side" here and abroad, but enough understanding among Americans that this current president has consistently and insistently maintained that he has the power to indefinitely imprison a terrorism suspect who cannot be brought before a military commission or into one of our federal courts because the purported evidence against him or her can't be admitted.

Why? Because that suspect has been tortured to extract the alleged evidence.

Years ago, I was writing a profile of Justice William Brennan, which became part of my book, Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press). I was in his chambers at the Supreme Court, and was unusually somber.

"How," he suddenly asked me, "can we get the Bill of Rights off the pages and into the lives of students?"

I haven't heard that question in all the raging dissonance of how to "reform" education—and end its sentencing of so many of the young to largely dead-end lives. Some real-life changes, however, are being made in a number of schools around the country that focus on the critical-thinking skills of one student at a time instead of the collective test scores of a class, or a whole school, or a state.

I don't yet know how many of these still few schools are also bringing the Constitution into students' lives so that, as they become active citizens, they'll insist on their loyalty to the Constitution rather than to whichever government is in power.

Well, David Paterson took a small step in that direction. But how much time do we have to act on Justice Hugo Black's ringing of the liberty bell: "Do not be afraid to be free!"

Meanwhile, there are more and more NYPD stop-and-frisks on paper. During the first six months of 2010: 319,156. Same period last year: 311,646. Commissioner Ray, with 8.3 million of us in this city, you're catching up fast!

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