By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – In the panicked days following Sept. 11, 2001, the Indiana House of Representatives spent a lot of money installing bullet-proof glass in the big picture windows looking out from the chamber into the rotunda.
That prompted jokes about the House’s disproportionate sense of its own role in the universe.
The jibes revolved around a similar theme – that the targets on Osama Bin Laden’s list were the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the White House and … the Indiana House of Representatives.
As jokes go, it wasn’t that funny, but those were dark days and people looked for ways to chase away the fear and uncertainty they felt. Laughing helped, even when the jokes were bad.
Looking back, the episode seems to say more about how frightened and vulnerable the attacks on Sept. 11 made us feel than it does about the hubris of Indiana politicians. The terrorists had hit us when we didn’t think we could be hit, so we wanted to put up walls to protect ourselves, wherever we were.
I’ve thought about the House and the bullet-proof glass as the story of the Indiana Senate’s call for a new constitutional convention has begun to unfold.
Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne, started things in motion by saying a new convention was necessary to place limits on the federal government’s power to regulate commerce – a power guaranteed in the Constitution’s commerce clause.
Just before it went into mid-term break, the Senate voted, 32-18, in favor of a bill calling for a new constitutional convention. Now just 33 other states need to go along.
The constitutional convention idea has prompted jokes, too. The best – told by a lawyer who is a friend of mine – goes that if Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, the authors of “The Federalist Papers,” the classic essays written by drafters of the Constitution to explain their work, wanted an editor, do we really think David Long is the person they would have chosen?
Again, the joke’s probably not that funny – in part because we again are talking about frightened people.
I spent six years serving as the executive director of what was then the Indiana Civil Liberties Union (now the ACLU of Indiana), an organization dedicated to preserving and protecting constitutional liberties, particularly those enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
What those years taught me was that constitutional protections matter most to people who feel the most exposed and vulnerable. The Constitution – the Bill of Rights, in particular – is in many ways a minority document.
Much of the Constitution is designed to take certain things off the table – to say that they aren’t up for election or majority decision. We can’t take a vote, for example, to make Susie a Baptist if she would prefer to be a Methodist, a Catholic or an atheist. That’s her choice, a constitutionally protected one.
Long says that his call for a constitutional convention was prompted by federal health care reform. He and his cohorts say Obamacare is an example of federal overreaching.
I won’t pretend that I understand Long’s argument, because I clearly don’t. Many – in fact, most – other industrialized nations in the world adopted systems of some sort of universal health care without the sort of trauma we’ve experienced. In this country, we’ve been talking about health care since the 1940s, a gestation period of 70 years.
And this plan itself is market-based – nowhere near as sweeping and “socialistic” as, say, Richard Nixon’s proposal from 40 years ago to guarantee every family in America a minimum income. But, then, much of Nixon’s “conservative” philosophy now would be too “liberal” for even the left-most wing of the Democratic Party.
That’s how far to the right the country’s drifted.
It’s hard to say what drives the fear Long and his colleagues feel the need to address, given that it seems to emanate from sectors of the American public that historically have felt most secure. Maybe it’s the fact that they no longer have that sense of security that prompts the panic.
Something stirring in the country, though, scares them to the core, which is why they want to rewrite the Constitution to expand the list of things the majority can’t decide – even while they long have scorned other Americans who have sought the protection of constitutional rights.
In a time of tremendous change, Long and his cohorts want to put up another pane of bullet-proof glass between them and a world that frightens them.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.