Browse Topics



Testing the Constitution
An Essay by Patt Morrison

audio Listen to Morrison's essay

Patt Morrison

Patt Morrison
Photo: Los Angeles Times

Sept. 25, 2001 -- It wasn't a test, this underhanded mass murder, this most death-dealing day on American soil since we massacred ourselves in the Civil War.

This was an actual emergency, a siege on the nation and its temples of money and might.

Yet what happened on September 11th is very much a test, not for today or tomorrow or even next week, while the sounds of funeral bagpipes reach our ears and Americans at our best, generous, and recklessly brave.

No, this test is for the duller months to come, when heroism requires other virtues. Those days will test how much Americans truly believe in America.

If whoever did this can force us to become like them, to become fearful and vengeful ... if "better safe than sorry" becomes the national motto ... if the land of the free becomes the home of the military checkpoint and the national ID card, then we fail the test.

One day soon, people with the best of intentions will say that any security trumps any civil liberty. And people with the darkest of intentions will gleefully ride their coattails.

Already we make compromises every day, bartering liberties for security. We let the government keep some of its doing secret from us. The FBI's Carnivore program can read virtually anyone's e-mail. Video monitors watch us buy bread and underwear. We submit to scans and searches to get on a plane, walk into a courtroom and even some school rooms.

The test now underway is what the Constitution itself is made of -- whether it is only parchment, or something stronger, something terror-proof, and fear-proof.

For my money, the most inspiring public figure I encountered on September 11th was not in Washington, D.C., but in Los Angeles.

Harry Pregerson is 77 years old, a man of that "greatest generation," a Marine wounded on Okinawa, a federal judge whose conscience, he has said, is forged out of "the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights, the Boy Scout oath, and the Marine Corps Hymn."

His court is the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a grand old converted hotel on the lip of the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena. With courts and government buildings closing down across the nation on September 11th, Pregerson's court, with all its dry, plodding routines of justice, stayed open for business. "We can't let terrorists shut us down," Pregerson said. In the name of America, Harry Pregerson would not be stampeded into locking the door on what America is meant to be about.

Patt Morrison is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and author of Rio L.A.: Tales from the Los Angeles River.