March 18, 1997
By Buster W. Newton
Most people have a special date that is remembered as a turning point in their lives. For many people of my generation it might be John Kennedy's assassination day. For others it may be a wedding or a loved one's death or a variety of additional special meanings important to the person. In my particular case I will never forget March 18, 1997. This day certainly changed my life.
Before this Tuesday in March back in 1997, I believed in an America that stood for freedom and individual rights. The United States represented a nation that guaranteed its citizens the due process of law. I took it for granted that what was mine could not be arbitrarily taken from me by an abusive government or any other diabolical force. After all, the Constitution of the United States guaranteed all of its citizens, including me, the due process of law. Sixteen years of formal education instructed me that an individual was innocent until proven guilty, that a person had the right to know their accuser, that a citizen had the right to know what they were being accused of, and that an American had the right to a speedy trial.
On this horrible date in my personal history, all of these supposedly rights as an American citizen were suddenly whisked away as vapor in the air. These rights had no meaning. I learned quickly how little rights an American citizen has when the United States government decides it is in the right. The citizen has absolutely no rights in comparison to the government's decisions.
March 18, 1997, going on three years from the date of this writing, I walked off the elevator onto the 17th floor of the office building in which I conducted my private business. As I entered the hallway leading to my office, a FBI agent handed me a Search and Seizure Warrant with sealed affidavits. Scurrying around the floor were approximately twenty other FBI agents who were busily preparing another business' and my business' records and equipment for confiscation. Knowing I had done nothing criminal, I had a sickening feeling that cannot be put in words.
At this time all I knew was that my records and equipment were being seized due to allegations of misuse of federal funds. These allegations were protected by the sealed affidavits. I was given no charges. I was given no information other than that I was under investigation. I was aware of a federal employee who made referrals to my business and a private computer storeowner had confessed of writing 'ghost' invoices for computers that were never purchased. That, however, had nothing to do with me. That was something they decided to do between them. Never in a million years did I think this would be reason enough to raid my business and confiscate my records and equipment.
Evidently it was enough because my business was raided and the story was splashed in the local newspaper, leaving an impression that I had done something criminal. More devastating was that all of my authorizations for providing academic remediation to disabled veterans were terminated pending the outcome of the investigation. This closed my business. A twenty-one-year career was destroyed. Something I loved doing -- working with disabled veterans -- was taken away. For what? Going on three years later, I'm still trying to find an answer.
The actions taken by the federal agencies involved gave me no benefit of the doubt that I was innocent. Raiding my private business, confiscating my records and equipment, and terminating my authorizations to do business assumed I was guilty. This assumption without charges, without a trial, and without any convictions took away my livelihood and my cherished right of pursuit of happiness. Needless to say, I have been dealt a loss that I have never questioned -- I always believed I had individual rights as an American citizen. This experience, however, has harshly shown me this is not true.
If this is not true for me, then it is the same for other American citizens.Knowing this has baffled me even more. As I've tried to explain to friends, family, and associates what happened to me, I've been given the same despairing answer from everyone: the government can do what it wants. I just can't believe that existence in America has been reduced to this sad state of affairs. America's citizens are willing to accept that the government can do what it wants. Everyday since the raid, I wake up wondering if I'm really in a dream. Could this experience really be happening? I keep reading in the newspapers, hearing on the television, and listening to Americans make comments about America's human rights and blessing of freedom. Then I recall the raid and how the last going-on-three-years has left me without a business, my finances depleted, my family split up, and my will weakened to a point of day-to-day survival. What kind of future is there without rights? Whatever you do today to work and plan for tomorrow has no meaning because it all can be taken away for no other reason than suspicion, association, and/or allegations that you are deprived of even knowing. The government has the power to do this, and the American public accepts it.
Probably the most frustrating outcome of this entire experience is the impenetrable wall of apathy that surrounds me. The media and people I've talked to from all walks of life shrug their shoulders and accept the government's power to ignore its citizens' Constitutional rights. I would think that people would be outraged. Freedom and rights are the very foundation of this nation. Something inexplicable, however, has occurred since the writing of the American Constitution. Freedom and rights have come to mean something different than the due process of law. Now the government can destroy a person's livelihood without a conviction, without a trial, and even without charges. All that is needed is allegations, suspicions, and/or associations. Other nations' practicing this form of justice would be chastised and condemned by the American government. When the American government does it, then it's okay. It's acceptable. This is something I learned on that unforgettable day.
Now I watch the celebrations on Flag Day, Presidents Day, and Veterans Day and hear the praise that we give ourselves for having freedom and rights and question my sanity. What I'm hearing and what I've experienced are two different realities in America. How could I have been so blind not to know this before the raid? I guess if it doesn't happen to you personally, then it doesn't exist. Since March 18, 1997, I understand only too well that the loss of individual rights is a reality in America. How many American citizens will have to experience this personally before there is national outrage at our rights' being insignificant?
This is Buster W. Newton's first contribution to Enter Stage Right.
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