Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Assembling Peaceably

Yesterday I had one of my computers run a live feed of the situation in Egypt, watching the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the streets, when into the scene rode several men on horseback and camel, whipping people as they went. Then several fights broke out--the square had been infiltrated with plain-clothes policemen determined to cause trouble. What had been a peaceful gathering of like-minded people suddenly was very angry and chaotic.

The first amendment of the U.S. constitution is a simple declaration of rights, one of which is the right to assembly peaceably:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
What's missing is any guarantee that the government won't interfere with an assembly, to make it less peaceable. Even so, the first amendment is an incredible statement of individual rights, especially when seen in contrast to events in other countries, and it's good to read it now and then.

Sometimes, like recently in Iran, a government can successfully shut down a popular movement by creating violence within demonstrations. The situation in Egypt is more visible to the world, and possibly that will make the difference.

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