Many Americans today are baffled by the Third Amendment to the Constitution, the one in which the quartering of troops in private homes is prohibited in times of peace, except by the consent of the owner.  Quartering troops in time of war was allowed, but only as regulated by law.

Some of the amendments in our beleaguered Bill of Rights are still alive and kicking.  However misused and mistreated, the First and Second are still in the fight.  Some, such as the Tenth, are a dead letter through neglect and abuse.  And some, like the Third, are a dead letter because the way we do things has largely passed this circumstance by.  Quartering troops is no longer common practice.  The amendment reflects the circumstances of the day.

If the Bill of Rights were being considered today, the Third Amendment would involve something like airport security, not quartering troops.  Take the most recent obnoxious invasion of individual privacy—the TSA use of security devices that can see right through your clothes.  They promise that the images are not saved, and of course a pretty cogent answer to this promise is the circulation on the internet of images saved under similar circumstances.  And besides, who cares if they are saved?  Are we really reassured by the voyeur who promises to look just once?

The Third Amendment was addressing just one particular instance of the universal tendency of government to aggrandize itself through the accumulation of more and more power.  Thomas Jefferson, quoting one of Oliver Cromwell’s men, once said that he could not believe that millions of men had saddles on their backs, with a privileged few booted and spurred, and ready to ride.

What happens is that those in power tend to view everything in the light of what increases their power, making it easier for them to wield.  They want to reduce friction and drag on any exercise of their governing prerogatives.  The people themselves generally put up with this for a time, as incremental change follows incremental change.  Then one day you show up at the airport two hours early, in order to allow time for the long security lines, for the TSA porn scanner, and the opportunity to be groped by someone in a bus driver’s uniform.  As you are winding your long way through that security-line conga dance, opening bags, taking off belts, shucking off shoes, removing computers from their cases, and generally mooing along with the rest of the herd, answer me this: Why are you doing all this?  Why, to preserve your liberties!  George Orwell, call your office.  But then one day the lights come on in a bunch of minds at the same time, and there is a very edifying commotion over at Gate D18.

Now I do believe that Islamic terrorism is a real threat, and I further believe that something should be done about it.  But I also believe that our booted and spurred masters are not serious about that threat, and that they are serious about accumulating as much legal power as they can, while they can, in the spirit of never letting a good crisis go to waste.

When troops were quartered in a private residence, against the wishes of the owner, there may well have been a real national-security threat far away that required the troops to have been mustered.  But that distant threat was not something that affected the daily life of the house owner.  The daily irritants of quartering troops in the meantime added up and eventually got to a tipping point.  They had their kind of commotion at their equivalent of Gate D18.  And so this is why there is an amendment prohibiting this kind of thing in the Bill of Rights, and there is no amendment prohibiting Hessian mercenaries from conducting training maneuvers inimical to the interests of the United States, somewhere across the sea.

There are other aspects of this to keep in mind.  As far away as European troops were, they did occasionally make it over here from time to time.  That was a real  threat, but quartering troops was still prohibited.  A strong case could be made that 88-year-old grandmothers with knitting needles present a different kind of threat, the odds of which are of interest only to mathematicians.

Some might wonder why I am arguing from the Third Amendment, instead of the Fourth.  Doesn’t the prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures more directly apply to airport security?  In some respects, it obviously does.  The fact that I would like to attend a conference in Atlanta, while living in northern Idaho, does not, it seems to me, constitute “probable cause.”  But I still want to argue from the Third Amendment.  We really need to reflect on the fact that the Third Amendment was designed to interfere with national security.  This amendment is from 1789, enshrined in our Constitution.  We were already independent from England and had been for some years.  The Third Amendment did not apply to enemy troops.  It applied, all together now, “to our brave men and women in uniform.”  This means that the restriction was going to be on American generals, trying to anticipate attacks on American soil.  And that is a noble work—God bless those who undertake it.  But our Founding Fathers knew that such noble works must not be allowed to trample on the rights of those they are trying to defend.  I can just imagine John Adams at Gate D18.

If our proud lordlings, progressives and neocons both, were better students of history than they are, they would see that their practice of overreaching, in order to advance what they think is good for us, is the very mentality that the Constitution was designed to frustrate and thwart.  As Daniel Defoe once put it, in fine mettle, “The good of subjects is the end of kings.”  Forget that, and you have forgotten the whole point.