At the same time as the National Park Service was holding legal foreign visitors under house arrest, it was also allowing illegal immigrants to hold a rally on the supposedly closed National Mall. At this bipartisan amnesty bash, the Democrat House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said she wanted to “thank the president for enabling us to gather here” and Republican congressman Mario Diaz-Balart also expressed his gratitude to the administration for “allowing us to be here.”
Is this for real? It’s not King Barack’s land; it’s supposed to be the people’s land, and his most groveling and unworthy subjects shouldn’t require a dispensation by His Benign Majesty to set foot on it. It is disturbing how easily large numbers of Americans lapse into a neo-monarchical prostration that few subjects of actual monarchies would be comfortable with these days. But then in actual monarchies the king takes a more generous view of “public lands.” Two years after Magna Carta, in 1217, King Henry III signed the Charter of the Forest, which despite various amendments and replacement statutes remained in force in Britain for some three-quarters of a millennium, until the early Seventies. If Magna Carta is a landmark in its concept of individual rights, the Forest Charter played an equivalent role in advancing the concept of the commons, the public space. Repealing various restrictions by his predecessors, Henry III opened the royal forests to the freemen of England, granted extensive grazing and hunting rights, and eliminated the somewhat severe penalty of death for taking the king’s venison. The NPS have not yet fried anyone for taking King Barack’s deer, but it is somewhat sobering to reflect that an English peasant enjoyed more freedom on the sovereign’s land in the 13th century than a freeborn American does on “the people’s land” in the 21st century.
And we’re talking about a lot more acreage: Forty percent of the state of California is supposedly federal land, and thus officially closed to the people of the state. The geyser stasi of the National Park Service have in effect repealed the Charter of the Forest. President Obama and his enforcers have the same concept of the royal forest that King John did. The government does not own this land; the Park Service are merely the janitorial staff of “we the people” (to revive an obsolescent concept). No harm will befall the rocks and rivers by posting a sign at the entrance saying “No park ranger on duty during government shutdown. Proceed beyond this point at your own risk.” And, at the urban monuments, you don’t even need that: It is disturbing that minor state officials even presume to have the right to prevent the citizenry walking past the Vietnam Wall.
I wonder what those Japanese and Australian tourists prevented from photographing bison or admiring a geyser make of U.S. claims to be “the land of the free.” When a government shutdown falls in the forest, Americans should listen very carefully. The government is telling you something profound and important about how it understands the power relationship between them and you.
The National Park Service should be out of the business of urban landmarks, and the vast majority of our “national” parks should be returned to the states. After the usurpation of the people’s sovereignty this month, the next president might usefully propose a new Charter of the Forest.
— Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is the author of After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. © 2013 Mark Steyn
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.