Sunday, May 14, 2006

Closer to Home

According to polls, approximately half of the American people believe that it is fine for the government to monitor our phone calls. They feel it is an acceptable trade to give up some of their freedom for a little more security against potential terrorist attacks. But how would they feel if they were asked to bring this debate a little closer to home?

Most Americans are far more likely to be the victims of a criminal -burglar, mugger, rapist or even a murderer - than victims of a suicide bomber. It is much more likely that the home next to them contains a secret meth lab than an Al Gaida sleeper cell. Their children are much likelier to fall prey to a drug dealer or the friendly neighborhood child molestor than an Islamo-fascist terrorist.

So, in light of this, would Americans want to extend the same privileges to the cops that they are willing to give to the national government including the NSA and the CIA, as well as other agencies that might be looking over our shoulders in the name of protecting us?

Do we want to reconsider all the hoops we make police officers jump through in order to obtain evidence of a crime? Perhaps we are being being overly strict in insisting that cops obtain a search warrant from a judge in order to search our homes or cars. Maybe we're being silly to insist that they get subpoenas to be able to order phone companies to turn over our phone records. If we personally have nothing to hide, then we shouldn't be bothered by a little law enforcement snooping, it is just the price we have to pay for a little more safety from the bad guys. Are the Miranda laws overkill? Is informing suspects that they have a right not to answer questions and that they have a right to an attorney going overboard in protecting civil rights? In this dangerous world are those just legal niceties we can't afford any more?

Maybe we should cut the cops some slack and allow them to take some shortcuts. I mean, if they flat-out know that someone is guilty and a criminal may go free if we insist that they dot every i and cross every t, needing Probable Cause to make a stop or do a search may be just too high of a standard.

It all boils down to trust, doesn't it? If you trust your police officers, then you shouldn't have to worry that relaxing the rules would ever impact you or anyone in your family. But you can't just trust most cops, you have to trust all of them because, as in all professions, the good ones will continue to do their jobs fairly and honestly, it is the bad ones who would take advantage of the new reality.

I have worked with many police officers in Wabash County. I like most of them and even loved some of them. From my experience, I would say that at least 95% per cent of them are dead honest and well, law-abiding. I also lived in Houston, Texas for a while. There was a scandal when I lived there in which some police officers would have cars towed and then not notify owners which impound lot they were sent to. Vehicle owners would spend days searching for their cars, then have to pay a high storage fee. The lot owners split this money with the officers involved. Even in Houston, I expect that 95% percent of the police officers were righteous. But 5% of the Houston PD is a lot of bad cops. Looked at the mixed behavior of New Orleans police officers during Katrina - it ranged from honorable and heroic to craven and crooked.

It is the same with torture as it is with domestic spying. If we bring it closer to home, would we condone torturing jail inmates or prisoners in our correctional facilities if, say, they knew who was bringing the heroin in from Chicago to Wabash or who burglarized your house? Would we think terrifying the people in our jail with vicious dogs or forcing them to rub feces on themselves or leading them around, naked, on leashes or "waterboarding" them to make them they believe they were drowning was justified? And would most correctional officers do it? Would they do it if they were encouraged by their leaders and even praised for doing it? Would some of them actually enjoy it doing it? Well, we know that Lindy England did it and seemed to be having a high old time. My guess is that Lindy was one of the 5%.

Most of our laws are made to protect the rest of us from the 5% - of rogue cops, of brutal correctional officers, of incompetent doctors, of cheating companies, of dishonest leaders. And if you don't think that those 5% don't also populate the C.I.A. and the N.S.A., then you are naive. If you don't think those 5% aren't able and willing to turn your anonymous phone records into everything they ever might want to know about you, you are foolish. (I am not a computer whiz but even I know how to do research to find out who you are if I have your phone number).

What they might want to know is if you are their political enemy - and what terrible repercussions ever followed from that determination over the years? What they might want to know is your medical history so they can sell it to insurers who will use it to decide whether to insure you. What they might want to know is the state of your finances so they can target a fundraising pitch your way or worse, steal your identity. And for those of you who think no harm can be done to you by an abridgement of your civil rights because you have complete faith in this administration, remember that it won't always be this administration. Those who George Bush are true-believers, imagine a President Hillary Clinton and see if you still feel the same.

The bottom line is: if you wouldn't give over your Constitution to the Locals, then you shouldn't be willing to give it up to the Feds either because the principle is exactly the same. As Benjamin Franklin said, "they that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety".