Trading liberty for security is dangerous

Printed in the Bloomington Herald-Times, November 16, 2010

On October 22, the Herald-Times declared that “it’s hard to imagine that the sober drivers would put up much of a fuss about efforts to keep drunks off the roads.”

Actually, it is not hard to imagine at all.

It is a disturbing trend in our society that we are willing to give up liberty for security or perceived security. Much has been said over the last nine years about the federal government’s increased law enforcement powers (including things like wiretaps without a warrant) to fight terrorism. I respectfully submit that without decades of abuses by government in the “war on crime” and public support of those abuses, the abuses of the “war on terror” would have been much more difficult.

For example, we see the terrible abuse in Abu Ghraib, but should this really be surprising in a society where prison rape is epidemic? Far too many times, I have seen people respond with clichés such as “if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime” to efforts to combat this horrible abuse. We often forget that many of the prisoners subjected to sexual abuse are not the worst of the worst, but nonviolent offenders.

We are also seeing a frightening trend of police using paramilitary force in no-knock raids to catch drug offenders. A 92 year old woman named Kathryn Johnson was shot to death by just such a strike force in Atlanta, and the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland was detained for hours at gunpoint by a paramilitary SWAT team. There are countless more examples of paramilitary no-knock raids that should be a concern to every American.

Now, we have government targeting American citizens living abroad for extra-judicial assassination, something the American Civil Liberties Union is aggressively fighting in court. Is it really a surprise when government overreaches with the “Patriot Act” or other anti-terrorism measures, given how readily we have given up liberty in the name of security from crime?

The sobriety checkpoints are just another in a long line of infringements on our civil liberties where statists argue that if you are not doing anything wrong, you do not have anything to worry about. (Mrs. Johnson’s family would argue against that premise.) However, the Fourth Amendment’s promise that our right to be secure in our “persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures” is very clear.

The question is obvious: Does government have the right to detain you and demand that you “produce your papers” with absolutely no evidence that you are doing anything illegal? Does simply driving on a public street now count as “probable cause” for police to detain citizens? May it never be!

We saw a great deal of outrage over the summer when the state of Arizona passed a law to allow police to check the immigration status of people detained on suspicion of another crime. What about immigrants living in Bloomington who will have to “produce their papers” if they happen to be driving the wrong stretch of road at the wrong time, and come across a police checkpoint? Where is the outrage about this?

I vividly remember driving down College Avenue where the police would be looking in my vehicle to see if I was wearing a seatbelt, and would ticket me if I was not. I always wear a safety belt, but that is not the point. Thankfully, this practice has been outlawed by the General Assembly. Our legislators should follow up by making sobriety checkpoints illegal as well – and any legislator who opposes this move should be thrown out of office.

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