As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, the industries that back America's military muscle will see the need to market their products for domestic use. Machines that work wonders in a soldier's hands don't necessarily belong on Main Street. What works wonders on a foreign battlefield can, in some cases, diminish the freedoms that made this country great.
Take the issue of drone surveillance. Cities around the country have accepted Department of Homeland Security grants to purchase these eyes in the sky that once were reserved for use identifying and terminating insurgents overseas. The lure of "free" money is irresistible to the local bureaucrat, and consequently little thought goes in to how new government goodies might be used.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, introduced legislation Tuesday that would introduce at least a little third-party forethought into the process. His measure states simply that before any drone could be used to spy on a citizen, law enforcement would have to convince a judge to issue a warrant. It's a common-sense idea to put a minimal amount of restraint on a process that is currently without oversight.
The same problem applies to less exotic surplus hardware that trickles down from the military to the small-town sheriff. Capitol Police already greet tourists while toting M4-style fully automatic rifles. Two massive armored urban-assault vehicles are parked outside the FBI's Washington Field Office. If that seems excessive for the capital, consider the quiet, crime-free town of Keene, N.H., which spent $285,000 in U.S. taxpayer funds buying an 8-ton Bearcat armored vehicle.
Earlier this month, police in Aurora, Colo., were on the hunt for a bank robber. They had no idea what he looked like, so nearly two-dozen innocent motorists were detained at gunpoint and handcuffed for up to two hours. During the search, police didn't offer any explanation for what was going on, according to local news accounts. In some ways, the affected drivers were worse off than the customers in the bank, none of whom were harmed in the brief heist.
There is no doubt that police should act decisively in protecting society from the criminal element. That does not mean, however, that they should ever be allowed to lose sight of the fundamental principle of the presumption of innocence upon which our legal system rests.
Dr. Paul's legislative proposal is a good first step in restoring the proper balance between the need to protect society and respect freedom. Congress also should exercise more oversight regarding the transfer of military hardware to local police. The more these high-powered toys are seen as ordinary tools, the more they will be put to inappropriate use as regular citizens are seen as enemy combatants.
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