Tampa, Fla., wants to cancel the rights of concealed-carry permit holders in the vicinity of the upcoming Republican National Convention. Commuter-train passengers in Chicago will be subjected to frisking and airport-style X-ray scanning during next week's NATO summit. The Obama administration is asking for warrantless access to cellphone location records.
The common thread in these recent headlines is the notion that government can do no wrong when it comes to making people feel safe. It's an illusion. Instead of enhanced safety, we're seeing the destruction of the fundamental values - based on the liberty of the individual - that once made America stand apart from the rest of the world.
In the 1980s, the phrase "Papers, please" was the sort of thing heard only when watching a spy movie set in a totalitarian state such as East Germany. Now we have a Supreme Court that rules the Fourth Amendment's protection against suspicionless search and seizure of individuals must be set aside so police can set up Soviet-style roadblocks to verify that a person's driving papers are in order. This is supposedly for safety.
About a dozen states ban such checkpoints, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's accident database shows they're just as safe as states where checkpoints are widespread. Alaska and Idaho don't allow roadblocks, yet they are enjoying a greater reduction in road fatalities than the national average.
Today's privacy invasions aren't about producing tangible results. In February, President Obama signed the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill into law, which includes a provision promoting the widespread use of military-style surveillance drones on U.S. soil. The Department of Homeland Security already has been handing out taxpayer money like candy for the purchase of these high-tech spy machines.
Last month, Hawaii's transportation department admitted it wasted $75,000 in federal funds on an unmanned aerial vehicle that it is unable to use. The Gadsden, Ala., police department used the federal checkbook to purchase two drones in 2010. They, too, are locked away and have never flown. "If we don't have a specific need for this tool, why break it out of the box?" Gadsden Police Chief John Crane said to the Gadsden Times last month.
As long as the pricey surveillance devices are being bought with other people's money, local officials aren't going to worry about whether they fulfill an actual need or not. They function like a child's security blanket, enabling politicians and bureaucrats to issue press releases claiming they are "doing something" against terrorism and crime that all may now feel secure.
There's more than a monetary price to be paid for indulging in this safety placebo. The more these tools find their way into more bureaucratic toolboxes around the country, the more likely it is they will not be used against terrorists and drug dealers but will be misused for personal ends, such as getting back at ex-wives and political enemies. What other government program has been free of waste, fraud and abuse?
It's not too late to recover the privacy rights that have been fading over the past few decades. Small-government conservatives and the liberals who still believe in civil liberties can unite in opposition to the worst abuses. All it takes is the will to say enough is enough.
The Washington Times
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