Wednesday, November 28, 2001

President Bush has encouraged all Americans to return to a normal life, and some lawmakers are obeying. They are returning to the practice of passing dumb and outrageous laws.
In Montgomery County, a sleepy and harmless bedroom community during my growing-up years, the county council recently passed a law that will fine smokers up to $750 for letting their fumes penetrate a neighbor’s home. This legislation makes one wonder what the council majority was smoking. The outrage is compounded because not a single county resident complained about the issue the law is supposed to address; the problem was conceived and “solved” solely in the minds of the council majority.
One of two sane council members who voted against the measure, Democrat Michael Subin (the other opponent is a Republican), noted that if the law were broadly interpreted, a disgruntled person might have the right to seek county intervention to reduce the invading odors caused by his neighbor’s flatulence. The county may find it difficult to recruit new police officers for this sort of duty.
This is the kind of legislation that would give politicians a bad name, if they had a good name. What about barbecue grilling? If smoke from someone’s grilling steak offends his Montgomery County neighbor, can the neighbor call the cops? What about perfume? Some people are allergic to such scents. Could the wearer be a potential criminal? This law is ripe for abuse, especially if one dislikes his neighbor.
Government is selective in what it demonizes. Certain behavior once considered immoral, as well as illegal, is now legal and even “moral.” An objective morality at least one about which most people might agree, if not always practice disappeared sometime in the 1960s. Concepts such as “bad” and “good” are now regarded as relative and best left to individuals to sort out for themselves.
Tobacco has replaced virtually all other evils, except terrorism, and even politicians who reject “imposing morality” on people seek absolution for their inattention to such things by fighting demon smoke wherever it can be found.
If Montgomery County were the only jurisdiction to practice stupidity, the council might be ridiculed into reversing itself. The Web page appropriately named Dumb Laws ( offers a litany of other idiotic statutes. Some have been repealed but all were once on the books.
In New York, men could once be fined $25 for flirting “in that way.” A second offense could require the man to wear a “pair of horse-blinders” whenever he went out for a stroll. How did the Taliban miss that one? Maybe liberated Afghan women could impose it on men who forced them into those hideous burqas.
Other New York laws have included a penalty for throwing a ball at someone’s head for fun. A New York Yankee pitcher trying to bean a batter might not be a criminal under the law. Another law imposed the death penalty on anyone who jumped off a building, thus insuring that jumpers would pick only tall buildings to avoid capital punishment.
In Alabama, a law made it illegal for a driver to be blindfolded while operating a vehicle. It was illegal at one time to wear a fake moustache that caused laughter in a church (funny, real ones presumably were OK). You could not put an ice cream cone in your back pocket at any time. In Lee County, Ala., it was once illegal to sell peanuts after sundown on Wednesday.
In Arkansas, a statute once said that a man could legally beat his wife but not more than once a month. Another law prohibited alligators in bathtubs. Flirtation between men and women on the streets of Little Rock once carried a 30-day jail term (obviously, that one was repealed before Bill Clinton became governor).
The Montgomery County drifting smoke law fits nicely into this category of dumb and dumber laws.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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