Searches and Sacrifice

I want to comment on two articles I read in the New York Times.

The first article is about random bag searches in NYC subway stations:

Privacy Rights Are at Issue in New Policy on Searches

As the New York Police Department begins randomly checking the bags and backpacks of people entering the city’s subway system, it is entering largely uncharted legal terrain, where the requirements of protecting the public against terrorism may run into the constitutional right to privacy. . . . Much is likely to depend on the way the New York program is carried out. Police officials have said that riders who do not wish to have their bags searched will be free to leave the city’s trains without further questioning. They have also said that anyone found to be carrying illegal drugs or weapons will be subject to arrest, a provision that lawyers have found troubling.

The italics are mine. Subway bag searches are supposed to protect the public from terrorism, but if they catch you with drugs or weapons you’ll be arrested. They’re not just looking for bombs, they’re looking for contraband. What if you have a pirated Star Wars DVD in your bag, or an untaxed carton of cigarettes purchased in Canada? You’re SOL, is what I’m thinking. And so is the Fourth Amendment.

They search our bags and bodies at airports, and now, increasingly, when we take other forms of public transportation – trains, buses, ferries, ships. What’ll be the next step? Random anti-terrorism roadblocks on public streets and highways? Why not? In the history of terrorism, an awful lot of weapons and explosives have been moved by private automobile and truck, to say nothing of all the cars and trucks that have been made into actual bombs. Random anti-terrorism roadblocks would be an extension of the logic behind airport and subway bag searches, after all.

Hot on the heels of that thought comes this one: if they do start conducting random anti-terrorism roadblocks, what happens if you’re stopped with an expired license or no proof of insurance? What if they run you through the computer and find out you’re a deadbeat dad, or that you have an outstanding warrant for unpaid traffic tickets?

Yeah, I know, they already have random DUI roadblocks, and if they catch you for non-alcohol-related offenses you’re fair game. But if the police start conducting anti-terrorism roadblocks in addition to DUI roadblocks, just think of all the law-breakers they could bust!

The issue privacy and civil liberties advocates have with giving law enforcement agencies expanded anti-terrorism powers is the potential for abuse, the potential for police to use those powers to cast a wider net for non-terrorism-related crime. Based on the announcement that the NYC anti-terrorism subway searches will also be used to bust people carrying non-terrorism-related contraband, I’d say privacy and civil liberties advocates have plenty to worry about.

The second article is about sacrifice:

All Quiet on the Home Front, and Some Soldiers Are Asking Why

The Bush administration’s rallying call that America is a nation at war is increasingly ringing hollow to men and women in uniform, who argue in frustration that America is not a nation at war, but a nation with only its military at war.

From bases in Iraq and across the United States to the Pentagon and the military’s war colleges, officers and enlisted personnel quietly raise a question for political leaders: if America is truly on a war footing, why is so little sacrifice asked of the nation at large?

Okay, a cynical person might see a relationship between these two articles. A really cynical person might imagine policy makers in the Bush administration thinking along these lines:

  • We’re at war
  • War requires sacrifice
  • Searches are a sacrifice
  • This is how we sell expanded search powers!

But, man, you’d have to be awfully damn cynical to think that way. Wouldn’t you?

© 2005 – 2007, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.


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