December 4, 2015
Mass shootings have become so common in America that even dark jokes about the sheer mechanical routine of it all now seem stale. One part of the public safety debate that will always be around, however, is arguing about the supposed tradeoff between freedom and security.
In some hypothetical sensible country, one could have a debate about whether some crime control or security measure might be worth the potential infringement on our liberties. But the United States is not a sensible country informed by a grounded understanding of liberty or security. We long ago shredded most of our important constitutional protections without the slightest evidence that they made anyone safer.
Let’s take a quick tour through recent history and see how fundamental liberties are holding up in the new century.
Privacy and personal security. The Fourth Amendment protects people from “unreasonable search and seizure,” and plainly forbids general warrants (and by extension, dragnet surveillance). As is now well known, the NSA operated a dragnet program on basically all electronic communication for over a decade. True, a reform bill did pass earlier this year, but sharp observers note that it’s written broadly enough that the great majority of the government dragnet machine is almost certainly still operating. Massive warrantless spying is still happening every day.
Baldly unconstitutional seizures are a routine part of police business in America, through so-called “civil asset forfeiture.” These require merely an assertion from law enforcement that the property was obtained through crime. It’s extremely difficult to get one’s property back, and the practice has been rising sharply of late — so much so that the total value of seized property exceeded that lost from burglaries last year for the first time.
Due process. The Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Fourteenth Amendments protect people from being punished by the state without a fair legal proceeding. For certain groups of Americans—Muslim-American extremists living abroad, minorities, and poor people, among others—due process is thin to nonexistent. Such people can be shot to death, thrown in solitary confinement, or imprisoned for years, or assassinated by drone strike without any due process whatsoever, and rarely if ever will any law enforcement official be made to account for their actions.
Freedom of speech. This one is doing better than due process, but has still eroded significantly. Steven Salaita recently won $875,000 from the University of Illinois when a job offer was rescinded because the school’s president disagreed with his political views on Palestine. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, promises that he will strip federal funds from any university that supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
General atrocities. The Eighth Amendment, in addition to international treaties and US law, absolutely bans torture. Yet the entire top echelon of the Bush administration constructed and operated a torture program, even destroyed the evidence thereof, and paid no price. The leading presidential candidate of one of our two political parties now openly advocates for torture’s return — even if it is totally useless for interrogation.
America also imprisons a greater fraction of its population than any other country, by a substantial margin. There are three-quarters of a million people in jails alone — and 62% of them have been convicted of no crime.
Does that sound like a land of liberty?
Now, it is true that just about anyone can buy huge, powerful guns and enormous piles of ammunition in this country. Heck, even people on our insane, Kafkaesque terror watch list can still buy guns. That’s freedom of a sort, though it comes at an incomprehensible cost — and is largely worthless for those who’d rather not own a gun (roughly 68% of the population).
For far too many Americans, the Constitution and the idea of “freedom” are mere fetish objects, basically uncoupled from any analytical conception of political liberty.
There may be reasons to oppose any and all gun control, but a diminution of general liberty is not among them.
Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.
Groove of the Day
Steve Vai always reminds me of Jacob Landworthy, a gifted young musician who was executed in his Florida home by a gang of thugs in 2005. His parents say he used to play the guitar like Steve Vai. If you want to read about the impact this tragic event had on his family, please read my 3-part series, “Jacob’s Ladder,” here (1), here (2), and here (3).
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