Recently, a woman visited her local IRS office to make a payment. She had been to this office many times in the past, but this day the doors were locked and guarded by uniformed men who sternly asked her to state her business. Upon being admitted she took a seat and reached for the cell phone in her purse. This prompted one of the guards to rush in front of her and loudly command that she freeze. No cell phones were allowed in the office he scolded her, as if she were aware of this new prohibition and was intentionally recalcitrant. Apparently, the February suicide plane crash at the IRS office in Austin, Texas, had resulted in placing guards and new restrictions at all IRS offices. You can never have enough police protection — or can you?
Since the founding of the nation, the role of government as it affects individual liberty has been the pivotal political issue in America. The entire federal structure of checks and balances, as well as the division of power between the states and the federal government was engineered by the nation’s founding fathers to protect citizens from excessive government. The Bill of Rights underscored freedom as the nation’s paramount founding principle.
The founding fathers’ structure for freedom has endured but not without extensive tinkering that is leaving it unrecognizable. The balance between individual liberty and government restriction has certainly tilted toward the latter. The relationship between citizens and all levels of government has become pervasive, expensive, and not always comfortable. There is a growing uneasiness that government is increasingly controlling our lives while it itself is increasingly out of control.
The relationship between individuals and government power is no more tangible, immediate or apprehensive than that involving law enforcement. We have an ambivalent relationship with the police. Intellectually, we understand that they exist to protect us, but we are wary of them because they are agents of government power that can deprive us of freedom, property, even life itself. Cops carry truncheons, tasers and firearms and are capable of brutal, even lethal, application of authorized force.
What do you feel when you hear a siren, and look in your rear-view mirror to see the flashing lights of a police car rushing up behind you? Comfort that a public protector approaches, or dread? How do you feel when you are pulled out of line at the airport and searched by TSA agents? Happy to be selected and contribute to public safety, or apprehensive and indignant at being subjected to the arbitrary power of the state? You console yourself by reasoning that because you are innocent of any transgression you have nothing to fear, but still you are uneasy. Why?
Is it because the police have been known to make mistakes, to apply their power subjectively, or to use excessive force, as did the Oakland transit guard who shot to death a train passenger who presented no threat requiring a lethal response? Is it because over-amped drug enforcement agents raid the wrong houses and harm innocent people, in one instance firing more than 40 rounds at and killing an innocent 92-year-old woman? Is it because police routinely use drug war forfeiture laws to steal property from people who are never charged with a crime — because they haven’t committed one? Is it because police conduct sting operations that essentially elicit crime? Is it because police have been caught beating the tar out of people who simply angered them? Is it because airport security agents have groped women in the conduct of security screenings?
The list of such abuses could fill pages, and that is why we are uneasy with police power. We want to believe that such abuses are exceptions, and, thankfully, they are, but there are enough of them recurring that it causes us concern. It’s like pit bulls; you just don’t know which ones are dangerous, or when, or what will prompt a vicious attack.
Respect for the law and, therefore, for the police are what motivates broad citizen compliance that maintains an orderly, peaceful society. But, when fear replaces respect, do we have a police state? When government makes it a crime to exercise victimless personal choices, like drug use, seat-belt use, prostitution and gambling; when, in the name of national security or anything else, it invades our privacy, prohibits our freedom of travel, and arbitrarily detains and searches us; when to enrich its treasury it confiscates our assets without proof of our committing crime, not only does it erode the primary founding principle of our nation, it also erodes respect for the law.
When police must enforce unwarranted, intrusive and suppressive laws, they become the objects of fear, not respect. Worse, their increased power increases the opportunities for abuse of that power. Ultimately, excessive police power is the manifestation of excessive government, and that is the real issue.
— Santa Barbara political observer Randy Alcorn can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.