I live in one of those semi-upscale, semi-planned Northeast Georgia neighborhoods where large houses sit hip-to-hip on relatively small lots and where all the lawns are semi-perfectly manicured and all the children are, well, absolutely perfect (just ask their parents).
But this also is a neighborhood where a number of people live in constant fear of the outside world. And, like many of their fellow Americans these days, a good number of my neighbors are all too willing to give up personal freedoms for the perception of security.
This was brought home recently when one of my neighbors posted on the closed neighborhood Facebook page that someone was going around rattling doorknobs in the middle of the day and that everyone should be on alert. The rattler was described as “white male 40s green jacket.” The poster noted that the local sheriff’s department had been notified and a patrol car was on its way.
It turns out the doorknob rattler was a lawn service tech who regularly works in the neighborhood. He was in uniform, driving a marked truck and was merely placing tags on doorknobs soliciting new customers in time for spring cleanup.
Rather than laughing off the incident, others congratulated the original poster for protecting the sanctity of the neighborhood despite the waste of the deputy’s time and my tax dollars.
“Scary good job calling,” wrote one punctuation-challenged poster.
The problem with this type of thinking, which has become all too prevalent in this country since Sept. 11, 2001, is that it gives power to the government because of our own unreasonable fears. Many Americans appear all-to-willing to sacrifice freedom and liberty in the name of security.
Just this week there have been calls to curtail our rights to free speech because of threats to our security. What prompted this assault on what once seemed a sacred and inviolable right? The terrorist attack last Sunday in Garland, Texas, by two Islamic sympathizers who apparently were offended by a contest in which cartoonists were drawing unflattering likenesses of the prophet Mohammed.
The terrorists were killed by an alert police officer before they were able to kill anyone (one security guard was wounded, though not seriously). But in the aftermath even members of the media, who should treasure and hold dear all that the free speech portion of the First Amendment spells out, have trod on the dangerous ground that seeks to limit speech that may be deemed “offensive.”
“Offensive” by whose standards? The Supreme Court has made it quite clear that even speech deemed offensive by almost any measure falls under the protective cloak of the First Amendment. If we run to the government whenever we are offended and allow it to set the mandate on offensive speech, all hope of free speech is lost. The more power we give the government in these matters, the more it believes it can, and should, take.
Next month the Patriot Act, also known as the “President’s Surveillance Program,” will expire. Passed by a shaken Congress and accepted by a nervous public after 9/11, the act purported to keep us safe and secure from terrorists in this country. But what it actually did was permit the government unprecedented access to phone records of average Americans who had absolutely no connection with terrorism.
Over the next few weeks the issue of whether to continue this program under its current provisions will likely become highly contentious as freedom advocates point out its overreach while security advocates say it is justified because of the current state of world affairs.
The mantra of many Americans when confronted with this conundrum is: “If I haven’t done anything wrong, I don’t have anything to worry about this.”
The problem with that thinking is that once we give the government permission to intrude into our personal lives without any reason, it will never retreat. In fact, the government will work to expand that intrusion, sometimes openly and sometimes surreptitiously.
There is no clearer evidence of that than the Edward Snowden case in 2013. Snowden is the former CIA analyst who revealed a government program of extensive spying on Americans in direct violation of the Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure under the guise of providing security against terrorists.
If you believe the government (and here I mean local, state and federal agencies) are not working assiduously in this post 9/11 world to monitor the movements and communications of private citizens, consider these developments:
In 2004, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that police officers in Louisiana did not need a warrant to enter and search a home or business.
In 2009, the Drug Enforcement Administration considered using license plate readers to identify and track people who attended gun shows, even if they were not suspected of committing any crimes. The idea eventually was shelved.
More than three dozen Georgia law enforcement agencies are using license plate readers, ostensibly to search for stolen vehicles and fugitives. But the readers, which pinpoint a vehicle’s precise geographic location, sweep up far more innocent than guilty. Where this information is stored, for how long and how it is used is unknown.
The Georgia General Assembly this year considered a bill that critics said would give law enforcement agencies the right to obtain secret search warrants and to arrest people for crimes they were about to commit. Supporters said it would merely update the current law relating to search and seizure. The bill did not pass, but is likely to come up again next year.
The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office recently instituted a program called S.T.O.P.P.E.D., which stands for Sheriffs Telling Our Parents & Promoting Educated Drivers. Under this voluntary program, parents with children ages 16 to 18 can have a numbered sticker affixed to their windshield so that if that vehicle is stopped for any reason, the parents are notified. But what it also does is enable deputies to monitor those vehicles, no matter who is driving.
What is of particular interest about all of these is that they have largely been pushed by so-called small government conservatives. Aside from the question of whether these politicians are actually who they say they are, it raises a more fundamental question of whether the government exists to serve the people who created it, or whether the people exist to serve the government.
Who is the sovereign here; the people or the government?
Thomas Jefferson wrote that “Government exists for the interests of the governed, not for the governors.” Yet it seems that our government, largely with the complicity of the governed, has turned that on its ear. That is not unlike the Bourbons in France, who ruled ruthlessly for more than three centuries before they were unceremoniously ousted during the French Revolution late in the 18th century by people who thought the government should be answerable to them, not vice versa.
Yet in this country, which once fought for its independence from a tyrannical government and was established with the idea that the government should be subservient to the people, the people have willingly become subservient to the government because they believe it will provide the security they now seem to treasure more than freedom.
What these people do not realize, or do not care about, is that when we give up any of our freedoms in the name of security, we have given up all our freedoms.
Ron Martz is a journalist and former educator who lives in North Georgia.