Home -- Site Map -- Search


The Innocent Will Have Nothing To Fear

(It’ll Be Too Late)


A recent declaration made by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft while stumping for an expansion of federal police powers in the proposed second installment of the “USA Patriot Act” mystifies me.  He says, “The Department of Justice has undergone a significant evolution, from the idea that we somehow existed so that we could prosecute crimes that had been committed -- and in that sense, we waited until a crime was committed and then sought to prosecute -- to finding a way to prevent a crime from being committed.”.  I have always understood that the prevention of crime is one of the key purposes of prosecution, by instilling a fear of adverse consequences.

In fact, there is no other way short of what amounts to the pre-emptive imprisonment, to one degree or another, of everyone (which is more-or-less what Mr. Ashcroft is proposing).  After all, apart from addressing motives by deterrence (or the successful institution of utopia), the only other elements of crime that can be externally controlled are access to means and/or opportunity-- effectively manageable solely through the de facto imposition of prison conditions upon persons who have not, to that point, acted wrongly.  Clearly, this is a false alternative which calls for crimes against everyone, mostly in the form of Fourth Amendment violations, to be committed by the state.


          It is always a subtext in proposals such as Ashcroft’s that the legislation’s infringements on everyone would be light, relative to the harm represented by the crimes thus being prevented.  This may or may not be true, but I don’t consider myself or anyone else, including John Ashcroft, George Bush, or Congress, to be capable of quantifying such things and determining that (perpetual known harm “a”  times 280 million victims) is a lesser evil than (sporadic unknown harm “b” times an unknown number of potential victims).

          The nature of the latter is, of course, always presented in dramatic and frightening terms involving things like “the eastern states” or “ten million infected with a 30% fatality rate”, and of course these bug-a-boo characterizations may be completely accurate…, but they also may not, and in fact, the worst that actually has occurred does not even remotely approach the scary scenarios trotted out to induce our acquiescence to the former.

          (Frankly, even taking the fearful stories at face value fails to support Mr. Ashcroft’s case.  Doing so, we learn that a film-canister’s worth of bio-agent, vast quantities of which are in the hands of our enemies, will accomplish the catastrophe.  What internal restriction or surveillance will prevent the deployment of such a threat?  Dust from China routinely traverses the Pacific Ocean to find its way to American shores.  Clearly, one plane or boat off the coast on a windy day is all that is necessary to effect such an attack, and no number of warrantless home computer searches could prevent it).


Realistically, it is the full extent of harm “a”, as embodied in legislation like the original “USA Patriot Act” and its proposed supplement, that is the true unknown-- because it is impossible to know exactly how the courts and the executive will interpret its provisions, both now and in the future; and because it will inevitably grow.  It goes without saying that any future terrorist effort will be based upon the latitude available to the perpetrators at the time of the act, which will be dictated by the restrictions in place.  Unless everything is restricted, they will certainly find a way; and once they have, a new restriction upon everyone will logically follow in order to forestall repetition of that particular offense…, to which the terrorists respond by moving to yet another type of assault.

There is no end to this spiral.  Reflect upon RICO, for example-- passed to curb the mafia and now deployed against political protestors; or the forfeiture laws-- intended to facilitate the prosecution of drug kingpins but now used to seize property of all kinds upon no more than an accusation of dozens of different offenses, including those as pedestrian as contracting with a prostitute.  As Thomas Jefferson observed, “There is a natural tendency for government to grow and for liberty to yield”.


          In fact, just such a spiral may well be the calculated purpose of our enemies.  While we may argue over which American activities abroad are the cause of enmity towards our nation, it is difficult to make the case that one or more of such activities do not serve in that role.  (After all, hermits who hunker down in lonely isolation may be despised, but they rarely induce anyone to go to the trouble to seek them out and do them harm-- particularly not when they are possessed of the mightiest retaliatory power the world has ever known.)

The precise identification of the casus belli is immaterial.  All American activities will unquestionably be curtailed when we have been induced through fear and imprudence to choke off our engine of prosperity by diminishing our individual freedom, which is its exclusive fuel.

What that fuel is, and what it does for us, is what our enemies really hate and fear.  It would be a cruel irony indeed if they won their victory by convincing us that freedom itself is a source of danger to America.


© Peter E. Hendrickson