Wednesday, March 7, 2001

Week of 03/07/2001

Target: Government’s Abuse of Power
- by David Matthews 2

"Government will always misuse the machinery of the law as far as the state of public opinion permits." - Emile Capouya

You know, when you hear the words "abuse of power", most people think of how the Nazis persecuted Jews, gypsies, and other people they deemed to be inferior. They think of the atrocities in Bosnia or in the Middle East. They think of Chinese tanks running over dissidents, or even of US warplanes bombing cities where suspected terrorists might be hidden.

And then after mentally going through all of those instances, most people in America say to themselves that they are thankful that they don’t live in a country where all of that can happen to them! Oh, no, that sort of stuff can happen in other countries, but not here! Not in the good old US of A. No, we have laws that are supposed to protect us!

Do we now? Are you sure about that?

You don’t have to look towards incidents like Waco or Ruby Ridge to know that even here in the United States, a country that is supposed to be based on freedom, abuse of power by agents of government is going on regularly.

It was seen in the picture that was shown in newspapers all around the world of a black-garbed Seattle police officer kicking a World Trade Organization protester in the balls while holding a tear-gas launcher point-blank at his chest.

It was seen in a 27-year old woman in suburban New York who was forced by a police officer to walk home half-naked in the freezing cold on New Year’s Day. Angelina Torres said she had pulled her car to the side of the road following an argument with her boyfriend when a police officer came up and demanded she take a breath test, which she passed. Then she was forced to take more sobriety tests until she failed one of them. She was handcuffed and drove for about an hour until they stopped just a few blocks away from her home, where the officer told her the only way she could get out of a drunk driving charge was to walk home naked.

It was seen when an 82-year old widow in Brooklyn was strip-searched simply because she fed pigeons and listened to talk radio. Mary Novak was charged by the police with harassment after she refused to heed the demands of the neighbors to turn down the radio and stop feeding the birds.

It was seen when a Nassau County officer in New York was accused of forcing women to perform oral sex on him. The officer, formerly from New York City, was alleged to have stalked one of his victims and forced her to submit to him.

Listeners to know about what happened with radio sex expert Dr. Susan Block when her broadcast studio and art exhibit were invaded by members of the Los Angeles Police Department under the pretext of trying to locate suspected bank robbers. Although the "official" police report said the officers were there for only ten minutes, members of Dr. Block’s studio audience confirm her allegations that the police were really there for two hours, pouring over every inch of the studio, harassing staff members, and preventing her show from starting for at least an hour.

Some residents in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, found out about abuse of power in 1997 when the police demanded they surrender copies of the movie "The Tin Drum" they had rented from one video store after a local judge had erroneously declared the Oscar-winning movie obscene. The police found out where these people lived because they forced the video store manager to give out that information in direct violation of federal privacy laws. The courts later declared that the movie did not in fact violate obscenity laws, but by then, the damage was already done.

And most recently it was seen in Tampa, Florida, as police officers stormed the residence of a voyeur website without a warrant or court order and forced the residents there to leave the building and shut off the cameras. The lawyer for the company hosting the website has said that the City of Tampa has a long history of such illegal police actions against businesses they do not like.

Yes, some instances of abuse of power come from rogue operatives, like the police officers in New York, but the most notorious ones are those approved of - either officially or unofficially - by government itself. The illegal raid of the voyeur residence in Tampa and the raid of Dr. Block’s studio in Los Angeles are the perfect examples of such government-condoned abuse. These are not police officers acting alone, but rather acting under the orders of someone in city government. People who, no doubt, will remain in the shadows and let their lackeys take the heat of their villainy.

Statists would obviously excuse such actions as simply rare exceptions to the rule. Besides, they would say, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

Well let’s get brutally honest here.. abuse of power by government is far more dangerous and far more destructive to any society that claims to cherish freedom than any street crime. It destroys any kind of faith the ordinary citizen would have on government as well as actually encourage even more crime.

Like any other kind of criminal activity, abuse of power happens when those in government feel they can get away with anything. But unlike your ordinary criminals, those in government have a "Get Out Of Jail Free" card they can use called sovereign immunity. As long as they can declare their actions to be part of "their job", they are immune from responsibility. But stray away from that.. as was the case in New York.. and they’re on their own.

What’s worse is that there is no such thing as personal accountability in government as long as there is sovereign immunity. That is because under sovereign immunity, the state can do no wrong. If a group of police officers raid the wrong house looking for drugs, they themselves aren’t responsible for what happens to that house. They just shrug and say "Whoops! We are SO sorry! Nothing personal, eh? Just doing our jobs here."

Of course, the police aren’t the only ones who are plagued with the abuse of power. Legislators can also be guilty by passing laws or regulations that affect a business, knowing that those laws are wrong.

For instance, Fulton County officials in Georgia passed an ordinance banning the sale of alcohol in places that deal with adult entertainment. Their rationality was that doing so would cut down on crime, even though their own studies proved just the opposite. The ordinance was wrong, but they passed it anyway, knowing it would hurt those businesses the politicians despised. Fortunately, a federal appeals court saw the error in the county’s argument and put stop it.

Federal regulations concerning the environment have worked in the same way. Imagine, for instance, purchasing the perfect plot of land to build your dream home on. Then imagine being told that you can’t build anything on that land because doing so would violate some wetlands regulation or some projected migration path of an endangered species should we suddenly be plunged into another ice age. Then imagine being told you can’t sell the property to anyone because they won’t be able to do anything with the land either. Nor would the government be willing to buy that land from you. Essentially, you’re stuck paying property taxes on a plot of land that nobody can do anything with. Is it wrong? You bet your ass it is! But that’s the government for you.

The motivations behind such abuses are as diverse as the incidents themselves.

Sometimes it is done out of frustration. Government officials being berated endlessly by rabid anti-American moralists for action, willing to do anything to get those zealots off of their backs, if only for just a few days. Moralists of late have been upping their demands for action, and are not willing to wait however long it would take for procedures to play through. They want action, and they want action NOW.

Sometimes it is out of publicity. A self-righteous crusader looking for the quick flash in the newspapers, knowing full well that the media won’t even mention the repercussions with as much passion as the initial action. A "street sweep" of so-called "undesirables" will get page 1, but the ruling from the federal court that the action was unconstitutional will get perhaps page 23, just underneath the article of the grandmother who just got her GED. For many a government crusader, it is not the overturns that matter, but rather it is how many page 1 headlines they can generate.

And sometimes those in government abuse their power just because they can. They know that they can do whatever they want without being held accountable for their actions. They know that the victims of their actions are less-than-noteworthy people (or will be so afterwards), and the public won’t really care too much about them. Who’s going to have pity on the drunk driver on the side of the road, or the topless dancer just getting off work late at night, or the elderly woman who lives alone and listens to that "offensive" talk radio? Who’s going to care if some "naughty" voyeur website gets raided? Or some equally "naughty" public access studio and art exhibit? Or about some German-made film from 1977? As long as it doesn’t become an issue of vox populi, they feel they can do whatever they want to and get away with it.

The important thing to remember is that these politicians and regulators risk absolutely nothing if they are proven to be in the wrong. They won’t go to jail because of their over-zealousness. They won’t lose their homes or their life savings if they make a mistake. The most the state will do in "compensation" is offer cash payments, and those payments will come from the taxpayers. For them, it’s a win-win situation.

The notion that the state can do no wrong is perhaps the biggest lie that government could ever conceive. The state can do wrong, it has done wrong, it does wrong, and it will continue to do wrong. As long as there are people in power whose motivations are less than noble, who stand to gain much and risk almost nothing, the state will do wrong.

The best way to remedy this is to eliminate sovereign immunity itself. Put risk back into play, because right now those in government risk nothing if they are wrong. Lawmakers risk nothing if their law is proven to be unconstitutional. Law enforcers risk nothing if they failed to follow procedure. They have no incentive to do right, and every reason to bend the rules whenever possible to get results.

Eric Hoffer once said "Absolute power corrupts even when exercises for humane purposes." I would go one further and suggest that those who abuse their power in the name of humane causes bastardize those very causes. In their zeal to "serve the public good", these statist supporters of "the ends justify the means" cause the public to question the good intentions of those in government. They have to wonder, then, when they see a police car approaching them if they will be the next Angelina Torres. They will wonder whether or not the police will come knocking on their door over a video they rented. They will live in fear and mistrust of the very government they are told they must support "at all costs".

It is ironic, then, that rampant abuses of power are going on in a country that was created on the allegations of abuse of government power. Two hundred and twenty-five years ago, America went to war against Great Britain on alleged abuses of power. Indeed, many of the rights we have today have come BECAUSE of those abuses of the crown. How sad it is to know that since that time, we have not purged ourselves of the very things that caused those abuses in the first place.

If we are to ensure a free society, we must never tolerate the abuse of power by those in government. They must be held personally accountable for their actions, both for good and for bad. That is the only way we can keep their intentions noble and their actions just.

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