Friday, January 05, 2007

The Little Outrages

"I'm going to interview you because you didn't want to interview."

- Unnamed St. Louis Co. police officer

Here you can find the transcript of an encounter between a 19-year-old Missourian named Brett Darrow and police officers from St. Louis County. Mr. Darrow is stopped at a DWI checkpoint and the officer asks him where he is going. He refuses to answer that particular nosy question, as is his right, and is meanwhile videotaping the encounter. After he gives that answer, the officers subject him to all manner of harassment and threaten that he should "stop runnin' [his] mouth or the other officer will find a reason to lock you up tonight." The whole transcript, which includes the Kafkaesque quote above, is well worth a click.

Let us stipulate that Mr. Darrow has a little bit of the know-it-all teenager about him, and that he behaves in a manner that suggests he might have prepped for such an incident in advance. But it is on such malcontents that the defense of basic liberties all too often hinges. And the hinges sometimes seem to be ever-more fragile. In this article a writer for Reason named Radley Bradko outlines a series of little outrages of the custodial state, some only a little toxic in isolation (like the city that conscripted children into enforcing building codes, such shanghaiing of the young into politics being a hallmark of the totalitarian mindset) and some being manifest disgraces (including the shooting by police of an unarmed man who had been entrapped into violating state gambling law).

The person who believes in limited government and has some historical sense of how it disappears always has a hard task in persuading the public to hold the line because each little outrage is easily justifiable to the average citizen in isolation – it is “for the children,” for “consumer safety,” and so on. This task is particularly difficult when criticizing the police, who frequently risk their lives for public safety. But it has to be done, lest one day we wake up and find that our freedom to run our own lives has substantially disappeared in a haze of taxes, programs, regulations and law-enforcement perogatives. Wendell Phillips (not, apparently, Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry, as is often asserted), once said:

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty—power is ever stealing from the many to the few...The hand entrusted with power becomes...the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot: only by unintermitted Agitation can a people be kept sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.

Barry Goldwater talked that way in 1964 and Lyndon Johnson successfully swept him away by depicting him as a borderline madman. ("Deep in your heart, you know he's crazy" is often said to have been the Johnson campaign's line of choice.) But one little outrage at a time, much of what he feared has come to pass. (Even a task as ordinary as buying or selling ordinary medicine has become fraught with inconvenience and even danger.) We in America are not as bad off as most, but that is no excuse for standing idly by while the little outrages continue to mount.



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