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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Yes, It Is a Police State

A line has been crossed.

As regular readers know, I’m not one for hyperbole, so perhaps some are thinking that my title is ironic. Nope, I mean it. An accumulation of events in recent months leads me to no other conclusion than that we are in fact living in a police state in the good old US of A.

The list of reasons is fairly long, but we can certainly start with our favorite gropers at the TSA. In my ideal world, airline safety would be the responsibility of those with the most directly to lose financially from doing it poorly: the airlines and the airports. But even in a world where government has taken on that responsibility, we should be protected by the Fourth Amendment against “unreasonable” searches. It’s one thing to walk through the standard metal detector, which seems reasonable, but when we are expected to pose virtually nude in a submissive position for government agents, and when refusing to do so earns you a feel-up that would count as sexual battery in most states, that is something else entirely.

If I had told you 20 years ago that in 2011 this is what would happen every day to thousands of travelers — including toddlers and the handicapped — at U.S. airports, you would not have believed me. And on top of everything else, it doesn’t work! It’s mere “security theatre.” When residents of the United States have a legitimate fear of being sexually abused by agents of the State when engaging in peaceful air travel, we live in a police state.

SWAT Teams

Add to this 1) the militarization of the police, with no-knock raids by full SWAT teams being the norm for everything from minor possession of marijuana to suspected student-loan fraud, and 2) the Supreme Court’s complicity in eviscerating the Fourth Amendment — and two more pieces of the police state are in place. These raids often feature what writer Radley Balko calls “puppycides.” The cops shoot and kill any dogs in the house routinely, regardless of their behavior. Of course the cops often raid the wrong house, terrifying innocent people in the middle of the night and killing their dogs too. When residents of the United States have serious reason to fear the door being busted down in the middle of the night by armed agents of the State despite having done nothing wrong, we live in a police state.

Then there’s my experience this past week as I drove home from the airport in Syracuse, New York. The Border Patrol and the State Police had set up a roadblock on the county line about 30 miles from my house and at least 20 miles as the crow flies from the border with Canada. This is not uncommon, but this time two things were different. First, both groups of officers were fully armed. Second, they were asking questions. Normally they just peer into your car and let you go. This time, I was asked, “Where are you coming from?”; “Were you out of the state?”; and “Do you have luggage in your trunk?” They did not search the car, nor did they ask for ID (the latter probably because I’m white), but it does not matter. When American citizens are stopped while traveling within their own state and asked to account for their whereabouts, we live in a police state.

Do You Have Your Papers?

Finally, a professional colleague of mine was recently on a train to Chicago with his teenage son. They are of Mexican descent, but both are American citizens. Border Patrol agents boarded the train and conducted a similar inquisition. My colleague and his son were hassled quite a bit and told that they probably should keep proof of citizenship with them when they travel within the United States. When innocent American citizens are told they should have “their papers” on them, we live in a police state.

My experience last weekend reflects the essence of the problem. Why were the cops and the Border Patrol there? They were looking for illegal immigrants, drugs, and potential terrorists. It’s the perfect storm of statism that has brought us to this point. The combination of xenophobia, irrational fear of drugs, and the terror the State has whipped up about terrorists around every corner is the fuel on which this police state feeds. But a police state cannot emerge without many fellow citizens being willing to trade off their actual liberties for the false promise of security.

Since 9/11 the biggest threat to the American people is not radical Muslim terrorists, nor deranged domestic terrorists, but the terrorists with the blue uniforms, badges, and body armor. Their weapons of mass destruction are not bombs, but state-approved guns, latex-gloved hands, and a profound disregard for our rights. Until we stand up and say, “Enough!”these terrorists will keep winning and our rights will continue to be lost.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.