Not too many days after the tragedy in Oklahoma, the inevitable calls from the media began. Isn’t it time, most callers asked, to grant broad powers to the FBI, CIA and local police to allow them to investigate suspicious groups? Shouldn’t we demand that law enforcement personnel…
Not too many days after the tragedy in Oklahoma, the inevitable calls from the media began. Isn’t it time, most callers asked, to grant broad powers to the FBI, CIA and local police to allow them to investigate suspicious groups? Shouldn’t we demand that law enforcement personnel infiltrate these paramilitary organizations, so that we can avert other terrorist attacks? Surely even civil libertarians see the need for draconian measures?
How can one argue with the need we all share – the need to do something, anything – that might protect us against more images of anguished parents, broken bodies, senseless destruction?
But there are other images we should keep in mind as well. Recent images of law-abiding Arab-Americans attacked in the immediate aftermath of Oklahoma, when Islamic extremists were suspected (without, it must be noted, any evidence); recalled images of the McCarthy hearings, when lives were ruined by innuendo and association.
So long as the folks being investigated, the groups being infiltrated, are strangers, most Americans see such police procedures as prudent. And so long as an investigation is triggered by a determination of probable cause, so do 1. If authorities have credible evidence to suggest that criminal activities are underway, they have a duty to pursue those leads. But some of what is being advocated would not respect constitutional due process guarantees.
Why is that a problem?
Let’s assume that the neighborhood convenience store is robbed by a bearded AfricanAmerican. Should the police be able to detain and question all bearded African-Americans in town? Would it be okay if – rather than detaining them – police simply monitored their bank accounts and credit card receipts and listened to their telephone conversations in hopes of finding a clue to the crime? Most of us have little difficulty seeing the unfairness –and danger– of such tactics.
Here in Indiana, the press has been reporting on the activities of local paramilitary groups. Four Indiana legislators have been linked to such organizations, and it now appears that members of similar "militia" were responsible for the devastation in Oklahoma. Shall we infiltrate every assortment of oddballs who gather to play soldier and share paranoid fantasies? "Or do we demand some evidence that this particular group, or these specific individuals, are engaged in or planning criminal activities?
And what about the emerging consensus that these vicious acts have grown out of a poisonous public rhetoric, fed in part by irresponsible radio talk-show hosts? Do we outlaw talk radio? Offensive speech?
How many of my rights and yours are we willing to trade away, In hopes of achieving greater security?
This is a time to look carefully at the rules that govern the activities of law-enforcement personnel. If those rules are unduly restrictive, they should be changed. Some of the proposals that have been made for dealing with terrorism have merit and should be enacted. But we dishonor those who died if we respond viscerally rather than rationally. We must act – not overact. That isn’t easy, but we owe the victims no less.