So far, in what has become a mini-drama involving a white cop, a black professor and a president of the United States, we have had a racial confrontation, an arrest, a release, a presidential gaffe, a presidential back-track, a presidential invitation to quaff a brewski, a staged meeting at the White House and a promise of more meetings to come.
The saga involving Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley has been elevated to the status of a Rose Garden summit. Still, the attention devoted to the event’s racial angle has obscured the real importance of the incident.
The degree to which race played a role in the confrontation at Gates’ house will likely never be truly known to anyone other than the key participants themselves. What clearly did factor into the unfortunate encounter was the notion that, in the post-9/11 world, citizens must be prepared to explain themselves to the police and prove to the satisfaction of the authorities who they are under virtually any circumstance – even within the walls of their own house.
Airline passengers are now required to prove who they are to the satisfaction of government authorities in order to board for a journey they have paid for. Anyone trying to enter a building housing a government office has to show “proper identification” to gain entry. These and many other manifestations of government control have nothing to do with the legitimate effort to prevent weapons or explosives from being brought onto public conveyances or into government buildings. Legitimate exercises of government power are being employed more and more to control behavior and limit individual freedom.
The pattern is emerging that for the government to fulfill its self-delegated responsibility to keep us safe, its agents can demand to know who we are and what we are doing at all times.
Our British sovereigns demanded the same subservience of colonists in pre-independence America. Fortunately, our forefathers correctly viewed such plenary and arbitrary power as incompatible with fundamental liberty. They codified this principle in the Fourth Amendment; adopted as part of our Constitution when the Bill of Rights became effective in 1791. Since then, it has been axiomatic that citizens should not be subject to unreasonable searches or seizures – the government cannot take your belongings or arrest you, absent a good reason.
Of course, since that day 218 years ago, federal, state and local governments have constantly probed for ways in which to reclaim the power over the citizenry expressly taken from them in the Constitution. Understandably, a degree of tension always has accompanied efforts to define that balance between individual freedom and government control. Still, the sanctity of one’s person and home to be free from unreasonable and arbitrary demands by the police for access or explanation has largely remained a cornerstone of our society.
Efforts by the government beginning in the late 1960s to prosecute the “war” against drugs opened the door to a much-expanded sphere of control, within which the citizen’s ability to withstand government access to their private lives was greatly reduced. Court decisions in recent years had restored a degree of that lost privacy and curtailed at least some excesses of government power.
Unfortunately, the terrorist attacks eight years ago slammed the door on the re-emerging notion that there are limits to government snooping and control over the individual.
What occurred on Gates’ porch was but the latest example of government controlling a citizen (regardless of race) based on the flimsiest of evidence, and of the power to arrest anyone, anytime who does not meekly submit to such control. Until we start questioning those premises, we will not have begun to address something much more important than racial prejudice.