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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary - Loss of liberty: Where does all this end?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: It was just after 11 p.m., and the weather was clear. The driver was an attractive woman in her late 40s; fashionably dressed, hair and nails professionally done. In simpler times, you might have described her as a “career girl.”

Her late model car was properly licensed and operating within the speed limit. In short, there was nothing about her outward appearance to suggest that she would be a person of interest to law enforcement.

She was southbound on Lindbergh Boulevard, heading home from her job as a news producer at a local TV station, when she noticed an obstruction in the center lanes ahead. Two patrol cars were canted across the inside lanes with their roof lights flashing. Orange traffic cones directed traffic into the far right lane.

Thinking there’d been an accident, she slowed to follow the path suggested by the ubiquitous day-glo pylons. Once inside the maze, she encountered a uniformed officer with a flashlight who motioned her off the roadway and onto the parking lot of a closed store nearby.

There, other patrol cars waited with their engines running while several cops milled about. She’d just driven into a DWI checkpoint. As she pulled up, she heard one of the officers say, “I’ll take this one.”

He approached her car and asked to see her license, registration and proof of insurance. After she produced the required documentation, he asked her where she’d been and where she was heading. Had she been drinking? She replied that she’d been at work and was hoping to get home to see her husband before he went to bed. And no, she doesn’t drink on the job.

He nodded and left to inspect her paperwork inside a police car. Finding her papers to be in order, he returned a short time later and directed her to recite the alphabet from E through P.

In kindergarten, she and her classmates had been required to sing the alphabet daily. Their musical recitation was the one that concluded with the line, “Now I’ve said my ABC’s, tell me what you think of me.”

Rote memorization works and ever since, she’s associated the alphabet with the song. Anxiously concentrating on the officer’s demand, she subsequently began to sing the relevant portion of the alphabet to her captor — mercifully omitting the coda. He forgave her transgression and allowed her to proceed.

Interestingly, the woman was neither offended nor outraged by the incident. She related the story as an unusual encounter with a humorous conclusion — her singing the ABC’s to a cop. She stressed that the officer had been courteous and professional throughout. In today’s America, we seem willing to tolerate fascism so long as the fascists are polite.

My characterization of the cop is not intended to disparage him personally. I’m sure he was only following orders. Besides, he certainly didn’t subject her to any kind of rough treatment — there was no verbal, much less physical, abuse. Then again, she dutifully followed his every command.

What if she had told the officer that it was none of his business where she’d been and were she was going? If she had informed the cop that she was an employed, taxpaying citizen with no criminal record whose only crime was driving a car she owned down a street she’d helped pay for and demanded that he get the hell out of her way, might things have turned differently?

I suspect they would have but we’ll never know because she (wisely) decided to go along with the program. By doing so, however, she allowed herself to be relegated to the role of a child, nervously reciting her ABC’s before an authority figure just to prove she could do it.

Impaired driving is a serious problem. As a retired cop, I’ve seen firsthand its often-bloody consequences. Clearly, a minor inconvenience to a law-abiding motorist is preferable to the tragic loss of innocent lives. Were DWI enforcement the only glaring infringement of privacy rights, I’d be inclined to accept it as the practical cost of doing business. Unfortunately, personal autonomy is under unprecedented attack on a variety of fronts, both public and private.

Recently, I received a letter from my auto insurer advising of an innovative program for owners of newer cars. The company is willing to reduce my premiums if I allow it access to the technology in my vehicle so my driving habits can be monitored. As a cheapskate with fairly unremarkable driving habits, the savings were tempting but where does this all end? The car has a built-in GPS system. Will they also want to monitor my whereabouts to make sure I don’t park in neighborhoods where auto theft is a problem?

Next year, the Affordable Healthcare Act — aka Obamacare — will be fully implemented. There are already substantial penalties for smokers built into the legislation. But there are salient risks to health other than tobacco. Shall the government determine what we eat, how much we weigh and how often we exercise? What about a universal 10 p.m. curfew? That would encourage people to get enough sleep while eliminating traffic during the peak drunk-driving hours.

Former Justice Robert H. Jackson famously remarked, “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” He meant that our respect for individual liberties need not spell our collective doom. The countervailing argument is that the Bill of Rights is not merely a list of helpful suggestions authorities are free to ignore when they find them inconvenient.

As we search for the proper balance between freedom and security, remember this: When you agree to waive your rights, be sure to wave good-bye — because you won’t be seeing them again anytime soon.

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