Archive for July, 2008

Show Your Papers!

Published July 23rd, 2008 by tcarpenter

Americans once prided themselves that it was possible to travel anywhere inside the United States without having to justify one’s travels to authorities or show identification papers.   The notion of having to show one’s papers for domestic travel was considered a characteristic of fascist or communist dictatorships or the authoritarian backwater countries of the Third World, not America.


Those days appear to be coming to an end.  Nearly two decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, in one of its worst ever decisions, upheld the constitutionality of “sobriety checkpoints” to combat the problem of drunk driving.  Predictably, law enforcement agencies have gradually expanded the tactic to address other problems—including illegal immigration in areas along the border with Mexico.


The latest encroachment occurs, appropriately enough, in the nation’s capital.   The Trinidad neighborhood in Washington, D.C. is one of several areas of the city afflicted by a high crime rate.  Washington’s police department decided that the best way to combat the troubling levels of violence was to institute checkpoints.  Drivers attempting to enter the Trinidad neighborhood are stopped by police, required to show identification, and are questioned about what business they have being in the area.  The appropriate response to such police intrusiveness would be: “My business is none of yours.”  However, that would probably not be the most politic or prudent response.


Civil liberties advocates have filed suit against the city, but while the case is pending the checkpoints continue.  Typically, police officials note that crime rates have dropped since the checkpoints were established—as if that were the only consideration.  No doubt, if we adopted the internal security measures of China, North Korea, or Cuba, violent crime (at least those crimes not committed by the government) would drop even more dramatically.  But in America, we emphasize (or at least we used to emphasize) other values as well as the goal of reducing crime.


The D.C. checkpoint policy sets another hideous precedent.  Some people might dismiss the danger by assuming that such tactics will never be used in their lower-crime rate neighborhoods.  But that would be dangerously naïve.  As we saw in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling on sobriety checkpoints, the tactic spread like a law enforcement malignancy.  If the D.C. police department gets away with this outrage, get ready to show your papers—even if you live in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Texas or Colorado.  Checkpoints will someday be coming to a neighborhood near you.

Has Washington Changed its Policy Toward Iran?

Published July 19th, 2008 by tcarpenter

The Bush administration surprised everyone this week when it announced that William Burns, the number three official in the State Department, would meet with Iran’s top negotiator regarding the ongoing nuclear crisis.  Yet barely two months earlier, in a speech to the Israeli Knesset, President Bush had criticized anyone who was willing to negotiate with “terrorists and radicals” as making the same naïve blunder as Western leaders who sought to appease Adolf Hitler.  That comment was a jab at Barack Obama, who had previously suggested opening a dialogue with such countries as Iran and Syria.


There are two possible explanations for the administration’s change in strategy.  One possibility is that the Bush foreign policy team has finally decided, with great reluctance, to enter into serious negotiations with Iran, just as it had earlier with regard to North Korea.  When the nuclear crisis involving that country re-ignited in late 2002, the administration’s initial reaction was to refuse even to talk to Pyongyang.  Only after months of intense pressure from China and Washington’s chief allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea, did U.S. officials relent and agree to meet with their North Korean counterparts.  That paved the way for the ongoing six-party talks.  Indeed, Washington’s policy changed so much, that over the past two years the United States and North Korea have even conducted several rounds of  bilateral (albeit unofficial) negotiations.


It is possible that we are witnessing a similar evolution of  policy toward Iran.  If so, that creates at least some hope that the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program can be resolved, and that someday normal diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran will be restored.


But there is another, much more ominous, possibility.  Rumors have been flying for several months that the administration is considering launching air strikes against Iran.  The Israeli government seems to be considering the military option even more seriously, since it has recently conducted military exercises involving that scenario.  If air strikes have become a live policy option, the Burns diplomatic mission could be Washington’s effort to give Tehran a final chance to capitulate before the bombs and missiles start flying.  Indeed, if one were inclined to be cynical, the administration could be simply going through the motions to establish a record that would support the narrative that the United States had tried everything, even high-level diplomacy, to solve the crisis peacefully.  That “evidence” would then be used to support the case that the only remaining option was military force to prevent the “crazy mullahs in Tehran” from acquiring nuclear weapons.


At this point, there is no way to tell which scenario is correct.   The former seems more likely, but the latter cannot be ruled out.  At the very least, one should be cautious with  expressions of enthusiasm and relief about the Burns mission until the picture becomes clear. 

What Is Real Patriotism?

Published July 17th, 2008 by tcarpenter

We’ve just been through the peak season—Memorial Day through July 4—of patriotic sentiment in the United States.  Despite all of the public displays and official speeches, however, I’m left with the uneasy feeling that the concept of patriotism has become distorted, if not perverted.   So many of the tributes center around the sacrifices of America’s military personnel over the decades.  That is certainly one consideration, but is it the most important or valid one?  Too often, those people who focus on the role of the military act as though America’s wars per se are the measure of true patriotism.   I beg to differ. 

This is not a new concern of mine.  A few years ago, my wife and I had an opportunity to attend a Fourth of July celebration in Utah, where we were visiting family.  The extravaganza that night in the stadium of Brigham Young University purported to celebrate the meaning of America’s Independence Day.  Yet every one of the episodes in that celebration dealt with a war fought by the United States.  There was not a word said about the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, nor was there a hint of the importance of  civil liberties and limited government in the history of the Republic.  Instead, there was the embarrassing spectacle of attempts to shoehorn such unnecessary conflicts as World War I and the Vietnam War—and, even worse, such imperial land grabs as the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War—into the narrative of “defending America’s freedom.”  It was a celebration of unabashed militarism, and I left the stadium with a feeling of acute nausea.  

Unfortunately, so many “patriotic” celebrations in recent years have followed a similar pattern—a salute to America’s increasingly numerous wars, with scarcely a mention of the values that made this country great.  If one would believe the sponsors and the politicians they invite to deliver speeches, all the American soldiers who perished in those conflicts died to protect our freedoms.  That, unfortunately, is a grotesque distortion.  The reality is that the vast majority of the wars the United States has fought had little or nothing to do with protecting the liberties of the American people.  One can and should mourn the deaths of those soldiers, but that does not mean that we should blindly endorse the conflicts that snuffed out their lives. 

Patriotism is not a willingness to justify whatever dubious war the political elite decides to wage.  True patriotism is an insistence that the country live up to the values it proclaims, and that America should resort to war only when its safety and liberty are truly imperiled.