From on High

I retort. You decide.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Mennonite or Amish?

So, as mentioned in my last post, I ran into followers of the Mennonite faith on the subway today. Ever wonder what the differences (and similarities) are between the Amish and the Mennonites? I sure did. And here is the answer.

I [heart] New York

So i just took the subway up from the office (yes, I was there on a weekend), and in my subway car were a bunch of menonite women pushing baby carriages, a family of tourists from India, a group of friends/tourists from Japan, a couple from somewhere in the southern U.S. (based on their accent), a few others who seemed like Native New Yorkers, and myself. I learned everyone's background mostly from the jovial conversations that people were having during the trip. Why was everyone in such a good mood? I can't know for sure, but I'm pretty sure it had a lot to do with the conductor, who was about the happiest-sounding MTA employee I've ever encoutered; he repeatedly made entertaining announcements like "Turn that frown upside down. Smiling Burns Calories" and "You are just beneath city hall, home to his honor the Mayor Michael Bloomberg". It also may have been due to the three guys who came into the car and sang African American spirituals (people gave tips generously).

Say whatever you want about NYC, but there are days when you can't help but admit it's pretty damn cool....

Saturday, July 23, 2005

...Or let the cops do it.

So the speculation offered in my last post that people's resistance to bag searches in the subway would evaporate after another attack has proven true. In fact, New Yorkers seem to be submitting to the new reality more readily than even I had imagined, making my solution of a citizen search unncessary to a degree. Of course, sustaining the current system will be costly, but least for now, we can stick to opening our eyes and ears and let the cops open bags.

This all raises an interesting legal point in my mind about the unexpected consequences of particular constitutional ideologies. Namely, it seems that those who argue in favor of a "living constitution" would have to admit that Fourth Amendment should theoretically become LESS protective of privacy as security threats increase and as the public becomes more willing to submit to invasive police practices. Just as a constitutional clause's pro-rights language can be effectively stretched and broadened to mirror popular sentiment, so too can it be narrowed and constricted for the same purpose. This is particularly true in the context of the Fourth Amendment where the word "reasonable" presents an exceedingly vague and malleable guidpost for judges. A difficult question is: what should an originalist or textualist response to this issue be? Is there any point at which a security measure considered "reasonable" by the public during a time of extreme threat or national emergency would nonetheless fall outside the constraints of what would have been considered reasonable by the constitution's framers? More fundamentally, does the constitution have the legitimate power to force rights on the people (thus restricting state power), even when such "rights" are opposed by an overwhelming majority of the populace? My hunch is that answers to these questions will not fall predictably along conservative/liberal lines, precisely because the "flexibility" afforded by liberal constitutional theory can serve, in this context, to eviscerate the "rights" so central to the left's jurisprudence. By contrast, the "objective" textualism may tend to encourage fixed and rigid boundaries for police power that end up constraining the state in its effort to achieve security.

This is not only true in the Fourth Amendment realm. Note, after all, that it was Scalia who wrote the most civil libertarian opinion in the Hamdi case, not because he became a sudden liberal activist, but because he viewed himself as bound by the constitution's text and not at the whim of more vague and ephemeral notions of emergency powers and inherent executive authority.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A Non-Government Proposal: Citizen Searches?

I had an idea today. I was recently discussing with a friend the recent Islamofacist massacre in London and whether Americans would ever be willing to submit to airport-type searches of items they carry on to the subway. We both tended to think that the chances of such a security measure gaining support were low for two reasons: 1) the obvious privacy concerns involved and 2) the nightmarish practical/manpower challenges to implementing such a policy on a nation-wide or city-wide scale.

I'm pretty sure that type 1 concerns would evaporate after just one or two attacks on a U.S. subway system. The fact of the matter is that people - myself included - value their lives a lot more than they value their ability to conceal what they are carrying in their bag or briefcase.

As for the second consideration, that is where I think a little creativity could go a long way to devise a cost-effective security scheme. My own (admittedly out of the box) suggestion would be the following:

The public would begin to abide by new social norm known as the "citizen search", with the idea being that subway riders themselves would be responsible for taking a quick look through the contents bags or containers brought by fellow riders onto the subway. So, for instance, say Mary and Joe are standing on the train platform. Joe has a bag. Mary doesn't. Just as the train is about to pull up, social convention would dictate that Joe turn to Mary and open his bag for her to take a quick look for anything suspicious. Mary, happy to help ensure the safety of everyone on the other train would do so. Other passengers with and without bags would engage in similar rituals, each doing his or her small part in contributing to the safety of everyone on board.

Of course, none of this would be "mandatory" from a legal point of view and therefore, bag-holders who forgot or chose not open their bags would leave fellow riders with two options: 1) to request that they do so or 2) to simply take note of the bag-holders failure to abide by social custom.

The benefit of such a system is that in addition to effecting more scrutiny of passengers without hiring a single additional law enforcement officer, it would give train riders valuable information about their fellow passengers. If a person refused to open his bag and have it searched, the other riders would be presented with that knowledge and could judge for themselves whether the refusal is indicative of suspicious intent (in which case they could wait for the next train). It would also serve as a deterrent to would-be bombers who would know that no longer could they carry items onto a train without ANY risk of having it opened for inspection.

Admittedly, the idea of citizens keeping tabs on other citizens is bound to strike many Americans as rather anti-democratic and an exercise in paranoia. I certainly don't doubt it would take a lot of getting used to. But then again, if we are willing to entertain the idea of having our bags searched by Big Brother (ie, law enforcement officials), why should the idea of fellow riders taking a quick look be such an anathema?

Of course, some would rightly doubt the effectiveness of such a system given the fact that most citizens are not trained in bomb detection or anti-terrorism searches. Yet public advisories and education campaigns could go a long way towards teaching people what to look for. Moreover, the mere knowledge that someone will probably take even a brief a look at any bags on board will likely still provide a detterent even when that someone is not a profesionally trained police official.

As London showed, the government can't protect us all the time, because it has limited power and limited resources. For that reason, we are often told to "be vigilant". Why not do something that gives more than symbolic meaning that phrase and takes the burden off the government while keeping us all safer? I for one would be happy to do my civic duty by opening up my bag or taking a peek in someone else's. After all, we're all in this together.