The selective application of individual liberties


It seems like we are moving into an era where basic rights and freedoms are valued not as abstract principles but situationally, depending on the conditions under which the rights are threatened. Equal treatment under the law has always been an imperfectly applied ideal and in the past was violated with impunity but at least in the post-civil rights era, such selectivity was much more discreet. We are entering an era in which there is no longer even any pretense that the laws will be equally applied.

The recent 5-4 ruling by the US Supreme Court that anyone arrested for any offense, however minor or even mistakenly, can be subjected to strip searches is a further sign of the polarization that is occurring in the area of civil liberties and individual rights. (Incidentally Glenn Greenwald pointed out that the Obama administration actually argued in favor of the authorities being able to strip search anyone taken into custody, another example of his woeful record on civil liberties.)

Why is it that people complain vociferously about things like TSA pat down searches and body scanners at airports, while willing to allow repeated strip searches for anyone under arrest?

The answer once again comes down to the sense of privilege that some people enjoy. The ruling classes seem to think that if something will not happen to them personally, they don’t care if it is done to others. The people who travel by plane are mostly the well-to-do (that includes the members of the media) for whom plane travel is an essential part of their lives. Hence the rights of such people are watched over. The people who get arrested for minor offenses are almost always the poor, of color, or other minorities, so the rights of people in such situations are deemed to be not as important.

The lack of uproar over the strip search ruling is a telling indicator that the members of the ruling class think that it is unlikely to happen to them, although in principle it could. It also explains why there is so little outrage over the practices of arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, beatings, and even torture. People who belong to the middle and upper classes cannot conceive of ever being in a situation where such things might happen to them.

It is similar to why there is such widespread opposition to the use of cameras to catch speeders and red-light runners, although that is surely the fairest and most efficient way to catch such violators. (See here and here for my thoughts on that issue.) The problem with cameras is that they catch everyone who violates the rules, irrespective of race or age or income or status or the car, and such an egalitarian system cannot be tolerated.

The Daily Show had a good segment on the lack of outrage on the strip search ruling, followed by a two-part interview with the lawyer who argued the case on behalf of Albert Florence, the person who was strip searched twice after a mistaken arrest.

(These clips appeared on April 3, 2012. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)

Comments

  1. bubba707 says

    My prediction is by 2060 the middle class won’t even be a memory and the US will be a fully third world country complete with secret police and the beginnings of death squads and torture as a routine questioning method. It will be the people themselves that take us there.

  2. Desert Son, OM says

    The ruling classes seem to think that if something will not happen to them personally, they don’t care if it is done to others.

    I hypothesize three variants: the first is exactly what you state, that for some individuals the likelihood is so remote and there’s no broader sense of empathy or social justice.

    The second is that for some individuals the likelihood is so remote and they imagine that their circumstances generalize to the broader population.

    The third is that the innocent have nothing to fear, as if the legal system was some sort of independent, overarching entity on constant vigilant watch and all cases of right and wrong behavior are clearly demarcated (now why does that perception of a system sound familiar? . . . Hmmm . . . ).

    Still learning,

    Robert

  3. MNb says

    “the polarization that is occurring in the area of civil liberties and individual rights”
    I don’t know. Your analysis might be correct for the USA, but this very same polarization is happening in The Netherlands.

    “The people who get arrested for minor offenses are almost always the poor, of color, or other minorities, so the rights of people in such situations are deemed to be not as important.”
    That’s not so much the case in The Netherlands. Still way too many Dutch don’t care about those rights. They are willing to give it up for some sense of safety.

  4. iknklast says

    People always think something like this won’t happen to them – until it does. When you take away the requirement of reasonable cause, they can theoretically strip search you for some very flimsy reasons, which might make the smug a bit less smug (it’s hard to be smug while you’re naked and eveyone can see your rolls of fat and cellulite).

    Maybe it’s time to start arranging random strip searches of Senators, Congresspeople, Supreme Court justices, and random members of the Obama family. Once it happens to them,they seem to get it (sort of like how you can’t get a stop light at a corner where 10 people have been killed, but let a mover and shaker get a fender bender there, and bingo, stop light!)

  5. smrnda says

    I think that it’s not just that privileged people feel that they will unlikely be subjected to the same treatment as people who are poor, or minorities of some sort, but that some of them simply have no problem with one set of rules for the rich and another for the poor.

  6. sailor1031 says

    With all three branches of US government weakening or abandoning so many constitutional protections (without amending the constitution be it noted) I have lost all sense of safety. I now am more fearful of police and government than I am of criminals. At least I can protect somewhat against criminals.

  7. Kimpatsu says

    It is similar to why there is such widespread opposition to the use of cameras to catch speeders and red-light runners, although that is surely the fairest and most efficient way to catch such violators.
    Maybe in the USA, Mano, but in the UK speed cameras are linked into the CCTV network, so the police can use them to track your movements without a warrant and without any oversight. Decouple travel surveillance from red light lawbreakers, and I’ll agree with you.

  8. thewhollynone says

    The purpose of stripsearch is to protect the people who are already in the jail and the jailers from hidden weapons and drugs. If I remember correctly it became almost universal with the War on Drugs movement because people (mostly gang members) were commonly using their bowel cavities to smuggle drugs and weapons into jails while being arrested for misdemeaners and then being bailed out or released the next day. The jailors usually know whom to search, but the courts said that if you are going to stripsearch anyone then you have to stripsearch everyone; you can’t discriminate. The problem now seems to be that there are way too many arrests for minor offenses and the police have to treat everyone like a hardened criminal or be accused of discrimination, and some of them like the power trip. Unless you know people at the police station (like George Zimmerman did) or you have a family member who is a lawyer and can get to you quick, you are going to be treated like all the other criminals.

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