Jewish World Review August 28, 2003/ 30 Menachem-Av, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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Trapping the unwary with false security | Terror is bad for most of us, but not necessarily for the lawyers and bureaucrats who infest governments from here to Tucumcari and beyond. Some of them can't believe their good fortune.

The little bureaucrats and their lawyers in municipal governments are using terror of traffic to impose Big Brother at every intersection, with spy cameras coordinated with cleverly manipulated traffic signals to trap the unwary.

The big bureaucrats and their lawyers use the threat of terror to instill fear and loathing, enabling them to nibble away at the Constitution in pursuit of their convenience in running bad guys to ground.

The threats to the common good, from both Islamist terrorists armed with bombs and box cutters and reckless motorists running red lights and speeding above the limit, is real enough, but so is the government intimidation of the innocent and law-abiding. Perhaps more important, precedents, reasonable enough in the moment, accumulate for greater mischief later. Eternal vigilance, the wise man said, is the price of liberty, and it's important to keep a skeptical eye on the good guys as well as the bad.

The American Automobile Association says motorists need "a motorist's bill of rights" to protect us from automated-enforcement systems, which the municipal bureaucrats say are imposed in the interests of public safety. We all know better. They're imposed to generate revenue. D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, in a fit of candor which he probably regrets, said so.

The spy cameras are not meant to punish infractions; if they were, the bureaucrats would not waive the "points" for infractions by which reckless drivers are removed from the streets. In fact, the more speeders and red-light runners, the more money the bureaucrats collect. They have to be delighted when someone runs a red light or gets caught speeding; their budgets reflect the expected revenue. If the spy cameras actually discouraged reckless driving, there would be no point in keeping them.

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Worse may be on the way. Our British cousins have plans to put a "computerized spy" in every car on the road, capable of making an electronic recording every time a motorist moves past a speed limit, drifts into a bus lane or stops on a prohibited yellow line.

The scheme, outlined in an 85-page government dossier obtained by London's Daily Sun, would require automobile manufacturers to equip all new cars with a microchip that would broadcast every movement of the car to sensors installed at the side of every road. The sensors record the movement of every passing car, note its identification, and send the result to a central database available to the cops (and who knows who else).

As diabolical as this could be, it pales in comparison to the threat —potential threat, if you like —posed by Frankenstein technology coming on line in the land of the free and the home of the brave. The growing ability of science to spy on the innocents —which we all are until proved otherwise —is enough to curl the hair of bald-headed men.

Attorney General John Ashcroft is on tour now, defending the Patriot Act, enacted in the aftermath of September 11, a day when everyone was so frightened that even George W. Bush spent part of his day hiding in a hole in the ground in Nebraska, surrounded by his frightened security detail, until he remembered who he was and told the security freaks to get out of his way and returned to Washington to take charge.

The Patriot Act, though necessary to strengthen certain legitimate law-enforcement requirements, alarms many Americans, as it should, simply because it goes where no law before it has gone in infringing rights that we have always taken as the inheritance as sons (and daughters) of liberty.

More than 120 American towns and cities have declared themselves to be "civil liberties safe zones," and some towns have even declared that their police departments will not assist the feds when it comes to enforcing certain provisions of the Patriot Act. This is radical stuff, but these are concerns that cannot be brushed aside simply because they sound like something from a fund-raising letter by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Ashcroft's tour will afford him an opportunity to listen to some of these concerns. He ought to consider taking questions from the audience. Questioning the government, even the government's motives, is a citizen's patriotic duty, after all.

One way Mr. Ashcroft, his friends in Congress and hard-nosed conservatives who are willing to cede to the government extraordinary emergency power might measure the legitimacy of the concerns about the Patriot Act is to ask this question: Would they be willing to put the enforcement of the Patriot Act in the hands of Janet Reno?

The law, as a good lawyer like John Ashcroft knows, is a collection of precedents. A nibble here and a nibble there probably won't hurt anyone today, but taken together over time such "harmless" precedents become a fearsome weapon —more powerful by far than a Saudi terrorist with hate in his heart.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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