Wednesday, August 29, 2007

You lost your rights? So?

On one of the aviation Internet lists I frequent, an acquaintance is upset this week. It seems he was out flying his small plane on Saturday when a woman on the ground, fearing he was too close to a nuclear plant, called authorities to suggest that he might be a terrorist. When he landed, he was detained for several hours.

Now keep in mind that (a) it is not illegal to fly a small plane near a nuclear power plant and (b) small planes have about as much mass as your average Coke can and if you think a Coke can is capable of penetrating a nuclear power plant, perhaps you should focus your attention on the power plants and not the Coke can.

This pilot, however,is apoplectic that in the United States, he can be detained for no good reason. He asked that the rest of us start making phone calls to protest our loss of civil rights.

My reaction? "Dude, where were you when you could've made a difference?"  I don't consider myself one of those people who is paranoid about the government and sees a conspiracy to eliminate civil rights around every corner. But one of the most irritating aspects of life, to me, is the irritation of otherwise disinterested individuals  when they finally get around to figuring out it's  their rights that are eventually  lost. 

Many of these people, I suspect, were on the sidelines chanting, "hey, if you don't do anything wrong, what are you worried about?" just as instructed by the talk show crazies back in the post-9/11 days when other people were warning that the country, in its fear-fed flurry to so something -- anything -- to create the illusion of security, was embarking down a path that would ultimately lead to the loss of  significant civil rights, like being able to fly a plane on a beautiful Michigan morning, obeying the law, and still being detained.

But that was then and this is now. Back then, the outrage might've mattered. Now, it doesn't. The rights the pilot once enjoyed are gone, and they're not likely coming back.

This morning I was reading the New York Times' "About New York" column (In Mass Arrests During '04 Convention, Divergent Version of Events Emerge" (it's on page A21 in the dead-trees edition, online it's in the subscribers-only section.

In it, we learn that a wave of lawsuits against the city has revealed certain facts, mostly that the cops arrested innocent people, and then lied to make the charges stick. The problem is in the age of "everyone's got a camera," it's not quite so easy to lie anymore. Videos collected by I-Witness Video  caught the truth... and, in a way, the cops. However, it's taken years.

Now, I'm all for keeping peace and security and I have no doubt that the New York City Police Department foiled a few plots for anarchy (or terrorism) by snaring some of those who would do evil. But it's also clear that the "hazards of mass arrests" include the ignoring of the civil rights that people still have, and the manifestation of the removal of the rights people once had.  It's also clear that many Americans, who might be moved to action if the removal of rights involved, say, a gun, or the right to abortion, don't much give a rip.

Take the case of Ben Kappel, who had just taken the bus in from the airport, and was towing his suitcase behind him as he rushed to meet a friend at the library on 42nd Street. He tried to cross 42nd and Sixth Ave., but was told by a cop he couldn't, so they tried to cross to the east. Then south. Then north. Nope.

The cops, as it turned out... were slowly closing in the entire block with orange fencing. A police commander told all of those caught in the net to "sit down." So they did. Many hours later, the arrest documents for Mr. Kappel indicated he had been guilty of disorderly conduct, for sitting on 42nd Street blocking traffic.

My guess is few people will care about this, even though they've been given the answer to the question of "if you don't do anything wrong, what are you worried about?" My pilot friend ignored these sorts of stories, right up until he lost his rights last week.

My questions are: (1) Is St. Paul (my current home, the streets of which I occasionally walk)  consulting with the New York City Police Department on how to provide security to next year's Republican National Convention? (if so, read this first)  (2) Will the preservation of civil rights be of any importance to the politicians here and the people there?  (3) Can I please borrow your video camera?

This column was originally published on and Polinaut.

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