Without police, there could be no police state. Every tyrannical law needs flesh-and-blood enforcement agents who are willing to break down doors at midnight and spit on human rights. Without them, unjust laws are nothing more than ink on paper. But with them, no door is strong enough to stay closed against government; no home is safe.
America is no longer safe from its own police.
Consider just one law enforcement agency: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) whose enforcement agents use the acronym ATF. A secretive federal agency within the Department of Justice, BATFE was thrust abruptly into the public’s awareness on February 28, 1993. That was the day ATF agents raided the Waco, Texas compound of a religious group called Branch Davidians. Four agents and six Davidians died; a 51-day siege ensued; on April 19, the compound exploded into flame, killing 76 people, including 27 children. The BATFE drew heavy criticism, with some mainstream analysts accusing the agency of cold-blooded murder.
Yet among the messages that the average person took away from Waco was that religious cult members had put themselves at risk by amassing arsenals of explosives and weapons of dubious legality. Even if ATF agents had been jackboot, the average person was certain such tactics would never be used against him or anyone else who obeyed the law. The message was false. The evidence of ATF abuses against ordinary citizens has been growing, and being law-abiding did not protect them.
Stories like that of Tucson Police Lt. Michael Lara are coming to light. Earlier this year, Lara testified before a House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and recounted how BATFE had “absolutely devastated’ his career and his personal life, all because he gave a gun to a friend as a gift.”
Even in the face of such stories, many people persist in believing they are immune from police brutality. One reason: the American tradition of freedom is now taken for granted.
For centuries, Americans have been shielded from a police state by Constitutional restraints on the behavior of government agents. Several amendments in the Bill of Rights aim specifically at securing ’due process’ to the individuals; these are the procedural rights that individuals have a right to demand from government in matters of law. For example, the Fourth Amendment guarantees that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Thus, many Americans grew up with a mother who told them “the police are your friends” and with a father who advised “if you get lost, go to the first policeman you see.” Parents entrusted their children to policemen because the laws being enforced were usually intended to protect people and property from harm. Abuses certainly occurred but there was a general sense that you were safer with a policeman nearby than you were being alone. This attitude sharply contrasts with totalitarian states, like East Germany, where no one felt safer with the Stasi at his elbow.
Ask Malisa Knudson if she felt safer when 30 ATF agents swarmed her home and insisted she abandon her baby in the bath tub while they handcuffed and interrogated her for hours about the family’s religious and political views. BATFE finally admitted the raid was groundless.
Ask Harry and Theresa Lamplugh whose home in rural Pennsylvania was raided by 15-to-20 armed ATF agents who pointed automatic machine guns in their faces despite the couple’s co-operation. Their home was trashed, their three cats died as result of the ’search’ (one was stomped to death), their identification papers, banking and medical records were confiscated. The best explanation they could discern was that Harry was in the business of promoting gun shows. The Washington Times quoted Mr. Lamplugh as saying the “ATF was searching for records of people who sell guns through the 40 shows he promotes in the Eastern United States each year.”
The examples of ATF agents acting as though they were ’above the law’ could scroll on. But the reality is worse than the appearance. ATF agents are not ’above the law’; they are the law. They wield such weapons as sealed warrants and governmental immunity from prosecution for their bad acts. BATFE is the new and naked face of police power. It is the brutal face of an emerging police state.
Since 9-11, the traditional safeguards of freedom have been eroding from American society. The right of an individual to own and bear arms is often viewed with particular suspicion. But a government that values the safety and independence of its citizenry has nothing to fear from people who can defend themselves. Quite the contrary. Governments that seek to impose unjust laws are the ones that must first disarm honest people who might disobey.
The right to bear arms and to be secure against government kicking down your door were guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The men who fought to include those rights into the Constitution were not naïve idealists but hard-bitten practical men who knew too well the consequences of handing power to government. Power corrupts; it turns good men into despots; if left unchecked, it becomes the BATFE.