Supreme Court Ruling on Strip Searches a Threat to Civil Liberties

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The United States Supreme Court, the highest c...

The United States Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States, in 2010. Top row (left to right): Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito, and Associate Justice Elena Kagan. Bottom row (left to right): Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The 5-4 ruling by the United States Supreme Court that strip searches, even for minor offenses, are legal is a disturbing blow to civil liberties. A man in New Jersey was stripped search after he was thought to have failed to pay a fine. It turned out that he had actually paid it, but that is irrelevant. What is relevant is that someone accused of a minor offense should not be humiliated and made to undress, having the most personal parts of the body probed. Apparently the Supreme Court, having made other provisions of the Constitution irrelevant due to their meddling, now believe that the Fourth Amendment no longer applies.

I do not understand how the justices who supported the majority opinion–Kennedy (who wrote the opinion), Chief Justice Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas–could be considered the Court’s “conservatives.” Surely it is not conservative to give police the power to abuse ordinary people who are charged (not convicted, thus they are legally innocent) with minor offenses such as a fine or traffic violation. One of the few good things the Warren Court did in the 1960s was to limit excessive police power. Otherwise, we run the danger of facing the same kind of atrocities visited on the American colonists by British law enforcement officials military personnel, or the atrocities that take place in any police state. I fear that the United States (as well as the United Kingdom) are on their way to becoming police states.

As we know from the Stanford Prison Experiment, people placed in positions of total power over someone’s treatment, especially when such treatment involves stripping the patient naked, easily move to abuse their power. The students in the Stanford experiment playing the “guards” would have the students playing the “prisoners” strip naked for “delousing.” It did not take long from that point for further abuses to occur. The kind of humiliation involved in a strip search should be reserved for the most hardened prisoners who might be hiding weapons or drugs on their person.

Americans are rapidly regressing to the point that they “do not deserve security nor freedom,” to use the statement attributed to Benjamin Franklin. It is unfortunate that the highest court in the land has sped the process of changing a democratic republic into a tyranny–even a “soft tyranny” is a bad thing and can lead to a full-fledged Soviet-style tyranny later. Police departments should use common sense in their strip search policies. If the states have any recourse given this ruling, they should pass state laws limiting police power regarding strip searches. A small risk of something bad happening is better than the greater risk of a police state.

Criminal Justice Professionals vs. “Pure Academicians”

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United States criminal justice system flowchart.

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Criminal justice professionals, such as police officers, corrections officers, crime scene investigators, attorneys, and judges have a variety of political opinions ranging from left to right. This is to be expected, since professionals in any field hold diverse ideas. But most professionals in criminal justice are constrained by the practicalities of their chosen field to avoid extreme positions. Their focus is on what works in everyday life, at a practical, concrete level.

Academics live in a much more sheltered environment. Many, though not all, academics who teach criminal justice lack practical experience as criminal justice professionals. As such, they can “afford” to be more radical in their political views because their views are not necessarily tested in a real-world setting. It is perfectly acceptable to be naive about evil in human nature if one is standing before a classroom or sitting in a room with other academics.

Recently I attended a criminal justice academic conference–not one of the national ones, but local. There were almost no criminal justice professionals in the audience, as one might expect–the audience was composed almost solely of academicians. There was one police officer who presented an excellent paper on police leadership as well as some interesting student papers. The academicians were focused, sadly, on the usual mumb0-jumbo quasi-Marxist theories of identity politics so popular in colleges and universities today. Instead of focusing on personal responsibility, the papers focused on social oppression as the cause of crime, and on race, class, and gender being the only determinants of personal identity and behavior. “Diversity” was interpreted in the narrow sense of gender and race, now and then with economic status interspersed. A true diversity of ideas (or even a true cultural diversity) was not celebrated–any deviation from the radical left wing determinism by race, class, and gender was considered unacceptable–a sign of racism, classism, or sexism.

The problem with such theories is that the ignore the fact that all human beings have freedom and dignity–and freedom includes the freedom to make wrong moral (and legal) choices. The criminal justice system preserves human dignity by affirming that crime is an evil against others, that it must not be tolerated by society, and that the guilty should pay for their crimes. Disparities in crime statistics regarding minorities are not necessarily due to oppression by the majority of a minority, but due to the breakdown of family and social order in some minority communities that leads children to have poor role models and thus to grow up with a vicious, rather than a virtuous, character. To deny a minority the right to be punished for wrongdoing or to always blame the majority for the minority’s crimes is to deny the minority freedom and dignity. It is to place a member of a minority outside the bounds of the universal human condition of “fallenness” and outside the knowledge of sin. Such a view, in effect, dehumanizes minorities. Police officers see this human fallenness on an everyday basis and do not care, in general, for making excuses for bad human behavior. Unless criminal justice academics remove their heads from their rear ends and examine the real world of the police or correction officer, lawyer, or judge, they will remain oblivious to reality–and criminal justice professionals and academics will remain permanently estranged.

Existential Emptiness and Drug Abuse

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Miguel de Unamuno

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One reason the so-called “War on Drugs” will not work is that it applies the criminal justice system to solve a problem that is not primarily a criminal justice matter. The crisis of drug use in the United States is not a crisis of criminality, but a crisis of emptiness. The U. S. was founded on an individualistic creed. As long as individualism was stemmed by families, neighborhoods, churches, and other community organizations, people were able to move outside themselves, love their families, make friends, and have a core set of values that gave meaning to their lives. With traditional religion, which was community-oriented, on the decline in favor of irreligion, or at best, a poorly defined individualistic “spirituality,” the core set of values that gave meaning to the lives of millions of people are no longer accepted. Beliefs in a God to whom people are responsible, a community of faith focused on worshipping that God and reaching out to neighbors, and a life after death that implies our lives do not end in utter annihilation, are fast fading. The United States strives to become more like secular Europe every day. Other institutions, such as the family, have broken down in many places, with little hope for recovery. This leads to neighborhoods of strangers and a world in which people are wedded to their computer screens and rarely get out to actually visit and talk to people.

The result is an existential crisis. People who cannot reach outside themselves either turn to their own selfish desires or are so lonely and empty that they turn to drugs to hide the pain. With no meaning in life and no hope for an afterlife, people seek cheap thrills–and what better cheap thrill than to stay at home getting the high of one’s life. Then the drug’s effect fades, the pain returns, and a person says, “I will seek it yet again.” People pretend to enjoy life , pretend to be happy, but these claims are sometimes belied by the massive abuse of alcohol, marijuana, and hard drugs–why depend on these false gods if one is truly happy. Now I think marijuana should be legal, not because I support people using it for recreation only (instead of medicinal use) but because it is a waste of time to criminalize a drug that is no more harmful than alcohol. Yet I would not want a society of individuals high on pot. Pot is an escape. Alcohol can be an escape. Cocaine, heroin, LSD, DMT, ketamine–all these drugs and many more mask the despair of contemporary man. Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus were right to note this despair, but their atheism led them to support an individual’s pursuit of one’s own freely chosen goal as the ultimate meaning for that person’s life–there is no objective meaning. But if there is no objective meaning, why not escape life by using drugs? Material things offer only a temporary comfort. Relationships, unanchored in community, are relationships of convenience. Religion is rejected outright, or else some neo-Gnostic version of self-fulfillment is tried. All that is left are shells of people, like the woman in Miguel de Unamuno‘s book, Tragic Sense of Life, who raises her hands off her face when she is sitting on a park bench, revealing that she has no face at all. This is the horror of the lonely, empty American seeking one thrill after another and finally trying to maintain a chemical high.

The only way to solve the drug problem is at its source. Community should be restored, transcendent values encouraged, and people encouraged to seek more than their own selfish wants and reach outside themselves to their families, their neighbors, and their God. If we keep on using traditional law enforcement and the legal system to put out the fire of drugs, all that will result is small patches that the fire can easily jump. Hopefully communities will do what they can to restore stable families, encourage friendships, and support religion, if for no other reason than to fill the emptiness of people with the transcendent, something wholly other, something ultimately outside their own narrow self-interest, something that is Love Itself.