Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Not So Free Election

"The 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." - Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

"Take off your cell phone, take out your change and your keys, take off the belt, and put them all in the container," the officer said to me. I complied with the deputy sheriff's directive and walked through the metal detector; this, in spite of my resentment of having to do so. Was I at the county jail attempting to visit someone at his cell or in the visiting center? No, I was actually at the entrance to the Washington County Courthouse. I had just gotten back to Fayetteville the day before from a visit to Southern New England. I was emptying my pockets and getting scanned in order to exercise my right to vote - in this case, to early vote.

Early voting works for me. In recent years, my polling place has seemed to change with just about every election. The school-board elections seem to be held in one place, special elections in another. Sometimes I have to vote at the church on Sixth Street, and at other times, in my own neighborhood. One time, I went to the church where I had voted on numerous occasions, only to learn that my voting place had been moved to the public library. Shortly afterward, the public library moved - you get the picture. Voting became a subject of great confusion for me - a hassle, so I was really glad when early voting became an option. I would always be able to vote at the same place, and as an added bonus, I would avoid the long lines that I had often faced when going to the regular polling places.

The post 9/11 world we now find ourselves living in has certainly put a damper on my enthusiasm for early voting as two or three years ago, the Washington County Quorum Court decided to secure the courthouse by installing a metal detector manned with sheriff deputies at the main entrance. The choice one now faces when attempting to enter the building is simple; either a person must separate him or herself from all the metal objects that he or she is carrying, wearing, etc. or else be refused entry into the courthouse. Either be searched and scanned, or don't vote or conduct any other business there. There are no other options.

As with all the other justifications used to destroy the Constitution and our civil liberties since September 11, 2001, Washington County officials claimed that the deputies and metal detector are necessary in order to make the courthouse safer - more secure. The measure was implemented in spite of the fact that, at least to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever attacked or attempted to conduct a terror attack upon the Washington County Courthouse.

The reasoning offered by the folks running the county is quite typical of that being offered all across the United States since the terror attacks upon the World Trade Center and Pentagon eight long years ago. At the core of such reasoning is a synergistic mix of a national paranoia over terrorism, a strong and almost pathological desire among many Americans to feel safe, and the desire by many in high places to both propagate and use this fear in order to accumulate more power unto themselves. Make no mistake about it, people of ill will can, and often will attack anytime and anyplace. Recent events have shown us that such places can include schools, post offices, hamburger places, our places of employment, or even at home. We receive no guarantees of perfect safety upon coming into this world. The only question is, how many of our rights and freedoms will we incrementally give up in order to live this illusion of safety - a false safety provided by those who, in many cases, do not have our best interests at heart.

Within the song entitled The Star Spangled Banner, which is our national anthem, are the words "land of the free, and the home of the brave. " This anthem is likely sung in every school and before almost ever major sporting event in the country. Yet, a gaze into reality shows that most Americans, rather than being brave by standing up for their freedom, are acquiescing to this continued onslaught against our dignity and constitutional rights. One can only imagine how much the American people are willing to give up in order to feel safe. Sure, it's a bit scary standing up to police officers or governmental agencies when they demand our rights on a silver platter, and it's true that many police officers and their departments are abusing their authority; all one has to do is remember the horrendous events that took place outside the Republican National Convention this past September. I would venture to guess however, that much of this abuse is likely due to the fact that the people have acquiesced so much already. The abusers are now reveling in their newfound power and over time, will likely carry it to further extremes.

Of course, I am not implying that the deputies at the Washington County Courthouse are being abusive, and some may think that I've gone off on some type of tangent here. Still, I have to wonder how many members of my community who are early voting this year are even considering that in order to exercise their right to vote, or at least to early vote, they must relinquish their Fourth Amendment right against warrant less unreasonable search and seizure. I find myself being forced to wonder just how many infringements upon their freedom Americans in general will acquiesce to before deciding that it was time to say "no more" a long time time ago.

Sadly, I too acquiesced last week. I did this with the knowledge that while there is power in numbers and solidarity with other people, neither the numbers nor the solidarity appeared to support my cause. As I was re-threading my belt through the loops on the waste of my jeans, I commented to a man standing next to me that the hassle of going through the metal detector is making me wonder if it's worth it to early vote at the courthouse. He didn't say anything, but as I began walking away one of the deputies called to me in with a hint of annoyance and authority in his voice. He said, "just remember before you come next time sir!"

I'll remember, I thought to myself, but I'll be remembering everything that we've lost over these past eight years.

"Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety" - From a letter written written in 1755 from the Assembly to the Governor of Pennsylvania

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