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Sunday 19 December 2004

The Creeping Police State

On Wednesday afternoon of last week, a high-school student in suburban Washington told another kid on the school bus that he had a bomb with him.

This remark was overheard by the bus driver, and, given the hysteria that grips authorities — particularly those having anything to do with minors — these days, the driver immediately pulled over and radioed for assistance.

It’s all here in this Washington Post story, published today.

Anyway, the bus pulls over, and police show up, according to a spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, “within minutes”. The school principal gets there “within 8 or 10 minutes” and finds that the situation “had been defused” — though there was nothing to literally defuse, as the student, of course, had no actual explosives.

“It was a pretty amazing response time,” Brewer [the school principal] said. “It was pretty unbelievable they had the capacity to get there as quick as they did and to get the students to safety as quick as they did.”

Me, I would have assumed that the kid was just an asshat and joking around, but I’m sure the school people have all sorts of guidelines and policies and procedures for avoiding liability, and that any random comment by a teenager must be allowed to bring everything grinding to a halt.

In any case it sounds like things were handled pretty expeditiously, with things being resolved within ten minutes. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a multi-day standoff, with the student yelling, “I don’t actually have a bomb! I was kidding!” out the window, with the cops bullhorning back: “We need to know your demands! We have a 747 waiting at Dulles to take you and your comrades-in-arms to Havana, if you’ll only promise not to hurt any of the precious, precious children!”

So that didn’t happen. Good for everyone. But:

[Loudoun County Sherriff’s Office spokesman Kraig] Troxell said a half-mile stretch of Algonkian Parkway was closed for more than three hours during the investigation. Traffic backed up on nearby Route 7, slowing an already difficult holiday rush hour.

Brewer said that the parents of other students on the bus were notified quickly and that students were allowed to go home about two hours after the incident began.

So, for an incident where no one was hurt and where the controversy was settled within ten minutes, the police closed a half-mile stretch of a busy road for three hours, and held twenty students — who hadn’t been accused of anything — against their will for two hours.

algonkian-map.gif I am not sure why the police do this. Among other things, the cops are charged with keeping traffic flowing safely: this is ostensibly why they spend time writing speeding tickets. Whenever they have the opportunity, though, they are glad to block traffic and wreak havoc for quite a long time. I’m sure at least one collision occurred nearby while the road was closed — that area is a traffic horror when major roads aren’t closed — but that’s of little import to the police. (Incidentally, this is a picture of the intersection of Algonkian Parkway and Route 7, both mentioned in the Post article — it should give you an idea of the type of roads we’re talking about.) After all, when traffic is crawling, at least nobody’s going over the speed limit, which is the only traffic law that the cops seem to care about.

This is a police state, ladies and gentlemen. When the need of the police to ‘investigate’ a situation where all the facts are already known, where no one and no property were harmed or in fact ever even at any actual risk, and where the uncertainty was removed within ten minutes means delaying, for hours, thousands of people getting home, you’re living in a police state.

You won’t see an indignant editorial in the Washington Post about this (I’m guessing), or even in the local shopper newspaper. Nobody will complain that the police are acting irresponsibly, because the police (and the do-gooders) would fire back with sanctimonious statements about the need to ‘protect’ ‘children’, quietly ignoring the fact there was nothing that these ‘children’ needed to be protected from. It would be suggested that people complaining about the behavior of the police here had something wrong with them, that they were in favor of children being blown up in a bus explosion. Angry letters to the editor would ensue, so the papers will instead write editorials about the need for more money to be spent on public education — which is actually one of the Washington Post’s editorials today.

Usually police states come about with the excuse that the nation must be protected against some external enemy. Some people, particularly those who’ve just been through an airport, worry that this is happening today with the domestic, law-enforcement aspects of the War On Terror.

But I don’t think this is happening. My experience has actually been that the airport screening process has got better in many ways since before the W.O.T., because the security checkpoints are better-staffed now, and because the people staffing them are, at least, less unprofessional than they used to be.

Individual experiences vary, of course, and I’m sure that for many people, the airport screening is much worse these days. In any case, though, you can clearly see that an effort is being made to implement more-stringent screening while accommodating the travellers’ needs, which largely revolve around getting on an airplane in a reasonable amount of time.

Such accommodation from the police is not commonly seen elsewhere these days. Rather than the police serving society, society is expected to accommodate itself to the needs of the police: and where that’s the case, that’s a police state.

Posted by tino at 13:51 19.12.04
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