The Star Tribune’s March 22 editorial endorses tax expenditures for “A needed boost for courthouse security.”

Consider what it means: To enter a public building, we lowly taxpayers, at the insistence of the Lords and Ladies of the High Court, must submit to being searched by armed guards.

This is repugnant and unreasonable.

For nearly all of American history, despite occasional tragedies, it never was thought necessary or wise to revoke that presumption of innocence that used to be the birthright of a sovereign citizen in a free society.

Now, however, we must surrender that basic right, merely because some timid authorities — formerly called “public servants” — are freaked out that a few disturbed people have committed or threatened violence in some courthouses.

They don’t seek temporary protection against an imminent threat. No, they demand the permanent surrender of our freedom from warrantless searches.

“So what?” you may say, “it’s only a metal detector and a scanner.”

You may be inured to your fetters, but I can recall the days before metal detectors became ubiquitous, before they were invented. Moral fiber and social trust kept us free and safe.

A metal detector is a searching device. To deploy it against the public at large defines every citizen as a suspect. It symbolizes the triumph of fear over freedom. It is high-tech fascism.

You will find no “metal detector exception” in the Bill of Rights, which these paranoid poobahs have sworn an oath to uphold and defend. And they mock the basic constitutional principle of equal protection of the laws, since they exempt themselves from the humiliation they decree for the plebeians.

These self-satisfied mandarins grant themselves permission to bypass the checkpoints by virtue of their official status. Those of us who merely pay the mandarins’ salaries with our taxes must accept being treated like criminals when we have the temerity to attempt to enter public buildings also paid for with our taxes.

Another destructive side-effect is that these so-called security measures contaminate the justice process itself. When a prospective juror is summoned to serve as an impartial fact-finder, he or she first must submit to a search of “person, papers and effects” by an armed agent of the state. Rather than entering the courtroom as a free and independent citizen, the juror has been put on notice that state power is not to be trifled with or denied.

The chance of a fair trial for those accused by that state diminishes fast.

This pressure to turn public buildings into impenetrable citadels inhabited by insulated elites is new in American history.

Right through the 1850s, congressmen themselves often carried knives and guns. Benjamin Wade of Ohio on one occasion laid a brace of pistols on his Senate desk and another time toted a sawed-off shotgun. The most serious assault ever made on a senator was the near-fatal caning of Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by a southern congressman. (Are canes now to be prohibited in Minnesota’s courthouses?)

In 1954, Puerto Rican terrorists shot up the U.S. House, wounding five members. One congressman raced to the gallery and captured one of the attackers; Minnesota’s Rep. Walter Judd, a doctor, tended the wounded.

Afterward, the House rejected a proposal to install bullet-proof glass in the galleries. The Speaker, Republican Rep. Joe Martin, explained: “ … danger or not, Americans do not want their Congress walled off from the people by glass.”

So we’ve encountered these problems in the past — but until recently we survived without police-state remedies.

The late Sen. Rod Grams, after surveying the beefed-up U.S. Capitol security in 1999, with its scores of X-ray scanners, metal detectors and armed sentries, protested: “With every new fence we put up and every armed officer we station in front of [the Capitol], we jeopardize a little bit of the freedom symbolized by this great building. This gleaming jewel on the hill is ever so slowly being transformed into Alcatraz on the Potomac.”

One doesn’t much have to wonder what the founding fathers would say about civil authorities who sacrifice the hard-earned freedoms for which previous generations fought, simply because of inability or unwillingness to fix the underlying causes of today’s atmosphere of mayhem. These include: sensationalized violence in the guise of entertainment; an irresponsible but politically omnipotent gun lobby; the institutionalized corruption and criminality of drug prohibition, and the moral bankruptcy of political leaders who justify kidnapping, torture and aggressive warfare as national policy.

Benjamin Franklin said: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

James Madison said: “It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties.”

Once we were one nation under God, and now we’ve become one nation under surveillance. Let’s recall British statesman William Pitt’s warning:

“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human liberty; it is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”

 

Oliver Steinberg lives in St. Paul.