Just as our debates, over lunch pails or lattes or on cable TV, were growing repetitive and dreary as we rehashed whether the National Security Agency dangerously violates our privacy by harvesting our communications data, we were rescued Monday by some real breaking news:
A federal judge ruled that the way New York City police use stop, question and frisk tactics for anyone they consider suspicious violates the constitutional rights of “blacks and Hispanics who would not have been stopped if they were white.”
Here we go again.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg quickly assailed Monday’s ruling, saying stop-and-frisk policing is crucial to the sharp reduction in crime in the city. Especially the judge’s appointment of a federal monitor to assure that New York City doesn’t commit the sort of abuses that Northerners once thought had to be federally monitored only down South.
But perhaps this latest case — plus the NSA controversy and even a long-forgotten chapter from the Pentagon Papers — presents us with an opportunity. Namely, to finally confront the major compromises Americans are making (and have made for decades) between our constitutional principles and our national and individual safety.
While New York City crime numbers are at historic lows, here’s what the numbers also show (as reported in The New York Times): 83 percent of the 4.4 million who were stopped by police over more than eight years were black or Hispanic (it’s also true that enforcement is greatest in high-crime neighborhoods that are predominantly black or Hispanic). Also: 88 percent of the stops resulted in no further action. Just 1.5 percent of those frisked were carrying illegal weapons.
But we must look beyond numbers to consider other results of stop-and-frisk policing: A case can be made that the greatest beneficiaries are residents of highest-crime areas. But we must also put ourselves in the shoes of a black or Hispanic teenager who is sitting on his family’s front steps, where he is questioned and frisked by police — and ultimately released.
He’s unharmed, you would say. But that incident is a metadata chip embedded within him for life. Is it the price he must pay for living at home and watching over his mom and siblings? What is the price he will pay forever for the mayor’s excellent safe-streets statistics?
We cannot be pleased with the constitutional principle we have compromised in that youth’s case as a price for our safety. But we must also remember we will pay a long-term price every time we trade in our nation’s principles for what we perceive as our safety.
This is the lesson we should have learned from one of the most little-known — but I think most important — chapters of the Pentagon Papers, the once-secret history of how America got into the Vietnam War. While Americans are proud of fighting for the principle of democracy and free elections, the Pentagon Papers reveal a stunning twist of that principle during the Eisenhower presidency.
A Geneva agreement had called for an election in which the people of North and South Vietnam would determine the fate of their country. Yet Secretary of State John Foster Dulles wrote in a secret cable that it was “undoubtedly true that elections might eventually mean unification (of) Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh.” The Pentagon Papers’ authors concluded: “As early as July 7, 1954, during the Geneva conference, Dulles ought to seek to delay the elections and to require guarantees that the Communists could be expected to reject.”
The election was never held. A decade later, America plunged into a tragic war that ended with an outcome Dulles feared an election would produce: Vietnam unified under communist rule (with Saigon renamed Ho Chi Minh City). At an unconscionable price of more than 58,000 American lives sacrificed, in vain.
Today’s controversies involving the NSA and New York City are not as far apart as officials in each would think. As President Barack Obama said about NSA surveillance of our non-content communications data, we must rethink our ways of achieving an appropriate trade-off so we can retain our right of privacy and still be safe from terrorism.
So, too, Bloomberg must avoid his knee-tap reflex and rethink ways his police can keep the city safe while not making minorities sacrifice their constitutional freedoms.
Mainly, we must always remember the lessons of those times when America jettisoned its most cherished principles — and paid a long-term price that was far too dear.