February 17, 2006

Mission Creep

In the comments of the Political Religion thread, we've been discussing just how worried we should be about the possible manipulations or permutations of Homeland Security policy. One of our regular commenters suggested that we need the political leadership to steer the state away from dangerous waters, and that interfering with their decisions can be a danger in itself. I argued that ignoring the possibility that humans, and human leaders, are not universally pure, can lead us into equally dangerous waters (or onto the beach, to torture the metaphor a bit more). Of particular concern to me, and the reason I linked to the Neiwert post originally, is that there are unintended - thinking charitably - and extremely negative potential consequences of homeland security policies.

It's just like the internet to serve up a tasty example at the moment when we need it:

Two uniformed men strolled into the main room of the Little Falls library in Bethesda one day last week and demanded the attention of all patrons using the computers. Then they made their announcement: The viewing of Internet pornography was forbidden.

The men looked stern and wore baseball caps emblazoned with the words "Homeland Security." The bizarre scene unfolded Feb. 9, leaving some residents confused and forcing county officials to explain how employees assigned to protect county buildings against terrorists came to see it as their job to police the viewing of pornography.

After the two men made their announcement, one of them challenged an Internet user's choice of viewing material and asked him to step outside, according to a witness. A librarian intervened, and the two men went into the library's work area to discuss the matter. A police officer arrived. In the end, no one had to step outside except the uniformed men.

They were officers of the security division of Montgomery County's Homeland Security Department, an unarmed force that patrols about 300 county buildings -- but is not responsible for enforcing obscenity laws.

In the post-9/11 era, even suburban counties have homeland security departments. Montgomery County will not specify how many officers are in the department's security division, citing security reasons. Its annual budget, including salaries, is $3.6 million.

Later that afternoon, Montgomery County's chief administrative officer, Bruce Romer, issued a statement calling the incident "unfortunate" and "regrettable" -- two words that bureaucrats often deploy when things have gone awry. He said the officers had been reassigned to other duties.

Romer said the officers believed they were enforcing the county's sexual harassment policy but "overstepped their authority" and had to be reminded that Montgomery "supports the rights of patrons to view the materials of their choice."

As our regular commenter will likely assert, this is not an example of Bush sending out the brownshirts to impose his morals on the public. It doesn't have to be. The problem is that there are individuals - in this case, a pair - who believed themselves to be empowered by the law to act this way. It doesn't have to be a national directive. However if the national policy creates ripe circumstances for such actors to engage in this kind of behavior, we have to call attention to it.

This was why I linked to Neiwert's original post. The idea that no one can see it coming, or can see that the constellation of policies could be exploited in undemocratic ways, or that there is a growing culture that fosters this misuse, is mistaken. We can see it. We choose not to see it, or not to see it as important. Democracy is a lot of work, and part of that work is done by regular people who have the courage to call bullshit on policies - well-meaning or not - that infringe on our liberty.

Let me close by saying that librarians rule.

Finder's fee on the story to Balloon Juice.

Posted by binky at February 17, 2006 10:11 AM | TrackBack | Posted to The Ever Shrinking Constitution


I'm not a Feingold fan - he's brilliant, but I don't like a lot of his sort of Mommy state government preferences or his take on campaign finance "reform" (which I think abridges free speech). But moves like this wish he wasn't such a loner and could find some ally (Leahy? anyone - please!) in his fights against Bush's war against freedom.

This is entirely predictable given what the Republicans and some Democrats demand these days. And it's got to be stopped before we end up like Iran.

Posted by: Armand at February 17, 2006 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

um, Feingold?

Posted by: binky at February 17, 2006 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

I'm bringing him up since he is the "leader" of the anti-Patriot Act forces in the Senate - at least in terms of who gets press coverage.

I put "leader" in parentheses b/c he's a notorious loner and isn't particular very good at forming coalitions to actually affect change (another reason I have hug doubts about him as a presidential candidate). But at least he's publicly hammering some of the points that are at issue here.

Posted by: Armand at February 17, 2006 01:23 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry. Just didn't make the leap. Brain foggy day.

Posted by: binky at February 17, 2006 01:31 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a little confused. I have many times stated how my support for wiretapping, etc., is support for the war against terror, and that these things shouldn't be used for other purposes. But your assertion that homeland security forces have it within their calling to rough up people surfing porn at a library, that just because we have homeland security we should expect them to go beyond their authority, is essentially saying just because we have cops we're asking for them to beat down motorists. Where is this victim mindset from? We can't give anyone any power because they'll misuse it and abuse us? I thought it was conservatives who were supposed to emphasize the politics of fear.

Posted by: Morris at February 17, 2006 03:10 PM | PERMALINK

Victim? What victim? Who is the victim among the citizens of democracy who guard that the rule of law, not trust in human perfection, continues to be the foundation of democracy in the United States? Is the librarian the victim? What on earth are you talking about?

These things "shouldn't" be used for other purposes, but what is to guarantee that they won't be? One excellent way to decrease the probability that they will is being careful to think through the possible consequences, both noble and venal, of the policies we propose. Another is to shine harsh sunlight on potential abuses of power, great and small. Those two guys are not responsible for everything that is wrong with the way we are pursuing the war on terror. However they are a damn good demonstration.

Posted by: binky at February 17, 2006 03:22 PM | PERMALINK

If you assume that things are going to go bad no matter what, that people you put your trust in are going to hurt you, you're taking the role of a victim. This is what you're doing in saying that if we give these people power they're going to abuse it. Despite the fact that this country has protected its people from domestic and foreign enemies for two centuries, you presume giving this government any more power will change things. This is why the democratic party is accused of being pessimistic, because when our vice president accidentally shoots someone, a liberal comes out and says it's delicious. The party that claims to represent caring and compassion celebrates at every dead soldier and every time our government servants falter, because it's more evidence (they think) that they were right and conservatives are wrong. Our government servants are viewed with paranoia, but it's the other party that uses politics of fear. These two guys are human, they screwed up, and this was corrected on the spot by another government servant.

Posted by: Morris at February 17, 2006 03:40 PM | PERMALINK

Morris, then why do we have law at all? We should just assume that everyone is going to treat us well, and act nobly.

Posted by: binky at February 17, 2006 03:45 PM | PERMALINK

Oh cut the crap bro - I didn't say Cheney shooting someone was "delicious". If you want a phrase for that it's "dangerously incompetent" - just the president's political actions.

And that line of yours about celebrating every dead soldier is the kind of noxious false filth that keeps getting "conservatives" labeled as vicious hate mongers who pathetically distract everyone from their own immense failures by telling lies about the people who aren't in power (as if that's remotely relevant, honest or says anything positive about the direction the country should go).

Posted by: Armand at February 17, 2006 03:55 PM | PERMALINK

Did you see this comment in that thread you linked to?

What I'd give to see a Feingold/Hagel ticket in 2008.

Posted by: binky at February 17, 2006 04:05 PM | PERMALINK

Uh - yeah. What would the slogan be exactly? "Our beliefs are in total opposition to each other - but we're honest." I suppose a less pessimistic view might come up with "Vote Competence and Responsibility, Not Ideology."

I mean if we lived in a government were a good mind and industrious, careful behavior were rewarded these guys would be high up on the list of '08 candidates - but I don't think we live in that world.

Posted by: Armand at February 17, 2006 04:15 PM | PERMALINK

"The Grown Up Ticket"

Posted by: binky at February 17, 2006 04:32 PM | PERMALINK

In suppressing speech they deemed sexual harassment, these county employees were taking their cue from the EEOC, not Bush. If you don't like censorship, assign the blame where it belongs.

As much as one might desire it, there's no exception to sexual harassment law for libraries.

The courts have occasionally held that the First Amendment trumps sexual harassment law.
Church theological/sexual discussions (Bryce v. Episcopal Church), for example.
And in the context of university speech codes as applied to students (UWM Post case).

But they have, perhaps wrongly, not given public libraries any special protection.
Library funding can be conditioned on filtering (U.S. v. American Library Ass'n).
And sexually-explicit speech often can be restricted on gov't property (Urofsky v. Gilmore).

So this case is legally a gray area, contrary to what the Washington Post article claims.
Indeed, if the library restricted access to net porn, it would likely win.
Any First Amendment lawsuit would probably lose under the A.L.A. and Urofsky cases.

Moreover, the EEOC once awarded damages for harassment against a midwestern library.
Its sin was to not shut down access on its computers to porn.
The librarians claimed this created a hostile environment for them.

(They also claimed other things, too.
But the EEOC relied heavily on what was on the library's computers.
And under NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware (1982),
a damage award can't be based even partly on speech).

But no one criticized the EEOC for this. They were politically correct, unlike the security men. They were a powerful agency with a multi-million dollar budget, not a couple of powerless low-level security employees who could be scapegoated for taking a county's overbroad sexual harassment policy at face value.

Incidentally, Bush, for all his faults, probably makes such censorship marginally less likely, since his judicial appointees are slightly less likely than Clinton's to use sexual harassment law as an excuse to censor speech. (Although there are plenty of bad judges appointed by both Bush and Clinton).

For example, take a look at Bush-appointee Judge Michael McConnell's decision in Duncan v. Department of Public Safety (10th Cir. 2005), which holds that sexual speech that depicts both men and women is not sex discrimination, and thus rejects the EEOC's simplistic equation of sexual content with sex discrimination. That decision holds that harassment not motivated by the plaintiff's sex, or aimed at her based on her sex, does not state a claim of sexual harassment under federal law.

If Montgomery County added that requirement into its overbroad sexual harassment policy, the policy would not restrict the display of depictions on its library computers, since they are not aimed at any library employee because of his or her sex.

Posted by: Hans Bader at February 17, 2006 05:22 PM | PERMALINK

So, you believe that it is Homeland Security's job to enforce for the EEOC?

p.s. and you will note re: your statement "not Bush. If you don't like censorship, assign the blame where it belongs" that the post specifically stated that this was not a case of blame stemming from top down central intention to harass library patrons.

Posted by: binky at February 17, 2006 05:36 PM | PERMALINK

The party that claims to represent caring and compassion celebrates at every dead soldier and every time our government servants falter, because it's more evidence (they think) that they were right and conservatives are wrong.

I'm sorry, but the party claiming to represent "compassion" is busy smithereening innocents while the death toll among its own soldiers mounts and nothing is improved. And indeed these people "celebrate" these deaths, as though a mounting body count were evidence of rectitude or progress.

Really, Morris -- sometimes you're facile beyond comprehension.

Like most liberals I know, I applaud our servicemen and -women for doing their duty, for upholding their oaths in the line of fire. I villify our leaders for mispprehending their duty (hint, it's not to line the pockets of a few Halliburton executives) and violating their oaths. And I work very hard to make a clear distinction on that point. Our generation of liberals is not the one that spit on veterans; indeed, the last people to spit on veterans were the Republican-to-a-one Swifties, working at the behest of a bunch of Republicans who had better things to do than serve their country beside their less connected peers.

So who's standing up a strawman, Morris? Who lives in a glass house?

Posted by: moon at February 17, 2006 06:42 PM | PERMALINK

How about doing something tough like counting. How about counting the number of stories you see in the mainstream media or even on this blog about what a great job the soldiers are doing. And then count how many stories there are about soldiers dying. Every day there's a story about the IED that blew up and how many soldiers were killed. Are you telling me that with over a hundred thousand soldiers in Iraq, we don't have hundreds of successes every day, thousands of soldiers who could be profiled for just doing their job. But the stories about their deaths outnumber the stories about their lives a hundred to one.
I could ask you the same thing, why do we have law at all if for every law that empowers someone to protect us we need another law to protect us from those people, and another to protect us from the people protecting us from those people, etcetera ad nauseum. Why are you so much more afraid of a misunderstanding in our own government than of people who've actually said they are committed to our apocalypse, and who've acted on those words to leave thousands of our people dead? Moon misunderstands it to be a conservative's apocalyptic vision when, in fact, it is the terrorists' desire for our apocalypse, and to which we will respond.

Posted by: Morris at February 17, 2006 10:31 PM | PERMALINK

i never said there was no apocalyptic vision among islamic fundamentalists. plainly, there is. but for as long as there has been america there's been someone with an apocalyptic vision for its demise. it's the rpublicans' invocation of apocalypse on scanty evidence -- see this morning's FOIA post -- that has led us to the particular senseless war on iraq we currently are fighting. not saddam hussein's. not osama bin laden's. george bush's, donald rumsfeld's, and so on.

as for this:

why do we have law at all if for every law that empowers someone to protect us we need another law to protect us from those people, and another to protect us from the people protecting us from those people, etcetera ad nauseum

i don't know why you're asking binky this question, when its with the framers and their vision of a divided government of enumerated powers and layered, redundant checks and balances that your answer lies. what do you think the bill of rights is, if not a guideline to restrain the power of the very people we ask to protect us?

Posted by: moon at February 18, 2006 01:08 PM | PERMALINK

I guess I'm confused about what you mean by "scanty evidence." It's my impression that the terrorist news network runs tapes released by major terrorists every couple of months talking about how they still want to destroy us. Also, we hear every month or so about a successful or thwarted terrorist attack, about these people doing their best to make good on their apocalyptic promises. It's my impression that most people would see that as a little more than "scanty evidence" that there continue to be terrorists out there who want to destroy us. But far be it for me to argue with a lawyer about the value of a videotaped confession claiming credit for mass murder.
According to Binky's line or reasoning, the Bill of Rights is meaningless because she expects that it's in the nature of anyone with authority to pursue their own agendas regardless of protections against just such abuses. If the letter of the law or by extension the wording of the Bill of Rights meant anything, then it would be obvious that it says something and people violating it are not acting consistently with its purpose. But her arguement is that it doesn't matter what it says because people are going to do what they want to do anyway, that we have every reason to believe that whatever law is written will be violated to every extent that a person's power allows regardless of existing laws, so essentially there's no purpose to having a Bill of Rights or any other law. And the most troubling part is, she thinks it's the law's fault rather than ascribe any responsibility whatsoever to those who violate it.

Posted by: Morris at February 19, 2006 12:42 AM | PERMALINK

It's so flattering that you guys are having fun debating "my" line of reasoning. I have to say though, I can't possibly take credit for it. There's a giant bibliography of democratic theorists that would be spinning in their graves and accusing me of plagiarism.

Posted by: binky at February 19, 2006 01:29 AM | PERMALINK

did i say anything about afghanistan? about al qaeda? no, of course not, because i like to waste my energy being clear just so you can pretend i said whatever it's easier for you to refute. notwithstanding, i specifically referred to the war on iraq and the FOIA post which specifically addresses rumsfeld determination, evident even on 9/11, to sweep up iraq into the larger response to whomever was responsible for that attack.

but you're right, maybe it's no apocalyptic so much as it is opportunistic. and i'm sure the thousands of bereaved families take comfort in th distinction.

and just to be clear, i'm not talking about the hundreds of bereaved families of those who died in the war in afghanistan, not even those hose children and husbands and wives died unnecessarily due to the diverting of resources to bush's grudge match in iraq. but those whose loved ones died in iraq, how horrible it must be to see the steady trickle of information suggesting how cavalierly their families' lives were torn apart for such dubious purposes. the level of outrage isn't even close to what would be appropriate, but there's still time, and here's hoping.

Posted by: moon at February 19, 2006 11:41 AM | PERMALINK
Post a comment

Remember personal info?