Last week, Joshilyn Jackson, a novelist who lives in Georgia and whose sweetness is as self-evident as the rindy-ness of an unpeeled orange, was arrested and jailed because her maiden name was on her Social Security card and her married name was on her driver's license. I'll give you a second to read that again and think about how ridiculous it is before I tell you that it wasn't even true. She had a legally acquired and properly matching Social Security card in a nearby safe deposit box. Nevertheless two police officers from Austell, Georgia (which, according to its web site, "has the friendly, relaxed atmosphere of a small, southern town") pulled Joshilyn from a van full of Sunday School teaching materials, handcuffed her, impounded her car, and took her to jail.
This was not a case of mistaken identity. There was no hardened felon named Josh Jackson hiding from US Marshals in a seedy motel room with a collection of black market rocket launchers and underage hookers. The first cause of her arrest was a clerical error at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the mistake itself is probably understandable. Mistakes happen. Incompetence happens. What didn't used to happen is moms getting thrown in jail because a low-level state functionary with a Band-Aid on his pinky missed a keystroke. As Joshilyn points out, police officers used to be able to make a judgment call about what action to take when such a discrepancy turned up on the dashboard See-N-Say. Now, thanks to "tougher anti-terrorism laws," the officers explained to her, they no longer have such discretion.
The absurd details of her incarceration (which, believe it or not, include being forced to watch Gigli in her jail cell) are, like everything she writes, good reading. But after you feel Joshilyn's pain, it's a short leap to the next, inevitable thought.
Every day the government asks us to give it more power. More power to eavesdrop and to search and to detain. They will say, perhaps without much evidence, that bad guys are likely to have problems with their documents and if we just arrest everyone who fits that profile the numbers of incarcerated might include a few terrorists in mid-plot. Sloppy ones, but perhaps dangerously sloppy. They will say it is necessary. And we might very well say yes, because we're feeling vulnerable.
But let's think about what, I guess, we've already given up. Right now, we live in a country in which they've arrested a PTA mom for the quaintly Eastern Bloc reason that her papers were out of order. They jailed a soccer mom because of alleged irregularities in her documents and the arrest was not an error, but policy. Maybe that doesn't sound outrageous to you and if it doesn't that's okay. Write me an angry note about how I'm a chicken liberal who's always chattering on about how the sky is falling on civil rights or whatever. But trust me, because she's a better person than all of us together, if they want to arrest Joshilyn Jackson, they want to arrest you. Or they want to be able to arrest you if it turns out to be convenient.
I'm not going to traffic in silly, Godwin-invoking hyperbole over a minor event, but as the government creeps slowly into our cars and our phones and our computers, it's worth remembering that totalitarianism doesn't have to look like we imagine it. In dictatorships people eat at restaurants and get married and more or less get on with their lives. In fact, the only fundamental difference between a dictatorship and a democracy is that in a dictatorship leaders take power, and in a democracy leaders have to ask for it. That's no small thing, of course. The idea that the weak can say no to the strong is probably the most radical notion in the history of political thought. But in theory a dictator could choose to grant as many rights to his subjects as he liked. And in theory people living under a democracy could choose to surrender as many of those rights as they wanted. Reason tells you that neither of those things should be likely to happen.
Yet our leaders are constantly asking us to grant them more power anyway. They do this because, like people who use narcotics, individuals who wield power will always want more. And if we never said no to them, the difference between other people's dictatorships and our democracy would be rhetorical. People who willingly surrender their rights don't have any more freedom than people whose liberty is stolen from them.
Actually if we never said no to our government, the difference between their dictatorships and our democracy would be that the people who live under dictatorships would be blameless.
Joshilyn's suspended license arrest will not go down in the annals of miscarried justice. She is not Anthony Porter who sat ten years on Illinois's death row for a crime he didn't commit. Joshilyn is a woman of above average means and cleverness and notoriety and this misunderstanding is already on its way to being straightened out and the bail check she wrote for $1,083 will be returned in full and her criminal record will be scrubbed clean with bureaucratic bubbles, although the memory of Ben Affleck wooing a lesbianized Jennifer Lopez will no doubt leave emotional scars.
Maybe her story doesn't give you a little chill. Maybe you think that if a few random and innocent citizens have to suffer the humiliation of a mugshot and fingerprinting and a few hours in lock up it's a small price to pay for the alleged security we're receiving in return. Maybe you think it's okay that a few dolphins get caught in the tuna net. Maybe you don't think the government has crossed any line. I won't try to convince you otherwise. But what I'd like you to do, no matter your political persuasion, is quietly ask yourself where you think that line should be. Is it when they arrest a novelist, not arbitrarily, but because of something she wrote? When they detain people on the street for not being able to produce a state-issued ID? When they start telling you where you can drive your car and when? When it's finally you and not a stranger they pull over and handcuff and fingerprint?
By our definition of democracy there ought to be lines somewhere, lines that an elected government should never be able to cross, but I'm not sure we spend much time thinking about where they are. (Maybe we all just expect the Constitution will draw those lines for us, but it seems like every politician has a proposed amendment or a signing statement that says the Constitution is written in chalk.) Anyway figure out where you think that line is and you don't have to tell anybody but just file it away in your head. Remember it. Because if we never say no to our government, our leaders, be they Republicans or Democrats, will eventually cross that line. I promise you they will cross it. Not because they're bad people. Not because they're incompetent. But because they think we will give them the power to do it.
And do one other thing. When they cross that line, wherever you think it is, promise me you'll be mad as hell.