Bartering Away Freedom

Imagine sitting in your living room one evening when you're startled by a loud thud. Police officers break down your front door, guns in hand, and stomp from room to room, searching for guns and drugs. That is exactly what's happening in some public housing projects today. Police are conducting massive sweeps, randomly searching apartments without search warrants—in blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment. A district court judge in Chicago tried to put a stop to random searches, ruling them unconstitutional. But surprisingly, President Clinton has actually defended the practice. He recently announced a policy that would allow residents of public housing projects to draw up leases permitting surprise searches without warrants. The policy would also allow security guards to search people—again without court warrants—if they were merely suspected of criminal activity. Whatever happened to due process? In an age of run-away crime, citizens are being asked to sacrifice classic liberties in exchange for order in the streets. When questioned on the issue by a reporter, President Clinton declared that "the most important freedom . . . is the freedom from fear." What does it matter, the president seemed to imply, if the government asks citizens to sacrifice their personal freedoms? But this mentality itself ought to strike fear into our hearts. In essence Clinton is saying that in exchange for fundamental services like protection from crime, we must barter away our constitutional freedoms. This is the same Faustian agreement that totalitarian governments make with their citizens: We'll keep order in the streets if you'll give up your rights and freedoms. But the American Constitution was designed expressly to prevent this kind of demand. The rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights are not conditional; they're not a commodity that the government can demand in exchange for fulfilling its own obligations. The larger picture here is that the government has failed miserably to control crime because it refuses to recognize that the problem is essentially moral: Crime proliferates when people are not restrained by a strong inner sense of right and wrong. But our government ignores the moral dimension and instead resorts to sheer force: more police, more prisons, harsher sentences. Congress is currently working on the final stages of a massive bill that pursues the same failed policy—pouring billions of dollars into building more prisons and jacking up sentences. Please call your representatives in Congress and urge them not to perpetuate this futile approach. The danger is that when force doesn't work, the government simply uses greater force—even to the point of trampling on basic civil rights. As Francis Schaeffer forewarned, when moral anarchy creates chaos in the streets, the government will use that as an excuse to increase its power—promising order in exchange for liberty. The handwriting is already on the walls in our crime-ridden housing projects: Unless we face the real problem—the moral anarchy destroying the foundation of our social order—we may well face a government-imposed tyranny. Once we grant government permission to override fundamental rights, no one's liberty is safe.


Chuck Colson


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