Leave the Innocent Alone

When I attended Liberty High School (LHS) in Bedford, Virginia, I used to eat my lunch with several of my friends and acquaintances. When the weather was nice, we preferred to gather outside. The LHS cafeteria had two large indoor eating spaces, and out front there was a patio that ran the width of the building with a number of white-painted concrete tables and benches. We would gather near the north-eastern side, overlooking the Math and Science building, to eat stale chicken nuggets and talk about our classes, our relationships, our faiths, our political opinions, and whatever else came up.

During one sunny lunch period when I was in my sophomore (tenth grade) year, we heard a commotion at the other end of the patio. Off at the opposite side, the south-western part that overlooked one of the two main academic buildings, two kids had gotten into an argument. I have no idea what they were arguing about. Even if I had been able to hear them, I doubt I would have known (or cared) what had gotten them so mad at one another. They were big, athletic guys who had few interests in common with me (or anybody I ate lunch with, for that matter). Their argument escalated into a food fight. One threw his chicken nuggets at the other. There was a retaliation. Soon, countless high-quality American school lunches had been hurled across the patio and ten or fifteen big, athletic jocks were covered in ketchup, milk, and little bits of cardboard pizza and moldy cole-slaw.

Teachers and assistant principals and other officials were there in moments, ordering the jocks to the office and summoning the cleaning staff to come sweep up the detritus that was left behind. Those of us who were watching from the sidelines went back to eating our lunches and discussing what girls we were going to ask to Homecoming and whether President Bill Clinton’s military intervention in Kosovo was justified. Life went on. In a sane world, that would have been the end of it for us. But it was not to be.

The next morning, I sat in my first-period English class and watched our school’s closed-circuit television program: Minuteman News. I would co-host the program myself the following year, but at this point I was just a member of the audience—one of the few who actually watched it attentively. Nestled-in among announcements for club meetings and pep-rallies was a bombshell: students were now prohibited from eating on the cafeteria patio. Because two jocks had gotten into a food fight, and some of their friends had joined in, everybody who preferred to eat outside now had to move indoors—even those of us who were nowhere near the fight, had no idea what it was about, and hadn’t been involved.

This was the first time that Assistant Principal John Eggleston, who was responsible for the outdoor eating ban, made it onto my radar screen. Before my graduation, our relations deteriorated much further. He blew me off when somebody stole my expensive TI-82 calculator, so I found the guy who stole it, reported him directly to the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office, and made sure the police knew that Eggleston had completely ignored a robbery at his school. The lecture he received from the school resource officer on the proper handling of crimes on school property got me onto his radar screen, and before too long he was demanding that I be censored from the school newspaper and generally making himself a nuisance.  Good times.

What Eggleston didn’t understand is that it is deeply, fundamentally wrong to punish somebody for a crime that he didn’t commit. Our entire legal system in the United States is predicated on the principle that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and that it is better to let a guilty person go free than to punish the innocent. This principle should extend across-the-board in a free country, from capital murder cases down to school patio food fights. Basic morality demands that we punish the guilty and leave the innocent alone. I have no qualms about LHS officials restricting the food-fighters from outdoor lunches, or even suspending them from school, but the innocent kids—like me—sitting on the other side of the patio minding their own business should be left alone.

There are times when it makes sense for innocent citizens to submit to a carefully limited restriction of their liberty in service of a greater good. Most of us are okay with reasonable security scans at airports, for example. A pure ‘libertarian’ might say that any airport security scan is unreasonable, but I only object to truly invasive nude imagery and pat-downs that border on sex abuse. Airline terrorism is a real and serious threat, and a certain level of ‘punishing the innocent’ is a reasonable trade-off for stopping the Islamists and other terrorists who want to kill them. I don’t like it, but I’m willing to accept it; the benefit (not dying) outweighs the risk (false positives on a metal detector).

But there are times when it doesn’t make any sense. In a country where any fifteen year old girl will soon be able to buy some over-the-counter abortion drugs, grown adults like you and me can’t buy pseudoephedrine decongestants without showing identification and landing on some government list. Pseudoephedrine can be used to make illegal methamphetamine drugs . . . so if you have a cold or chronic allergies, you are presumed to be a meth-cooker and have to get permission to buy the drugs that effectively treat your condition. Like a handful of students throwing food at one another ‘justified’ suspending outdoor-eating privileges for countless others, the fact that some people use Sudafed to cook meth ‘justifies’ treating every Sudafed buyer like a criminal.

We see a similar dynamic with all the gun-control proposals that have been coming up lately. Because some tiny percentage of Americans use guns to commit grievous crimes, some propose strictly limiting everybody else’s gun rights. I accept that there is a valid reason to impose some restrictions of firearms—in fact, I support several of President Barack Obama’s (D) gun-control proposals—but we cannot presume that everybody who wants to buy a gun is a criminal. In a free country, we should all be presumed innocent unless there is some serious reason to think otherwise. The fact that some people commit terrible crimes with guns is no reason to treat me—an innocent American who has committed no crime—as a criminal.

The misguided, emotion-driven statism that has taken-hold in our country rejects ‘innocent until proven guilty’ as a fundamental doctrine. For example, because some drivers are irresponsible, we have decided that we must impose driver responsibility by legislative fiat. We must set artificially low speed limits, require the use of seat belts in cars and helmets on motorcycles, decree that every car have traction control and tire pressure monitors. I’m not allowed to decide for myself how to drive my car, or what safety features I want to have in it. I am declared ‘guilty’ of being an unsafe driver, and thus must comply with a long, long list of safety requirements. In the name of some nebulous, undefined ‘public good’ I have to submit to the regulations imposed on me by people who might—or might not—know better than me.

I accept many of the predicate arguments of the statists. Yes, it is better if people drive at a safe speed. Yes, it is better that cars have tire pressure monitors. Yes, it is better that meth cookers have a hard time getting Sudafed. Yes, it is better that terrorists can’t sneak bombs or knives on planes. Yes, it is better that criminals and the mentally ill can’t get their hands on firearms. Yes, it is better that kids don’t have food fights on high school patios. If I crafted my political views on the basis of emotion, I would probably be a left-wing statist. But emotion does not necessarily lead to good policy. Rational thought and well-grounded principles lead to good policy.

I believe that the founders of this great country, when they declared that everybody is innocent until proven guilty, were expressing a fundamental moral law. It isn’t always easy to take, at least if we insist on rejecting rational argument in favor of emotionalism. For example, we could drastically reduce the murder rate in the United States if we outlawed guns, knives, cars, and potentially-deadly chemicals. Reducing the murder rate is, obviously, a laudable and positive goal. But if we outlawed guns, knives, cars, and noxious chemicals, the negative consequences would far outweigh the benefits. Sure, we would save some sub-set of the roughly ten-thousand people murdered every year, but we would also drastically reduce the roughly one-hundred thousand defensive uses of firearms each year, criminalize basic kitchen knives and tools, make it illegal to drive to work, and make it a felony to posses bleach or Lysol disinfectants. Why should you or I be restricted from having bleach, decent kitchen knives, motor vehicles, or firearms because of something somebody else did or might do with those things?

Would you really want to live in a world where there were very few murders, but you weren’t allowed to cut a steak, disinfect your litter-box tray, drive to work, whiten your whites in the laundry, or defend your home against robbers? Really? Shouldn’t our government default to trusting you instead of suspecting you?

My point is that we need to consider these sorts of things in a rational, logical way. Artificially-low speed limits, for example, seem to come with some big benefits: a reduction in highway deaths [maybe], and a big increase in local government revenue through ticket fees. But we don’t account for what we lose in quality of life or billable hours for the millions-upon-millions of other commuters. How many marriages have broken apart because somebody didn’t have twenty extra minutes with their spouse each day? How many hours of income were lost because people didn’t make it into work on time? How many relationships were strained by late arrivals at dates? How much extra wear-and-tear have commuters’ cars suffered? How many heart attacks and strokes happened earlier or were more severe because of stressful commutes?

There is a real cost, in lives and treasure, to assuming that all drivers are irresponsible . . . and these costs would be mitigated or eliminated if we assumed that drivers—on average—knew what they were doing. We don’t account for that cost when we decide that a six-lane freeway in the suburbs should have a nonsensical forty-five miles-per-hour limit because a few people in the adjacent neighborhood are worried about noise and pollution.

Likewise, there is a real cost, in lives and treasure, to assuming that all Sudafed buyers are meth cookers, or all gun owners are inner-city gang-bangers, or all outdoor-eaters are food-fighters. We need to be smarter about these things. We need to assume the best of people, and only restrict their activity when that individual gives us a valid reason to do so. The great experiment of the American government was that it trusted that the people would, more often than not, make prudent decisions. Our whole system is based on the idea that people can manage their own affairs. And if we can be trusted to manage our own affairs, then we can be trusted to drive at the speeds we consider safe, to obtain whatever chemicals we want to use to clean our houses, to buy decongestants, to buy a car that has or doesn’t have traction control, to buy sharp kitchen knives, to buy high-capacity firearms and magazines, and to eat outside during our lunch period.

Some will abuse these rights and privileges. We know this. And those who abuse them should be punished accordingly—and I will support those punishments wholeheartedly. But the fact that some people will abuse these rights and privileges is not a valid reason to restrict or eliminate them for everybody. Punish the criminals. Leave the innocent alone.

Maybe the founders were wrong. Maybe we, the people, can’t be trusted. Maybe we really do need artificially-low speed limits, restrictions on household chemicals, restrictions on knives and firearms, and power-tripping assistant principals telling us where we can eat and what we can write. Maybe we shouldn’t be ‘allowed’ to buy cars without traction control systems or guns with seventeen-round magazines. Maybe Assistant Principal Eggleston had every right to limit outdoor lunches in service of the ‘greater good.’

If so, we should take the next logical step: We should admit that the American experiment is a failure. Republican democracy doesn’t work. If the people cannot be trusted to manage their own affairs—the drugs they take, the cars they drive, the weapons they own, and the place they eat lunch—then they surely can’t be trusted to manage their own government either. If some tiny sub-set of gun-owners committing gun crimes is reason to take away my right to have the gun of my choice, then some tiny sub-set of voters who vote against their own self-interest is surely a good reason to take away my voting rights as well. Let’s be consistent here. Either we trust ‘the people,’ or we don’t.

Personally, I disagree with the statists. I think that, on average, individuals make the right choices, and free republican democracy is the best system of governance yet devised. So I’m willing to give people the freedom to make bad choices in return for us all having the freedom to make the right ones. I think people who make bad choices should pay the consequences, and people who make good choices should reap the benefits. And I don’t think that the people making good choices should be punished or restricted because somebody else makes bad ones.

Let me buy my Sudafed; let me drive as fast as I safely can; let me buy whatever gun I want; let me eat outside during lunch period. The people who abuse these rights and privileges should be punished, not me.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.