What is happening in America these days? Perhaps a better question would be: What is happening to America? A series of rather unsettling events have been taking place in this country, all instigated by our government.
First, of course, we have the widely publicized case of Elian Gonzalez. Whether you think that Elian should stay in this country or be returned to Cuba is immaterial.
The manner in which the Justice Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service handled the case was, at best, disgraceful.
Watching the scenes on television of fully armed INS officials raiding the home of the Gonzalez family before dawn during Easter weekend and demanding that Elian be turned over or they would shoot was terrifying and confirmed one's fears about the kind of government we have in power.
While the Elian Gonzalez case is a widely publicized one, there are many other instances where the government is turning the lives of Americans upside down in a bullish, forceful manner with no regard for constitutional rights or respect for those citizens.
First, while we think that the manner in which the Gonzalez family was treated on Easter weekend was egregious, it is critical for us to realize that there is an increasing number of American citizens in this country who are being treated in a similar fashion through the countless property rights violations and land seizures in the western portion of the United States, committed by the federal government on a regular basis.
In many cases, armed federal agents using brute force are forcing unsuspecting land owners out of their homes or to sign a consent form acknowledging that their once private land bought and paid for with their hard earned money is now the property of the federal government.
That's one area. Here's another. A year ago last month, federal banking agencies withdrew their proposal that would force banks across the country to monitor the account activity of their customers.
The proposal was called, innocently, "Know Your Customer."
While the proposal itself was withdrawn, the American Banking Association reported last year that 86 percent of banks in the United States have installed a "Know Your Customer" type of surveillance system to record and monitor their customers' banking activity and to report any deviation from that customer's normal pattern of activity to the federal government, which would then contact the customer and launch an investigation into the nature of the deviation and determine whether the customer was guilty of a crime, such as money laundering or drug trafficking.
The federal government has encouraged such actions on the part of banks by telling them "when in doubt, file," and granting banks legal immunity from any mistakes they might make, such as reporting an innocent customer. This has resulted in innocent citizens being caught up in a web of bureaucracy.
Banks are reportedly filing suspicious activity reports on customers. When the federal government launches an investigation into that person's activities and source of funds, it has to freeze the assets of the person under investigation.
The result is that until federal agents come to the conclusion, as they are in many cases, that the person being investigated was reported by his bank in error, that person's life is turned upside down while the feds snoop into his affairs to make sure that the money he claims to be from a year-end bonus or willed to him from his grandmother's estate actually is.
Let's look at another example. On October 1, 1997, President Clinton announced the establishment of the National Directory of New Hires, a massive federal database that would contain personal information on every American citizen starting a job, whether full or part time, after the establishment of that database.
Employers would be forced to report that personal information to the government upon hiring a new employee. The idea behind the database was to catch those parents who owe child support.
At the time, an official for the Department of Health & Human Services called it "the largest effort on the part of the federal government to collect personal information on its citizens."
The Los Angeles Times reported two years after the establishment of the database that 20 percent of the information being entered in to the database was in error.
The result was, and continues to be, that people are receiving bills claiming that they owe child support for children who aren't theirs and even worse, until they "pay up," the government freezes their assets and garnishes their wages to ensure that they pay, despite being innocent.
These of course are just a couple of examples but they illustrate a larger point: We in the United States have gone from having a government that merely maintains order and encourages good to one that is controlling its citizens and strong-arming them into doing it's will, which it defines as "good."
Two years ago many of us privacy advocates warned Americans across the country that if this administration is not reined in, our form of government would be changed before our very eyes. I would submit to you today that there is enough evidence to suggest that that warning has now become a reality.
Lisa Dean is vice president of FreeCongress.org's Center for Technology Policy.
Justice Return Top Return