A lot of contemptible things were said during the recent debate over the FISA bill, which extended retroactive immunity to telecoms that had cooperated with Bush Administration wiretapping. Few of these things irritated me as fundamentally as this quote from Senator Kit Bond of Missouri:
"I'm not here to say that the government is always right, but when the government tells you to do something, I'm sure you would all agree that I think you all recognize that is something you need to do," Bond said.
This strikes me as un-American and, to use Teddy Roosevelt's phrase, morally treasonous.
Moreover, it is precisely the sort of attitude that recently allowed a con man to convince small-town law enforcement to search a bunch of their neighbors without warrants and put guns to their heads.
It's been clear for a long time that people who internalize the "what the government wants is right and you should do it" notion can be manipulated into doing stupid, stupid things. We've seen that, for instance, in the decade-old rash of moron fast food managers strip-searching employees because a voice on the phone told them to.
But rarely is this phenomenon thrown into such sharp relief as in the case of the throughly duped town of Gerald, Missouri (coincidentally Kit Bond's home state).
For five months, the authorities of Gerald, Missouri did their part in the war on meth by raiding the houses of their neighbors and dragging them to their front lawns in handcuffs. They did so without the search warrants that any competent law enforcement official, or lawyer, or judge, or moderately educated junior high school student could tell them was required under these circumstances. They did so because a man named Bill A. Jakob, or "Sergeant Bill," told them they could raid their neighbors' homes without warrants and put guns to their heads upon Bill's authority, because Bill was a federal agent and a member of something called the "multijurisdictional task force."
But of course, Bill — who convinced the town's Mayor Otis Schulte, aldermen, Police Chief Ryan McCrary, and his officers that he was a federal law enforcement officer whose presence could free them from the surly bonds of the Fourth Amendment — was not a federal agent:
Sergeant Bill, it turned out, was no federal agent, but Bill A. Jakob, an unemployed former trucking company owner, a former security guard, a former wedding-performing minister, a former small-town cop from 23 miles down the road.
. . . .
As it turned out, Mr. Jakob, who is married and lives near Washington, a small town not far from Gerald, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003 when he owned a trucking company, and had, at 22, pleaded guilty in Illinois to a misdemeanor charge of criminal sex abuse of someone in their teens.
Since the 1990s, he had worked, at times, as a police officer in tiny departments in towns like Kinloch, Mo., and Brooklyn, Ill., though he never seemed to stay anywhere long and was never certified as a police officer in either Missouri or Illinois, his lawyer said. (Under some conditions, short-term employees with some departments are not immediately required to have state certification.)
Now, how did a con man like Sergeant Bill pull this off? Did he have legions of assistants in on the con? Official documents from Washington D.C.? Some sort of high-tech federal multijurisdictional task force equipment?
When residents first began noticing Mr. Jakob, he certainly looked the part. His hair was chopped short, residents recalled, and his stocky chest filled a black T-shirt he sometimes wore that read POLICE. They said he wore military-style boots, pants with pockets running down the legs and carried a badge (his lawyer said it was from a former job as a security guard in St. Louis). And his off-white Crown Victoria was decked out with police radios and internal flashing lights, residents said.
By the way, does the "multijurisdictional task force" sound familiar? It ought to. It's from Beverly Hills Cop II.
Anyway, there's no telling how long this farce would have continued if a reporter had not become suspicious, looked Sergeant Bill up, and within an hour discovered his whole background. Bill is now under federal investigation. That's cold comfort for the people whose houses were illegally searched under Bill's leadership and the wantonly gullible and reckless participation of the officials of the town of Gerald:
“He was definitely in charge — it was all him,” said Mike Withington, 49, a concrete finisher, who said Mr. Jakob pounded on his door in May, waking him up and yanking him, in handcuffs, out onto his front yard.
Mr. Withington said he had not yet been charged with a crime; Gary Toelke, the Franklin County sheriff, confirmed that no local charges had been issued against him. . But the mortification of that day, Mr. Withington said, has kept him largely indoors and led him to consider moving. Since the search, residents have tossed garbage and crumpled boxes of Sudafed (an ingredient of which can be used to make methamphetamine) on his lawn, he said, and he no longer shops in town, instead driving miles to neighboring towns.
“Everybody is staring at me,” he said. “People assume you’re guilty when things like this happen.”
Now comes the part where the town and its officials get sued back into the stone age, and hopefully in some cases indicted themselves:
At least 17 people have sued, including an elderly woman who was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward because she didn't cooperate with the police and a man who said Jakob held a gun to his head and threatened to shoot while the man's child watched.
"Not only did they break in and threaten to kill people and violate their civil rights, they stole money, prescription drugs and legally owned weapons. It's crazy that this could happen in 2008," said attorney Dan Briegel, who represents the woman who was placed in the psychiatric ward for a week.
It would be easy, too easy, to take a sneering big-city they're-just-stupid-hicks approach to this. (Though it's pretty hard to imagine how someone could be a police chief, or an alderman, or a mayor of a town and be so woefully ignorant to believe that they can search the homes of Americans without a warrant just because some guy named Bill who's a federal agent comes with them. That's some broad, deep, and strong-running stupid there.)
But that would be the easy way out.
The truth is that stuff like this can happen in America not because of abject stupidity (though it helps), but because of a servile attitude towards government. Many people, led by people like Senator Kit Bond, think that if the government tells you to do it, then it must be right. Many people suspend judgment, rational thought, and moral obligation when so encouraged by an official, no matter how petty. That's how a small-time con man like Bill Jakob could start running drug raids for kicks. That and the dark secret in our hearts — that we not only cave to easily to authority, but that we relish being part of the boot that steps on somebody else's neck, that we take to it like a duck to water. This is neither a conservative phenomenon nor a liberal one; people can cravenly cede their independent judgment and civil responsibility to the police state or to the regulatory nanny-state.
All we can do is observe, educate ourselves, exercise critical thinking, ask questions, and refuse to be cowed by threats or social pressure. We need to do these things not only to avoid being victims but to avoid becoming the craven accomplices ourselves like the petty officialdom of Gerald, Missouri. We need to reject the vile notion that submission is patriotic, whether to the man with the badge or the bureaucrat with the clipboard. We need to stand up to the Bill Jakobs and those who do their bidding out of cowardice, ignorance, or secret enjoyment.
And the mayor, police chief, police officers, and aldermen of Gerald, Missouri need to resign. How can such people look at themselves in the mirror, let alone look at their constituents?
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