Civil Liberties

The Washington Post's Phony "Balance"


If ever you wanted to remind yourself of the deceptively simple logic that leads to open assaults on protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, let me direct you to today's Washington Post editorial on the probably unconstitutional security checkpoints being imposed on residents of violence-scarred neighborhoods in our nation's capitol. "Why," the faux-anguished subhed reads, "are there more protests about a police crackdown in Northeast than about the murders that caused it?" Some excerpts:

Critics of the District's decision to use police checkpoints have reason to question the practice's constitutionality and wonder about its long-term effectiveness. What's wrong is to play down the violence plaguing these troubled neighborhoods. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier are correct to see the crime problem in Northeast as a true public emergency that warrants new thinking and bold action. […]

Any political judgment must balance the intrusiveness of the checkpoints against the seriousness of the problem they are designed to address. […]

[T]here was more of an outcry over police efforts to stop the killings than over the killings themselves. And therein lies the real outrage.

The real outrage … how played out, how elastic-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness, is that rhetorical formula, anyhow? "The real outrage is that Washington has no representation in Congress! The real outrage is that Marion Barry is still on the D.C. City Council! The real outrage is that Washington Post editorial writers care more about the political pieties of ACLU lawyers than the totally legitimate constitutional concerns said lawyers are raising about a crude policing tactic!"

Anyhow, the Post's authoritarian illogic is almost a classic of the form, down to the pulled-straight-from-the-arse "balance" between a measure's constitutionality and the "seriousness of the problem" that it's trying to address (a formula that, if applied to something as "serious" as war, would surely eviscerate the country's basic legal framework). Unfortunately for Fred Hiatt's posse, but fortunately for the rest of us, we "must" balance no such thing at all: Either a policy is constitutional, or it ain't, no matter how publicly you may weep for the victims of crime. That's one very good reason why we still have some semblance of constitutional protections left at all. No thanks to the last two presidents, and no thanks to the Washington Post.