Willful Paranoia: The Classic Excuse for Willful Paranoia #IStandWithAhmed

American lives are controlled by the thuggishly mediocre. The best measure of their control is this: when called out on their mediocre thuggery, they can comfortably double down.

Ahmed Mohamed, a bright and curious ninth-grader in Irving, Texas, learned that to his regret this week.

Ahmed made a clock. He likes to make thing and repair things and tinker with things, apparently. Last weekend he built a digital clock out of a circuit board and a power display and a digital display. There is, I suppose, a chance that I could do that without electrocuting myself, but I wouldn't bet on it.

In his head, Ahmed lives in an idealized world he learned about in robotics club: a world where individuality and curiosity and initiative are appreciated. Or at least he did. But this week he found out that he actually lives in a different world, a grim real world controlled by school administrators and cops who are deeply suspicious of individuality, if not openly hostile. Ahmed lives in a world where children's lives are limited by the stupid, ineffectual fear of the petty and the ignorant. He lives in a world where school administrators strip-search thirteen-year-old girls to look for ibuprofin and suspend eight-year-olds for making pretend finger-guns while playing cops and robbers. He lives in a world where police arrest seven-year-olds for bringing a nerf gun to class and perp-walk twelve-year-olds in front of their peers for writing "I love my friends" on a desk with a marker.

In that world, Ahmed's clever clock didn't earn him admiration. It earned him a trip to the principal's office, a contemptuous and skeptical interrogation by an officer of the Irving Police Department, a suspension, and a trip in handcuffs to a juvenile detention center — because a circuit board with a time display must be a bomb, or at least intended to look like a bomb.

Actually nobody thought the clock was a bomb. The school didn't think it was a bomb. The police admitted they never thought it was a bomb. The police admitted Ahmed never suggested it was a bomb, or that he meant for anyone to think it was anything but a clock. But grown-ups detained, interrogated, arrested, and handcuffed Ahmed because they couldn't conceive of why a kid would build his own clock:

“We have no information that he claimed it was a bomb,” McLellan said. “He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation.”

Asked what broader explanation the boy could have given, the spokesman explained:

“It could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car. The concern was, what was this thing built for? Do we take him into custody?”

Did the putative adults pestering Ahmed do it because his name is Ahmed Mohamed and he's brown? Maybe. “Yup. That’s who I thought it was,” said one officer mysteriously upon seeing him. But on the other hand, this is the era of zero tolerance and of institutionalized paranoia and of petty little people using fear to hold on to power. This is what our kids' lives are like, and we've decided to accept it. Schools are safer now than before, but we've decided to feed on the fear the media feeds us and accept that they are more dangerous, justifying harsher treatment of kids. Kids are safer than ever, but we've consented to being constantly terrified about various menaces to them. Cops are safer, but we've decided to accept their narrative that they are the targets of an unprecedented war, and hand them the power they say they need.

My mother was a school administrator, and there are many decent and concerned school administrators. But to be blunt, school administrators were generally not the kid who built his or her own clock at 14. (Cops were generally the kid who beat up the kid who built the clock.) There are two ways for school administrators to deal with the unfamiliar, the unknown, the different: they can try to learn about it, and even nurture it, or they can react to it with fear and suspicion. We've told school administrators and police "we choose fear, and we want you to choose fear too."

Cops and school administrators are utterly confident in our support when they abuse someone like Ahmed. You can see it in the response of principal Dan Cummings:

I recommend using this opportunity to talk with your child about the Student Code of Conduct and specifically not bringing items to school that are prohibited. Also, this is a good time to remind your child how important it is to immediately report any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior they observe to any school employee so we can address it right away. We will always take necessary precautions to protect our students.

In other words, faced with a freakish overreaction by the school, and the suspension and detention of a student for building a clock that nobody ever thought was dangerous, the school's response is to remind students that some items are prohibited (even though nobody says the clock was), and to exhort students to report "suspicious" items and behavior. In response to a public saying "you're paranoid," the school's response is "you're goddamn right I am, and you should be too."

When I was a kid, schools and cops generally didn't do anything about bullying. Now they profess to be very concerned about it, and there are elaborate programs in place that purport to combat it. But educators and cops either don't grasp, or don't care, that their culture of fear encourages bullying. Detaining and humiliating a geeky kid who built a clock, and following up with a self-justifying "if you see something, say something" warning, sends an unmistakable message: different is suspicious. That's a bully's attitude, too.

We're expected to give cops and administrators the benefit of the doubt. I don't: I think they are like any other human beings. There are some good and some bad. Some care, and some are doing what they do to increase their own power. But even the well-intentioned who participate in a culture of fear are blameworthy. To them, I say this: you say you're trying to protect our children. But instead you've devoted your career to making the world a worse place for them.

Terrorist clock? Or birth of a new libertarian? DON'T FEED THE WOODCHIPPER!

Terrorist clock? Or birth of a new libertarian? DON'T FEED THE WOODCHIPPER!

Fear Cuts Deeper Than Swords: Bergen Community College Freaks Out Over "Game of Thrones" T-Shirt

Tragedy is inevitable. Our reaction to tragedy is not. We cannot govern every risk, but we must govern our reactions to risks. Here's the question we must ask ourselves: when awful things happen in the world, will we abandon reason and accept any measure urged by officials — petty and great — who invoke those awful things as justifications for action? Or will we think critically and demand that our leaders do so as well? Will we subject cries of "crime" and "drugs" and "terrorism" and "school shootings" to scrutiny? Will we be convinced to turn on each other in an irrational frenzy of suspicion, "for the children?"

If we don't maintain our critical thinking, we wind up with a nation run more and more like Bergen Community College in New Jersey, where we may be questioned and sent for reeducation for posting a picture of our daughter in a popular t-shirt on Google+.

Naturally the FIRE has the story, sourced from Inside Higher Education.

Francis Schmidt is a popular professor of design and animation at Bergen. Schmidt posted to Google+ a cute picture of his young daughter wearing a Game of Thrones t-shirt in a yoga pose next to a cat. The t-shirt was this one, bearing the phrase "I will take what is mine with fire and blood," a quote from Daenerys Targaryen, a fictional character in a series of fantasy novels (which has sold tens of millions of copies) turned into a hot TV series on HBO (with close to 15 million viewers per episode.) Googling the phrase will instantly provide a context to anyone unfamiliar with the series.

So: a professor posts a cute picture of his kid in a t-shirt with a saying from a much-talked-about tv show. In the America we'd like to believe in, nothing happens. But in the America we've allowed to creep up on us, this happens:

But one contact — a dean — who was notified automatically via Google that the picture had been posted apparently took it as a threat. In an email, Jim Miller, the college’s executive director for human resources, told Schmidt to meet with him and two other administrators immediately in light of the “threatening email.”

Although it was winter break, Schmidt said he met with the administrators, including a security official, in one of their offices and was questioned repeatedly about the picture’s meaning and the popularity of “Game of Thrones.”

Schmidt said Miller asked him to use Google to verify the phrase, which he did, showing approximately 4 million hits. The professor said he asked why the photo had set off such a reaction, and that the security official said that “fire” could be a kind of proxy for “AK-47s.”

Despite Schmidt’s explanation, he was notified via email later in the week that he was being placed on leave without pay, effectively immediately, and that he would have to be cleared by a psychiatrist before he returned to campus. Schmidt said he was diagnosed with depression in 2007 but was easily cleared for this review, although even the brief time away from campus set back his students, especially those on independent study.

So. That happened.

Pressed for an explanation of this lunacy, Bergen Community College Kaye Walter retreated into the first refuge of a modern authoritarianism, "think of the children":

Walter said she did not believe that the college had acted unfairly, especially considering that there were three school shootings nationwide in January, prior to Schmidt’s post. The suspects in all three shootings were minors targeting their local schools (although three additional shootings at colleges or universities happened later in the month).

This — this — is the core demand of the modern Fear State. Tell us what to fear, leaders, for the night is dark and full of terrors. Tell us what we have to do. Tell us what to think, and how to assess risks. Tell us "if you see something, say something" so we may feel duty-bound to vent our fears and insecurities about our fellow citizens rather than exercising judgment or compassion or proportion. Assure us that you must exercise your growing powers for our own safety, to ward off the terrible things we worry about.

Is Bergen some sort of unlikely citadel of irrationality? At first glance it may seem so. After all no well person would interpret the t-shirt as a threat and report it. That takes irrationality or dysfunction. No minimally competent or intelligent or honest school administrator would pursue such a report upon receiving it; rather, anyone exercising anything like rational discretion would Google the thing and immediately identify it as a mundane artifact of popular culture. No honest or near-normal intellect would say, as Jim Miller did, that the "fire" in the slogan might refer to an AK-47, a profoundly idiotic statement that resembles arguing that "May the Force Be With You" is a threat of force. Nobody with self-respect or minimal ability would claim that this professor's treatment was somehow justified by school shootings.

But Bergen isn't an anomaly. It's not a collection of dullards and subnormals — though Jim Miller and Kaye Walker could lead to think that it is. Bergen is the emerging norm. Bergen represents what we, the people, have been convinced to accept. Bergen is unremarkable in a world where we've accepted "if you see something, say something" as an excuse to emote like toddlers, and where we're lectured that we should be thankful that our neighbors are so eager to inform on us. Bergen is mundane in a world where we put kids in jail to be brutalized over obvious bad jokes on social media. Bergen exists in a world where officials use concepts like "cyberbullying" to police and retaliate against satire and criticism. Bergen exists in a world where we have allowed fears — fear of terrorism, fear of drugs, fear of crime, fear for our children — to become so powerful that merely invoking them is a key that unlocks any right. Bergen exists in a country where our leaders realize how powerful those fears are, and therefore relentlessly stretch them further and further, so we get things like the already-Orwellian Department of Homeland Security policing DVD piracy.

Certainly the Miller-Walter mindset is not unique in American academia. We've seen a professor's historical allusion cynically repackaged as a threat. We've seen a community college invoke 9/11 and Virginia Tech and Columbine to ban protest signs. In pop-culture debacle much like this one, we've seen a college tear down a "Firefly" poster as a threat. We've seen satire and criticism punished as "actionable harassment" or ""intimidation."

As a nation, we all need to decide whether we will surrender our critical thinking in response to buzzwords like "terrorism" and "drugs" and "crime" and "school shootings." On a local level, we must decide whether we will put up with such idiocy from our educational institutions. So tell me, students and teachers and alumni of Bergen Community College. Are you going to put up with that? Because institutions that act like this are not helping young people to be productive and independent adults. They are teaching fear, ignorance, and subservience.

If you feel strongly about it, you could tell Bergen Community College on its Twitter Account or Facebook page.

Update: Bergen made a statement doubling down:

"The referenced incident refers to a private personnel matter at Bergen Community College. Since January 1, 2014, 34 incidents of school shootings have occurred in the United States. In following its safety and security procedures, the college investigates all situations where a member of its community – students, faculty, staff or local residents – expresses a safety or security concern."

There are at least two maddening components to this. First, they didn't just "investigate" — they suspended the professor and made him see a psychiatrist because he posted a picture of his daughter in a wildly popular t-shirt from pop culture. Second, the statement is an implicit admission that the college refuses to exercise critical thinking about the complaints it receives. There is no minimally rational connection between school shootings — or any type of violence — and a picture of someone's kid in a pop-culture t-shirt. The college is saying, in effect, "complain to us about your angers or fears, however utterly irrational, and we will act precipitously on them, because OMG 9/11 COLUMBINE TEH CHILDREN." Shameful. Ask yourself: what kind of education do you think your children will get from people who think like this?

Brave Educators Confront Guns, Vampires

DATELINE Harmony, Florida

In days gone by, the worst that teachers and school administrators had to worry about was chewing gum, running in the halls, and the occasional skirt that brushed the knee.

Now, however, educators face an arsenal arrayed against them and against the safety and discipline of our nation's schools. Students brandish pistols, rifles, grenades, swords (both steel and plasma), gigantic fighting robots, and occasionally dinosaurs.

Now, to be perfectly accurate, some of these weapons are imaginary. For instance, the Harmony Community School recently suspended eight-year-old Jordan Bennett for making an imaginary gun with his finger while playing with friends at recess. But educators maintain that good order requires zero tolerance of any reference to violence, real or imagined.

Osceolla County School District spokesperson Dol Umbridge bristled at the suggestion that suspending an eight-year-old for imaginative play was excessive. "A gun is a gun, whether you choose to brand it as 'real' or not," said Umbridge. "Imagining violence leads to violence. Past permissiveness about 'games' of 'cops and robbers' are exactly why crime is at an all-time high. And children who imagine guns will go on to imagine other things, which is highly detrimental to our curriculum. Moreover, thanks to budget cuts, many of our professional educators have been deprived of the in-service training days that would permit them to distinguish between 'real' and 'imaginary' guns."

Umbridge added that the district's policy against imaginary items is based on a successful initiative launched by the federal government in 2001.

"The point is," Umbridge explained, "that there have been school shootings in this country. Those school shootings demonstrate that parents should accept the risk assessments of teachers and school administrators, and give them the benefit of the doubt that they only want what is best for our children." Umbridge's defensive comment may have been a reference to a somewhat controversial incident at an Osceolla County school last October when a Vice Principal staked a third-grader pretending to be a vampire at an Autumn Festival. Vampires are on Osceolla County's list of prohibited subjects of imaginative play because of their association with violence, sexuality, and dysfunctional relationships.

Though the no-imaginative-play policy has met some opposition, it also enjoys support. "I can't teach my kid the difference between fantasy and reality. That's what schools are for," said one Orlando father who had recently blamed the popular computer game "Minecraft" for his nine-year-old son bringing a steak knife, bullets, and an inoperative but real handgun to elementary school. "I look to the government to flush this sort of nonsense out of his head. What am I supposed to do about it?"

Glendale Unified School District, Concerned About Social Media, Pays Money To Be Creepy

I'm fond of Glendale Unified School District. It endured me for several years as a misbegotten youth. I learned computers on Commodores and later Apples stamped with G.U.S.D. that my mom would bring home for the summer to do school district work. She worked there for thirty years as a teacher and vice-principal and principal and head of the gifted education program. District schools did an excellent job with my two older kids, notwithstanding the occasional head injury and total lack of common sense.

But this is an extremely creepy development.

Glendale school officials have hired a Hermosa Beach company to monitor and analyze public social media posts, saying the service will help them step in when students are in danger of harming themselves or others.

After collecting information from students' posts on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, Geo Listening will provide Glendale school officials with a daily report that categorizes posts by their frequency and how they relate to cyber-bullying, harm, hate, despair, substance abuse, vandalism and truancy.

Quoth one official:

"People are always looking to see what we're doing to ensure that their kids are safe. This just gives us another opportunity to ensure the kids are safe at all times," he said.

But kids are never going to be "safe at all times." That's an unreachable goal, and when you set it, it justifies any and all intrusion into the lives of kids and their families. Moreover, the school is responsible for kids' safety when kids are at school. "At all times" is none of their damn business.

I can see a reason for schools to search public social media in response to specified threats or as part of specific investigations. But sucking up all the public data kids leave out there and hiring companies to data-mine it? That's a thoroughly creepy increase in government surveillance.

Fortunately, it's also an excellent opportunity to teach kids a lesson. Hey kids: (1) things you do on the internet are public unless you take sufficient steps to make them private; (2) the government will spy on everything you do if you let it; (3) your government feels entitled to know about everything you do; (4) your government feels entitled to have a say about everything you do; (5) your government is not to be trusted.

Law Enforcement Wants To Weaken Section 230: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Via the ACLU I see that the Attorneys General of several states are asking Congress to weaken Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Section 230 — which we have lauded here before — is crucial to freedom of expression on the internet. It gives broad immunity (with the exception of copyright and federal criminal law) to blogs, forums, news services, and other web sites for comments or other content left by visitors. Thanks to Section 230, I can't be sued for what you say in the comments to this post. Absent Section 230, I would have to police my comments for potential defamation and potential violation of the laws of a thousand jurisdictions.

As the ACLU reports, several Attorneys General want to weaken Section 230 to create an exception for any federal or state statute. Their justification, not surprisingly, is Think of the Children! — specifically, the children who are victims of sex trafficking. The state Attorneys General do not explain why it is necessary to create an exception encompassing all state laws on whatever subject in order to address child sex trafficking.

What could possibly go wrong?

I mean, sure, this means that the proprietors of web sites can be prosecuted if one of their commenters says something that local police construe as a threat — as in the case of Justin Carter, prosecuted and jailed and stuck in solitary confinement for a stupid but clearly non-serious rhetorical flourish about an online game.

And, sure, some police departments think that satire is "cyberstalking," like the Renton Police Department, which sought search warrants to investigate cartoons making fun of the police. Sure, under the language sought by the Attorneys General, the police could pursue the hosts of such satire as well as the content-creators.

And sure, all sorts of local jurisdictions — and even states — have vague, broad laws forbidding speech, such as speech by electronic means that "annoys, ridicules, and disparages." Sure, blogs and forums and other sites could become criminally liable under those laws for the actions of their commenters.

And sure, some states have criminal defamation statutes, and on occasion some prosecutors have fallen so far as to obtain search warrants to investigate clearly satirical blogs. Sure, the Attorneys General plan would make that more likely.

Sure, some cops have a very broad view of what constitutes "harassment" and a willingness to use their power to threaten people who, for instance, leave negative Yelp reviews. Sure, the Attorneys General plan would let them threaten web sites as well as users.

And sure, courts across the country occasionally impose patently unconstitutional protective orders forbidding people from writing about specified subjects at all; under the regime proposed by the Attorneys General, web sites might be held liable for contempt along with their users if they allowed a user to address a subject in violation of such an abusive order.

And sure, under the Attorneys General plan, I will have to evaluate each demand or threat from local authorities across the United States, evaluate the laws of distant and unfamiliar jurisdictions, consider how judges and juries of other states might view me of my commenters leave disfavored speech, and risk financial ruin. Sure, the most rational response will often be to simply yield to criminal threats — whether from police or even from individuals threatening to make reports to police — rather than face criminal consequences to provide a forum for free expression. Sure, risk-adverse companies will be particularly likely to yield to threats.

But surely we can trust state and local law enforcement to wield this power responsibly, right?

I mean, sure, prosecutors are largely immune to any consequences for misconduct, and police use whatever tools available to them to attack expression they don't like. But we can trust law enforcement.

Can't we?

The First Amendment Protects Satire And Rhetoric! lol j/k

A nineteen-year-old has been jailed since March 27, 2013. He's been beaten — by other inmates, allegedly. He's been subjected to solitary confinement, sometimes stripped naked. The authorities have rejected calls for his release on a reasonable bail his family could possibly afford. All of this has happened because he wrote something online that concerned or offended or enraged the state.

What's that? Syria? Saudi Arabia?

No. Texas.

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California Voters Think of The Children, Not So Much Of Free Speech Or Common Sense

If you got busted for streaking 20 years ago in college, should you have to notify the police if you comment at Popehat? If you had sex with your just-shy-of-sixteen-years-old girlfriend when you were seventeen, should you have to notify the police if you open a Twitter account?

Apparently the voters of California think so.

My fellow Californians gave a huge victory to Proposition 35, the cynically pitched "Human Trafficking" proposition. Along with increasing the penalties for various "human trafficking" crimes — more on that in a minute — the proposition requires registered sex offenders to disclose the following information when they register:

(4)A list of any and all Internet identifiers established or used by the person.
(5) A list of any and all Internet service providers used by the person.

In addition, it requires them to update that registration:

If any person who is required to register pursuant to the Act adds or changes his or her account with an Internet service provider or adds or changes an Internet identifier, the person shall send written notice of the addition or change to the law enforcement agency or agencies with which he or she is currently registered within 24 hours. The law enforcement agency or agencies shall make this information available to the Department of Justice. Each person to whom this subdivision applies at the time this subdivision becomes effective shall immediately provide the information required by this subdivision.

Read literally, if you're a registered sex offender, and you want to leave a comment on Popehat under the name "Bob,' or open a Twitter account, or leave a comment on the site of a newspaper or network, you've got to report the name you use to the police, in writing, within 24 hours. This means, among other things, that registered sex offenders can't comment anonymously on the internet — in, for instance, a discussion of whether sex offender laws are just.

There are First Amendment problems with that requirement right out of the gate. They are compounded by the fact that sex offender laws — the processes by which we put people on sex offender registries, and keep them there — are, in a word, perverted. They sweep up not just rapists and child molesters, but boyfriends and girlfriends convicted of statutory rape and people convicted of minor crimes questionably classified as sex crimes. There's no appetite to change how the system works, because the incantation Think of the Children! drowns out all rational thought in our culture. This is especially true when we engage in lazy categorical thinking about sex offenders.

Fortunately some people are fighting back. Yesterday the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed suit to block the portion of the law requiring registered sex offenders to report their internet providers and online handles. The litigants are registered sex offenders whose offenses had nothing to do with the internet. A federal judge issued an injunction blocking the online-disclosure portions of the law yesterday. You can imagine how that's going to be portrayed in the media.

I applaud the EFF and ACLU for pursuing this.

But it's only the First Amendment angle, and the raw idiocy of making all sex offenders report every online handle, that will get this lawsuit any support. The rest of the proposition won't get any real scrutiny. There are questions to be asked: were existing sentences too short? Will increasing sentences for these crimes really reduce crime or protect anyone? Does the proposition really address a need, or does it just add more laws onto a situation already addressed by existing criminal laws? Will the broad power of the proposition be used in a principled manner to attack real traffickers, or could it be abused and used against people who more closely resemble victims themselves?

We don't ask those questions in America. If someone says "let's add this law to criminalize this bad thing," we say "hell yes!" uncritically. When someone says "let's toughen sentences on these bad people," we say "yeah! the bastards!" And when anyone invokes "for the children" — well, nothing above our brain stems are in the mix at all. The most rabidly anti-government among us clamor for more criminal laws, longer sentences, more government power, more discretion for police and prosecutors.

That's not how a free people should act.

Edited to add: In the comments, Ed Borg suggests that the two scenarios in my parade-of-horribles opening paragraph are inapt because those particular offenses would not require registration under California law. That's the peril of starting with a rhetorical flourish. But the point made in the linked Jacob Sullum article — that registration law is unprincipled and perverse — remains, as does the core First Amendment issue.

Inclination, Action, and Justice: Gawker's Pedophilia Article and the Angry Reactions To It

If I snuck up on Gawker editor Cord Jefferson and struck him on the head with a chessboard, no serious person would say that we "played chess." If I jumped out of a dark alley and threw hand-carved rooks and bishops at him, nobody would say that I had "started a game of chess" with him.

Yet in his controversial article "Born This Way: Sympathy and Science for Those Who Want To Have Sex With Children," Cord Jefferson uses equally inappropriate terms to describe equally one-sided sexual aggression against children. Note the language in his opening paragraph, in which he tells the tale of a man named Terry who abused a child in his care. The emphasis is mine:

It's not easy to listen to Terry talk about the time he had sex with a seven-year-old girl. But after his psychotherapist put us in touch, he agreed to lay it all out for me during a phone call and email, and I was enthralled the way one might stare at a man falling from a bridge. Terry is 38, a small-business owner, and deeply religious—he ends all our correspondence by saying, "Blessings to you, Cord"—but back then when it happened Terry was 20 and a meth head. He was living with his then-wife, his marriage to whom had made him the co-guardian of her two nieces and a nephew. The one niece was a baby, but the other was seven, and it wasn't long before Terry, addicted and in a marriage he calls "abusive," fell for his niece and began a sexual relationship with her.

Consenting people — people capable of consent — "have sex." A thirty-eight-year-old man does not "have sex" with a seven-year-old girl; he rapes or molests her. To say that they "had sex" or "began a sexual relationship" is to adopt the minimizing, distorting language child abusers and their apologists, who are notorious for justifying abuse by attributing consent and co-equal participation to children.

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Be Thankful And Fearful And Know Your Place, Citizen

Free-Range Kids offers a story of a man briefly detained by a police officer because (allegedly) somebody reported him as a potential kidnapper of his own daughter, who was pulling at his hand as they walked:

The cop gets out of his car, says “Sir, please step away from the child,” then proceeds to crouch down and ask her if “everything is okay.”

After re-asking a few times, getting a more and more nervous “yes” each time, he stands up and informs me that someone had called 911 reporting what looked like a young girl being abducted. My daughter and I both explained what was really happening, and not only did he not even apologize, he chastised ME for not being, and I quote verbatim here, “More thankful someone was watching out for my daughter.”

As numerous commenters at Free-Range Kids and at Reason point out, a competent officer could have handled that encounter in a far less intrusive manner. But the problem is not merely that the officer used authority and the threat of force where friendliness would have done the trick: it's the officer's entitled parting shot, the suggestion that we mere civilians should be thankful for the irrational fears of our fellows and the willingness of police to overreact to them. We should be happy that people will call the cops on us because our children yank at our hands as we walk, and grateful that police will detain us as a result.

I've been lucky on this one so far: though my kids don't look like me, nobody's called the cops on me yet. I've gotten odd looks and suspicious stares in public, but no police interventions. Other people with multiracial families are not so lucky, and, like the man in the Free Range Kids story, have encountered law enforcement entitlement and resentment of criticism.

There's a few problematical trends going on here. The first is the sick culture of fear, encouraged by the media (because fear is lucrative, and accurate contextual reporting is hard) and by law enforcement and politicians (because fear leads to more power for them). That culture has led us to accept, uncritically, the existence of an ever-growing level of danger to ourselves and our children, even if actual evidence supports the opposite. The second problematical trend is the culture of self-esteem and self-congratulation — the notion that our feelings (including feelings of irrational fear and suspicion) are to be coddled and celebrated and treated as legitimate whether or not they are premised on fact. Law enforcement and politicians deliberately harness this phenomenon through the "if you see something, say something" campaign, which explicitly encourages people to indulge in flights of fancy about how innocent and innocuous events might be sinister. The third problematical trend is the "Think of the Children!" mentality, the regrettably widely accepted premise that things done to protect children ought not be questioned, even if the things are utterly irrational and have no actual salutary effect on the well-being of children. Finally, the fourth problematical trend is the culture of entitlement among cops — the feeling that mere civilians ought to take what they dish out, shut up, and like it.

Anyone who has ever walked with a young child knows that young children struggle, tug against your hand, yank your arm, and generally behave in a deranged fashion. The cops, hysterics, and Mrs. Grundys of the world want us to accept the premise better safe than sorry — the premise that it's a good thing that some person saw a little girl tugging at a man's arm and vaulted to the conclusion "kidnapper!", and a good thing that a police officer followed up with a show of authority and force. Too many people agree. But I dissent. I don't think it's a good thing. I think it promotes dependence on government, increased law enforcement power, and the normalization of irrationality. I think that the facts do not support the supposition that hordes of kids will be abducted if Mrs. Grundy exercises self-control and critical thinking, or if the cops do. I think that we have been terrified into a lamentably cringing and servile condition. I am not "thankful that someone is looking out" for my kids; I am disgusted that someone wants my kids to be as irrationally fearful and dependent as they are.

The Shawano School District of Wisconsin Teaches Bad Citizenship

"Liberty," said Learned Hand, "lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it."

Learned Hand was quite right — if people don't support basic legal norms like freedom of expression and due process of law, no legal systems will be sufficient to enforce those norms. They will wither. But how is the appetite for liberty born in our hearts? Some choose to believe that it is an inherent aspiration of humanity. I don't think that history, ancient or recent, supports that. Rather, I think that liberty is a cultural value, carefully cultivated by example and education. Good American citizenship is characterized by fidelity to shared taught values, and a willingness to support them and teach them to others.

Like any value, liberty can also be suppressed. People — especially young people — can be taught to scorn it.

Right now, the Shawano School District is Wisconsin is teaching students to scorn free expression. The Shawano School District, through its leaders, is teaching bad American citizenship.

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