Rarely do I speak—let alone write—about politics. I admit that without reservation. I understand that politics are complicated. I also understand that powerful and influential forces work to simplify political issues. The skeptic in me harangues to guess at the motivations of such political rhetoricians bent on simplification. Sometimes I listen. Sometimes I argue. I suppose that is the part of the point of politics, to be involved at some level with decision making. Most of the time, I find myself overwhelmed by the socio-political environment facing me. So I am left to wonder. I hypothesize. I also realize that is all I have: hypotheses. Untested, unproven, unreflective thoughts about topics I do not fully understand. I know; I hear you. “Join the fucking club of the most of us.”
Here is a result: I am back on the topic of fear, its insidious pervasiveness in our culture. I present a short list of events this week that spurred me to write on it again.
President Bush signed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 into law, seriously curtailing the right to habeas corpus.
Officials at an elementary school south of Boston have banned kids from playing tag.
Residents of Dearborn Park demonstrated their discontent over the lack of a fence around the city park adjacent to an elementary school by building a “human fence” for the nightly news.
Considerable controversy encompasses the Military Commissions Act. As I stated earlier, I understand this, like many political issues, to be a complicated one. And as tempted as I may be to try and simplify it—for myself and for others—I am attempting to stay away from that course of action. I will try and keep my basal exposition to a minimum. Still, I think it is important to at least provide a cursory explanation of what habeas corpus is. If I do this with any skill, I hope it will prove a valuable thread I can pull through the entirety of this bit of writing.
The writ of habeas corpus is a legal instrument employed by prisoners. The writ is a court order addressed to a prison warden. The writ orders that a detainee be brought to court for a simple purpose: to determine whether the prisoner is imprisoned lawfully and whether he should be released from custody based on that judgment. The writ of habeas corpus is one of the oldest defenses against tyranny. Versions of the device date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. The Constitution protects the right with the words, “The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public safety may require it” (Article 1, Section 9). This right has been the “fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action” (Brown v. Vasquez, 1992).
The Military Commissions Act law does not require that any detainees—defined as terror suspects—be granted legal counsel. More to my issue, the act specifically bars detainees from filing habeas corpus petitions challenging their detentions. The Associated Press quotes President Bush, “The bill I sign today helps secure this country and it sends a clear message: This nation is patient and decent and fair and we will never back down from threats to our freedom.”
Here is where I am likely to over-simplify. Many such broad interpretations of this event exist—hence the controversy. My immediate reaction to this event is: we have curtailed a fundamental freedom. And we have done so in the name of protecting freedom. We have committed a terrible act of duplicity—and we have done so against ourselves.
I optimistically believe that as a culture we will find a way to reconcile this event. Right now, at this moment, I want to know why we have done this thing at all. In small words: How did we get here?
This is where I attempt to draw some sort of connection to the two events involving school children.
In the past couple years, elementary schools in Cheyenne, Wyoming; Spokane, Washington; suburban Charleston, South Carolina; and Attleboro, Massachusetts all have outlawed the game of tag. The most recent was the announcement in Attleboro, a small town about fifty miles south of Boston on the way to Providence, Rhode Island. Some schools have gone so far as to outlaw any unsupervised contact sport. Attleboro pulled up short of that decision. I scratch my head at these decisions. My childhood experiences—corroborated with the childhood experiences of my friends—forces me to stretch the definition of contact sports considerably if I intend to include Tag beneath such an umbrella. I suppose Tag is a contact sport in that whoever is “It” must touch—or tag (the game really is very well-named)—someone else. Touch is contact. But then, that is the point of the game. My childhood is filled with much more violent versions of Tag. When I spoke to my friends, similar memories of equally violent variations were commonplace. Bulldog, Bloody Murder, Marco Polo, Smear the Queer, to name but a few. Those games were violent. Kids got hurt. Often. – That happened when we played baseball, soccer and football, too. Kids are good at getting hurt. They do it with style.
By comparison, Tag was innocent. Its innocence lent it a particular charm—a particularly childish type of fun. I have utterly no memory of anyone—parent, teacher, kid—ever objecting to a game of Tag. If anything, we were encouraged to play so that we would get out of the house and run off some of our energy.
I am having a very difficult time understanding what is wrong with the game of Tag. – Tackle football with no pads and kids four years older? Okay, I can see some of the dangers there. But Tag? No. I do not see it. I cannot see it.
To help me gain some possible insight, I spoke to some of my friends who have children. Everyone I spoke to agreed that eliminating the game of Tag was not a Good Thing. Those friends with children who spoke most compassionately said that the root cause lay with parents’ lack of involvement with their children. This general statement became more specific with the opinion that a significant number of parents consider their obligations fulfilled once they drop their children off at school. Once a child is at school, the school is responsible for not only the education of the child, but the health, welfare, discipline, exercise and nutrition of the child, as well.
One father I spoke to put it this way: “When I was a kid and we were out of the playground and one of us got hurt. A mom or dad would come down to school, see their child bruised or bleeding, maybe a broken bone. And the response would be, ‘Well, he got hurt. Bet you won’t do that again. Let’s go home and get you fixed up.’” It was not callous or uncaring. But what was different was the palpable sense of obligation on the part of the parents. Children get hurt; that is something they do. Parents have an obligation to tend to their children when they are hurt. That is their responsibility. Some shouldered it well; others not so well. But the expectation that someone else—namely the school—would do it for them should they shirk it was not part of the equation. My friends with large families talked about brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and grandparents sometimes stepping into that role of parents. But the transfer of responsibility did not go outside the bounds of family.
We remember our parents arguing about the quality of our education—what teachers, what classes. Those topics were fair game. But questions about whose responsibility was it to get a child to school on time or to instill a sense of manners and moral compass—I do not remember my parents agitating that as the school’s responsibility. My friends do not remember that, either.
Perhaps I am romanticizing my childhood. Perhaps my friends comprise an elite class. That may be. I do not think that is the case, but I have not done any sort of sociological or anthropological study of my friends to prove or disprove the hypotheses. And the evidence of this generation’s school experience is visible.
So here is the theory. A significant number of parents today believe the school is responsible for their child. This is not necessarily a majority of parents, but a significant number—a vocal number, a powerful number, an influential number. They are significant in that they can affect policy through their actions—or inactions. Schools respond by accepting that responsibility and then setting out to minimize the risks. End result: schools determine that the short-term risks of Tag are too great to permit its occurrence on the playground.
The long view is left unresolved. CNN quoted a Massachusetts mother of two about the Attleboro decision as saying, “I think that it’s unfortunate that kids’ lives are micromanaged and there are social skills they’ll never develop on their own. Playing tag is just part of being a kid.” She sees the long view, and I could not agree with her more.
Dearborn Park is a quiet, restricted-access residential division of homes, condominiums and town homes in the Chicago South Loop. It was completed in the mid-1990s and is about five blocks from my own home in Printer’s Row. I walk by—or through—the development most every day on my way to buy a newspaper in the morning. Dearborn Park has only one entrance; the rest of the development is surrounded by a brick wall. Some have described it as promoting the illusion of suburban living in the middle of the city. They may have a point.
Dearborn Park also has an elementary school. The school borders a city park, and the two properties, school and park, take up about a city block out of the middle of the development. Opinions vary, but the school has had a policy of restricting outdoor recess activity. Only kindergarten children are allowed outside during recess. Some school officials say this is due to staffing constraints; others claim it is due to general safety concerns exacerbated by the free access to and from the park from the sidewalk. There is no fence along the border of the park. Anyone can walk from the sidewalk into the park unrestricted.
Some neighbors want a fence to protect their children. Some neighbors are against the fence, wanting unrestricted access to the public space. A pet dog might become stuck between the iron fence posts. I prefer the absence of fences. – I like my public spaces to be public spaces.
This week, those people wanting a fence staged a demonstration for the local television news. About fifty people showed up at the park to build a “human fence” that children could play unmolested in the park. They stood along the sidewalk stretched out and holding hands while the video camera took their pictures. They alluded to criminology studies done comparing the rates of sexual predation against children in restricted and unrestricted access areas. Parks with fences were compared to parks without fences. They covered perhaps half of one side of the park.
I found the whole thing particularly specious given the geographical context. The entire development—park, school, condominiums, town homes—is surrounded by a six-foot tall brick wall with a single two-lane street for access inside or out. The developers went to some length to isolate the area from the rest of the city.
So for the third time in the week I am asking myself: Why is this an issue?
One answer returns: safety. Restricting habeas corpus makes the nation safer. Prohibiting the game of tag makes children safer. Building a fence—or not building a fence—makes the park safer. All three of those conclusions may be true in the short view—I am still unclear about the fence. The longer view complicates each decision. It is from the perspective of the longer view that I conclude the true motivating factor is not safety. It is fear.
Habeas corpus is curtailed to fight the War on Terror. Games are curtailed to protect children from injury and schools from liability. Public spaces and private housing developments are constructed with restrictive access to isolate families from unknown, nefarious elements. We are afraid—terrorized—and consequently make short-sighted reactions.
Meanwhile the casualties of such actions persevere: essential liberties lose their power; social interaction loses meaning; fun dies a little; neighbors become strangers. Fear paralyses. We say we have declared war on fear and the war itself cripples us. Fear consumes us. Fear permeates our lives.
At some point we must realize that safer does not mean better. Risk is the essential element that defines reward. The defense of liberty is difficult and will not tolerate sacrifice. Sacrificing liberty in the name of liberty is tyranny. Life, with all of its risks and rewards, dangers and injuries, promises and betrayals should be lived. Do not cover my eyes. Do not hide me from pain. Do not try and convince me to be afraid. You are not a tyrant.