Monday, November 4, 2013

Syphilis, Spying, Stop and Frisk

Syphilis, Spying, Stop and Frisk

When I returned home Saturday I found the following gem in my mailbox:  A post card imploring me to vote Lhota-Garland under an all caps heading “THIS IS OUR LAST CHANCE!”  On the flip side, above a backdrop of a chalk outline of a victim; “DO THE MATH, DE BLASIO + KALLOS+ NO STOP & FRISK= MORE MURDERS.”

There is nothing like politics to bring substance and intelligent debate to a complex issue.  If I vote for de Blasio or Ben Kallos (Garland’s opponent for my local City Council seat) I am complicit in murder.

Wonderful.  That is certainly a way to get my support.  If only real life were this easy.

If people would stop shouting at each other we would realize that there are two unacknowledged truths about stop and frisk:  The first is that it probably reduces crime.  The second is that stop and frisk is dehumanizing. It makes the target less of a citizen by striking at a basic freedom guaranteed by the Constitution: to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.  To my Tea Party friends who warn of a riots and murders if one iota of stop and frisk is curtailed, I would only ask them to put on their three-cornered hats and imagine themselves in Boston in 1773, when some kindly men in red coats respected the rights of no one to be secure in their homes and their persons.  We fought a Revolution to secure those rights, and the Constitution is a balance between liberty and security, erring, if you would call it that, on the side of liberty. Stopping and frisking someone, without some underlying probable cause, simply because of the way they look, is on the wrong side of that balance. 

The same basic issue arises in the ongoing debate about the massive spying apparatus we have developed.  Right now, the headline news is the “shocked” reactions of the Germans and French to the disclosure that we were listening in on their leaders’ pillow talk. Quelle horreur! Without spending too much time dwelling on the manifest hypocrisy here, I would have to say, as an American, that I expect my government to do what is necessary overseas to keep me safe.  Espionage is a tool in the toolbox, and while it may be an unpleasant truth, and polite ladies and gentlemen may recoil a bit, I’m neither surprised nor all that much troubled.  When the Germans and the French start taking their orders from Washington and supporting us in all endeavors, then we can revisit the situation.

Unfortunately, the appalled reactions to knowing what type of cookies Angela Merkel might like temporarily obscure the primary issue—that of massive domestic spying. The NSA program is stop and frisk writ large, over an entire population.  If every phone conversation, every Internet search, every email, even every card-swipe can be monitored, then where are we as a free people?  The argument is exactly the same as stop and frisk. It isn’t that our security/police should be powerless to investigate potential threats.  It is the unpleasant reality of our lives that crime (and terror) exists and need to be confronted.  But, as citizens, we are entitled to be able to walk the streets, or surf the net, without being watched and detained, unless and until there is probable cause that we are about to do something criminal.  It’s not the other way around: “we watch you until we have probable cause.”

What both these programs do is to universalize, and institutionalize something that really should be resolved in the political and judicial area, through careful consideration and compromise.  We should be discussing these things, finding the correct approach, and implementing it. 

But, if you look at the language employed by the anonymous supporter of Lhota and Garland (and their surrogates, including Rudy Giuliani) you will see the same sensibility that is also expressed by those, like Senator Diane Feinstein, who support virtually unlimited domestic surveillance.  Lhota’s imagery is more visceral, but both offer a pure, binary choice between liberty and death.  No nuance.  Do it our way, don’t discuss the rights of the individual, or blood will be on your hands.  Hit the disease with everything you’ve got.

The German scientist Paul Ehrlich did seminal work in chemotherapy, immunology, and hematology, and shared the Nobel Prize in 1908.  He is also known for his discovery of the first effective treatment for syphilis, Arsphenamine. Ehrlich was looking for a cure for the microbe-caused disease sleeping sickness. He found that a chemical called Atoxyl was effective, but highly toxic.  Through intensive testing Ehrlich and his lab searched for the proper combination between cure and kill.  They tested over 900 compounds on mice, before they went back to #606.  606 didn’t seem to help much with sleeping sickness, but was very effective on the newly discovered microbe that caused syphilis. Over and over, they tested the compound on mice, guinea pigs, and rabbits, achieving complete cures with no mortality.  The drug was introduced, and after some early difficulties in the manner in which it was administered, revolutionized treatment for this awful, often disfiguring and even fatal disease.

Testing between toxicity and efficacy, even 900 times. It works in the scientific laboratory, and in the laboratory of ideas. You don’t just administer the drug wholesale to entire population (or group) just because you think it will cure a disease in a few of them.  And you never ignore side effects.  That is what democracy is all about, a debate about ideas and approaches where both the needs of the majority and the rights of the minority are respected.  We don’t kill the patient.

Unfortunately, in the supercharged atmosphere of our political culture, many simply don’t care.  They won’t tolerate 900 tries, or for that matter, even a few. They don’t see themselves as the targets and so they think they are trading other people’s liberties for their personal safety.  Easy exchange--take it from someone else.

They are wrong.  When government has largely unfettered power to stop or spy on whomever it wants, then the individual holds liberty only at the sufferance of those currently in power. 

Unfortunately, that is a disease that has no known cure. 

Michael Liss (MM)

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