Change in a small town is often greeted with peering eyes who haven’t got much else to do. It’s simply human nature, strangers trigger the antenna and put people on alert. Changes are profound here because it’s like a tiny laboratory, just big enough for you to hide in the crowd, but not so large that you lose track of what’s going on. There’s an anonymity to the city that I often miss.
We tend to view strangers suspiciously, although we’re somewhat light hearted in our suspicion. There’s been huge influxes and outfluxes in the population and many people are smart enough to fly South for the winter, so strangers aren’t exactly unfamiliar to us anymore. Many people come here for a season and then wisely bail when they get to know us, the gloomy weather, the challenging economy, the bizarre politics.
Half a century ago we had one cop. That’s it. One guy on call 24/7. For most of my life we eventually settled on having 3. They were nice too, public servants who gave people a ride home from the bars or helped you break into your car when you locked your keys in it. They got cats out of trees and did all those charming small town things. Then there were 12. Then there was a city police force and a county sheriff and they decided to share jurisdictions. Then a huge part of our tax dollar had to start going to law enforcement. Then we built a new jail and got new equipment. Segways for them to ride on like something out of a sci/fi movie. Paddy wagons in the event they ever needed to haul off all the crazy cat ladies. We got fancy new cop cars with embossed lettering that is nearly invisible to the human eye, so we can now drive around in stealth Batmobile mode. We got speedboats that Dare to keep kids off drugs and full combat gear and fancy new tasers.
Then we got drug enforcement people, US Customs, Homeland Security, State Patrol, Navy Intelligence, Border Patrol…..the list of alphabet people is now so vast, I think they outnumber civilians. To make it even more interesting, we have one of the largest populations of retired cops in the state, so even our civilians are former cops.
I feel safe, very safe. No, that’s not quite right, I feel very confused and disoriented. For the most part they all maintain a rather low profile, but we all know they’re here and they’re everywhere. Except when they’re not, in which case they’re all somewhere else.
It’s a very surreal experience, because until recently, crime pretty much involved cow tipping misadventures or chickens on the road. That world is now just a dream, although a gentle one that calls to you, that tries to lull you back to asleep. Try as I might however, I cannot ignore that feeling of being surrounded by a heavy government presence. Sometimes I like to imagine I’m the President or some other Very Important Person, especially when you’ve got two Border Patrol vehicles behind you and 3 cops in front of you, in the middle of nowhere, in the midst of nothing. It’s like having your very own security escort. As far as I know, they’re completely disinterested in me, most likely I am simply the annoying old lady driver who won’t push the speed limit or get out of the way on account of the fact that there are cops following me.
That presence, our new reality however, is a tangible thing that you can feel. I don’t know how to process it, what to make of it, but I’ve become very concerned about privacy matters. Not long ago Snowden released information about how the NSA was collecting data on us, but also forwarding it to assorted DEA people. Law enforcement is now spying on us, pre-emptively able to collect data and to investigate people before they even have probable cause. Since there simply isn’t enough manpower to take a look at everybody, we’ve now got computers and software doing it for us. So now we have artificial intelligence deciding who should be flagged and who shouldn’t. It’s a pre-crime unit from a sci/fi movie manifested here in real time.
We used to have a 4th amendment that gave you the right to be secure in your persons, your papers, your data, but attitudes have apparently changed. “Secure” is the key word there, we had protections and legal rights and a course of action we could take in the event of an abuse of power. Secure is an important thing, people require some degree of control over their own lives, a sense of security that comes from knowing there are some foundations in place and a course of action you can take to defend yourself.
People these days talk a lot about privacy. Privacy simply means to be concealed from the view of others. Privacy is such a tiny word for such a huge issue, however. Better words would be more along the lines of freedom and liberty, the ideals that this country was actually built on. These are incredibly chaotic times we’re living in and so many people seem unable or unwilling to consider the fact that redesigning the entire nature of who we are as Americans has far reaching implications. We’re changing the very nature of our culture, our moral standards, our legal standards, our Constitutional ideals, and what it all means to be an American.