The lead sentence on this morning’s Globe editorial jumped off the page at me this morning. “Do you trust government?” Well, how appropriate I thought. In this second-term silly season of distracting bogus scandals, what could be more to the point? After all, isn’t that the essential difference between the two major parties?
The editorial was about the recent 5-4 Supreme Court DNA ruling upholding the constitutionality of police procedures in states where DNA samples are collected from all
people arrested, not necessarily convicted, for serious crimes. There was an unusual split on this, with liberal justice Stephen Breyer joining conservatives but with arch-conservative Scalia railing almost angrily against the decision. Justice Kennedy, usually the swing vote, wrote the majority opinion, reasoning that DNA is similar to fingerprinting and photographing faces, long accepted under the Fourth Amendment. But, the editor and Scalia are upset, nay, frightened, that DNA, unlike a mug shot, can tell everything about us.
It really does come down to trust in government then. Or rather, distrust. As used in a trial, DNA amounts to arcane numbers which identify people more reliably than any method ever used before, including fingerprints and mug shots, but it also has the potential to cache in a data bank complex medical information that could, conceivably, be used to characterize a person as to medical defects, race, or who knows what? (Caveat: if the GOP is successful in repealing the ACA, I might recant here, because then the insurance companies won’t have to cover pre-existing conditions and can start pricing according to those and any genetic defects!) I can understand, however, that someone who distrusts government wouldn’t want this information in their hands. That would be, seems to me, someone who also believes the government might confiscate all the guns in the country if there were a national data bank of gun ownership, or maybe even someone who favors privacy laws strong enough that money could be safely hidden from the IRS in offshore bank accounts.
Personally, I do trust the government, at least in its present form under the bill of rights with freedom of speech and of the press. I have for a long time. The government virtually owned me for 26 years, as a member of the U.S. Navy, and knows all about me. It did thorough background checks on me from time to time for security clearances. It has my fingerprints and a fairly current photo of me, as of about 5 years ago. I might as well be branded “property of the U.S.”, but I don’t feel threatened because of it. I also don’t feel threatened if the NSA has in its vast data banks a record of every phone number I’ve ever called or from which I received a call. Privacy? There are limits, just as there are limits to free speech, as in religious nuts disrupting military funerals or yelling “fire” in crowded theaters.
The system we have is imperfect but it is, I submit, better than all the others and for sure better than anarchy. DNA has been invaluable in solving crimes, including many cold cases and in freeing many people wrongly convicted, some on death row. The only thing about this issue that scares me is that the Court came within one vote of deciding the matter wrongly. In the meantime, I plan to continue to have faith in the government. Faith that my social security and retirement checks will arrive on time in my checking account. Faith that the IRS will ensure that my neighbors pay their taxes fairly, just like I do. Faith that I don’t need an AR-15 assault rifle if a crime is committed against me, but that I can confidently call the cops to help. Faith that there is a dedicated group of people whose job it is to keep society reasonably civilized and safe, not just from terrorists but from criminals as well.