The Price We Pay for Fear (Los Altos TOWN CRIER, October 2014)
Our local paper on the 13th anniversary of 9-1-1 included somber remembrances, including an inspiring story of a blind worker whose seeing-eye dog led him and his office of workers to safety. The headlines also included a revelation that Yahoo had been required to turn over user data for “national security interests.” When the company refused to comply, hoping to preserve the privacy rights of their users, it was threatened with fines of $250,000 a day.
A couple of weeks earlier, I had gone to see an exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. I was required to open my purse for inspection before I could enter this public building.
I remembered that some years back a crazed person attacked Michelangelo’s Pieta at the Vatican with a sledgehammer and broke off several pieces of this masterpiece before being subdued. At that time, though, subsequent visitors were not searched for weapons before entering St. Peter’s.
And some years back, a crazed person slashed the Mona Lisa on display at the Louvre. Since then the picture has been protected with a Plexiglas screen, which makes its beauty less easy to see. But at that time subsequent visitors were not searched for knives.
However, I went through the inspection at the art museum with only a minor flash of irritation, having been hardened by the invasive airport searches of both my purse and my person over the last 14 years of air travel. And I had put up with the searches and screening gates at the local courthouse if I wanted to exercise my citizen’s right to observe a trial. And so on.
Then it got really personal. A few days before the 14th anniversary of September 11, I was informed that to return as a volunteer in my local school I would have to fill out a two-page application, provide a photo ID and my Social Security number, be fingerprinted, and pay $67 in order to get clearance from the Mountain View Police Department ($20 fee), the FBI ($12 fee) and the Department of Justice ($15 fee). I basically was being asked to give up my most important personal information and then pay to prove I am not a convicted felon, or a child molester, or a terrorist.
When I worked in education, I was told that one of the best ways to ensure student success was to get parents involved with school work, if possible as school volunteers. Even now at many charter schools parent participation in some way is required. I wonder if every parent is required to get FBI clearance. The $67 payment would be a significant barrier to many families whose participation would be most helpful to their children. What happens to community involvement if only those who can afford the fee or are not too proud to ask for a fee waiver can enter the life of the school?
And what is going to be done with the information gathered in this wide net? On what grounds would a parent be barred from working with her child or other people’s children under supervision at a school? What charges would disqualify a parent? How recent would they have to be? Who will be drawing the guide lines?
The challenge for a democracy is to find the right balance between the total security that can only be provided by an all-controlling government, and the total freedom that comes from no government at all.
Have we gone too far toward wanting to be perfectly safe?