If I had my way, I would declare that in this technological era we live by the maxim, "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it." Technological advances, and perhaps more importantly the low cost of those advances, enable much more to be done today than ever before, but all too often we see things being done simply because we can.
The latest demonstration of this lack of self restraint is the police response to the public protests in Ferguson Missouri. Police in Ferguson have military grade equipment that actually rivals that which our troops in Iraq have and appear eager to use that equipment.
Clearly, police officers should wear body armor to protect themselves, but do they need vehicles built to withstand mines? Do police need to train machine guns at unarmed protesters? The Marine Corp MARPAT camouflage doesn't seem effective on asphalt streets.
Psychologically, if you are carrying large weapons and body armor that makes you feel invincible, how can you not be more aggressive? The primary difference between the police and the military is the difference between restraint and aggression.
Police officers may actually have training similar to the military, but are taught to only use as much force as necessary to keep the peace. Military are taught use a maximum amount of force to quickly conquer the enemy.
In my opinion, a clear example of the aggressive posture taken by police in military garb is in the video taken by Washington Post journalist Wesley Lowery as he was arrested while working in McDonalds and apparently not complying fast enough to the officer's liking.
Who is being confrontational in that video?
Here is another problem I have with what I see in the video. Do you see any personal identification on the officer? What I see are officers attempting to use anonymity to protect themselves from their own actions. If the police are in uniform, and what is being worn in that video is a uniform, they ought to be wearing clearly visible identification, particularly if a police action is being taken.
For the moment part of the discussion about Ferguson will be about the militarization of our police. We might even talk about whether or not police actually need some of the military gear they now possess. However, what the police did in Ferguson is part of a bigger issue we need to be addressing.
How are the actions that I describe above by the Ferguson police different from the NSA collection of data? The NSA is collecting vast amounts of data from the Internet and storing it just in case they need it in the future, just because they can because the technology that enables them to collect and store that data is so cheap.
The principle at work here is, "we have the technology, so we can do whatever we want," but the United States government is founded on the opposite principle. The U.S. Constitution creates a government restrained from using power against its citizens.
Put another way, the Constitution sets up a government that requires that officials seek permission before taking action. The Constitution is antithetical to the now pervasive attitude of "Beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission."
The Constitution does not create an efficient government. I think the framers intuitively knew of man's lack of self restraint, particularly when it comes to power, and therefore intentionally made our government inefficient. If the framers were alive today I think they would be shocked by the NSA's actions, shocked by the actions of the police in Ferguson, and absolutely appalled by the excuses for those actions. Excuses that put safety and power over liberty, excuses if accepted that erode the democracy we all claim to cherish.