Some laws are very useful. Some are not. Some could be useful, but are enforced in useless ways. Typically the useless laws are aimed at making someone, a politician usually, look good. Useless laws give an illusion that something is being done about a problem and they provide tidy statistics that will hopefully win the politician re-election. The real kicker is that if you question the enforcement of laws or the usefulness of laws themselves, you really can’t help but look like the bad guy, even if the laws are useless. Here are some examples:
The Patriot Act
Though I fear losing some of my freedom and the real possibility of the government abusing individual freedoms, the Patriot Act would seem to be a law that could be very useful, provided that it’s used the right way. When the USA is attacked by terrorists and then decides to conquer two nations within 3 year’s time of 9-11, I get a little nervous that our government sometimes will just do whatever it wants. The reaction of Britain to its own attacks is a good case study of an alternative reaction to terrorism that may be more promising.
In any case, the Patriot Act is not necessarily a bad thing. Of course it’s the instant death of any politician’s career if he or she dares to oppose it in favor of other measures. Just the name ensures that you can’t touch it. If you don’t support the “Patriot Act”, then you obviously must not be a PATRIOT. I think this is what makes Ann Lamott so angry. But when enforcing the Patriot Act, our government seems to have been on a good number of rabbit chases, leading me to wonder, “What are all of the real terrorists doing?” and “Do we have enough people available to track the real terrorists?”
My case in point is the July 8th show of this American Life. Here’s the summary of the show:
“The U.S. government spent two years on a sting operation, trapping an Indian man named Hemant Lakhani whom they suspected of being an illegal arms dealer. It’s one of the few cases that has gone to trial in the War on Terror, and one the Justice Department has pointed to as one of their big successes. In the end, they got Lakhani, red-handed, delivering a missile to a terrorist in New Jersey. The only problem was, nothing in the sting was what it appeared to be. Including the missile.
Prologue. The government had an almost impossible task after the September 11th attacks: They had to try to stop terrorists before they did anything – in some cases, before they even committed a crime. Dr. William Banks, a law professor and head of Syracuse University’s Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, talks about the difficulties of this mandate. (3 minutes)
Act One. Hemant Lakhani, an Indian-born British citizen, had been a salesman all his life. Clothing, rice, oil … it didn’t matter to him what, as long as he could spin a deal. Then one day, sitting in a hotel room with a gangster he happened to know, the phone rang. It was a business friend of the gangster’s, calling from America. The man on the phone was rich, Lakhani was told. Maybe he would invest in Lakhani’s latest venture. So Lakhani started talking to the man over the phone. Pretty soon they set up a meeting at a hotel in New Jersey, to talk business. But when Lakhani got there, the man seemed to be only interested in buying weapons. Illegal weapons. For Somali terrorists. Lakhani, always eager to make a deal, said he can help him out. What he didn’t know, is that the supposed rich business man was an FBI informant, and that he had just walked into an elaborate government sting. Petra Bartosiewicz reports. (30 minutes)
Act Two. Our story about Hemant Lakhani’s case continues, through the sting and the trial. (23 minutes)”
For the sake of emphasis, let me say that the Patriot Act is not a bad thing, but stories like this really worry me.
My example of a useless law is an alcohol law here in Vermont that was recently passed by our Governor. I found out about the law while shopping with my 20-year-old brother-in-law in a supermarket. All markets in Vermont have wine and beer, so I picked up a cheap bottle of wine for a future occasion along with hot dogs, bread, lunch meat, tofu . . . all of the stuff you need for a kicking party. As we check out, the clerk asked for our ID’s. I passed, but Joel said that he was under age (but I was buying). So the clerk said that he could not sell us the wine. The new law states that they cannot sell alchohol to someone who has an under age person with him/her. They must make exceptions for kids with their parents, but if the under age person is a teen, then forget it.
So Vermont successfully stopped me from a wild party with Joel. But here is the useless factor of this law. Once you figure this out, then the under age person waits outside, down the aisle, or at home. You can basically do everything in the same way as before. Just clueless chumps like me who have an under age person with them get hit with the law. This law essentially keeps parents from taking their teenage children shopping with them if they want to buy a bottle of wine. Silly. Useless. But untouchable.
This law will probably stay on the books for a while because who in their right mind would overturn a drinking law? I can hear the allegations now. So even if the law is useless, it made the current governor look good. Hey, he passed laws that will keep alcohol out of the hands of minors . . .