From surveillance cams on street corners to NSA interception of email and phone calls, whenever concern is expressed about government intrusion and the increasing diminishment of privacy rights, someone is sure to chime in that “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to hide.”
Does any thinking person actually believe that’s always true? Those brave Germans who hid Jewish children from the Nazis weren’t doing anything wrong – it was their government that was indisputably in the wrong – but they certainly had something to hide.
A variation on this is “If you aren’t doing anything illegal, you don’t have anything to worry about.” Okay – maybe – but that means virtually all of us have something to worry about in a surveillance society. Just because you don’t know you’re doing something illegal doesn’t mean you aren’t, or that you can’t be punished for it. Remember the old adage: Ignorance of the law is no excuse.
Between federal laws and regulations, state statutes and local ordinances, it’s a pretty sure bet that you’re in violation of some of them. There are so many criminal laws on the books at the national level alone that even U.S. Justice Department lawyers gave up on trying to count them. In just one year (2011), according to the National Conference of State Legislators, an estimated 40,000 new laws were passed at the state level and took effect in 2012.
Did you (or your child) ever pick up a pretty bird feather off the ground and keep it, maybe to decorate a hat or create a play Indian headdress? If it was one of 836 species covered by the Migratory Bird Act, that’s a federal offense.
Unlocked your smart phone – the one you paid $700 for and thought you owned? As of this year, that could subject you to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $500,000.
Helped your sister out by taking care of her kids for the afternoon and she gave you $20 to buy your lunch in return? You didn’t report that on your tax return? Busted! All income must be reported, and babysitting for friends or relatives, even if it’s not on a regular basis, is specifically included.
“But, but, but …” you say, “Nobody’s going to actually enforce those laws.” That’s what these people thought:
- The man in Florida who was arrested for releasing 12 heart-shaped balloons into the air in a motel parking lot.
- The South Carolina woman who was arrested for cheering when her daughter walked across the stage at graduation.
- The woman in Michigan who was charged with the heinous crime of “growing a vegetable garden in front yard space.”
- The man in Oregon who went to jail for 30 days for collecting rainwater on his property.
Of course it’s true that these stories are in the news because such arrests are so rare – but the reason most of us get away with going 60 in a 55 mph zone or leaving our Christmas decorations up too long is because, by and large, we don’t get caught.
In the 24/7 surveillance society that we seem to be headed toward, that won’t be the case. As in the movie Demolition Man (one of my favorites for the way it pokes fun at the future), every time we stub our toes and let loose with a mild profanity, we’ll be automatically fined one credit for a violation of the Verbal Morality Statute.
In the movie, it was hilarious. In real life, maybe not so much.