They've Got Their Rights

May 02, 1994|By GREGORY P. KANE

A passion for civil liberties might be an affliction curable by living in some of the nation's public-housing projects.

That is the lesson to be learned from the current flap over the gun sweeps carried out in Chicago's projects. U.S. District Judge Wayne Anderson ruled recently that gun sweeps -- warrantless searches that police conducted to round up firearms -- are illegal. The ACLU filed a complaint on behalf of some tenants who objected to the searches.

But some tenants supported them. Some 5,000 of them signed a petition saying as much. Judge Anderson summed up their sentiments when he read from his ruling that ''Many tenants within [Chicago public] housing, apparently convinced by sad experience that the larger community will not provide normal law-enforcement services to them, are prepared to forgo their own constitutional rights. They apparently want this court to suspend their neighbors' rights as well.''

A very astute observation on the judge's part. Though hardly among the nation's intellectual elite, the residents of those Chicago projects know something that Judge Anderson, the ACLU and other civil libertarians don't -- that the most fundamental right, even more funda- mental than those enumerated in the Bill of Rights, is the right to feel safe in your own home or as you walk down the street in your own neighborhood. Without that right, the freedoms of speech or religion are meaningless, because you'll be too terrified to leave your house to enjoy them.

I am part of a tiny minority that believes the Founding Fathers meant for the Bill of Rights to either protect civilized people should barbarians ever come to power or to prevent barbarians from coming to power at all. The Bill of Rights is a pretty effete document when barbarians have taken over the streets, as they have done in some of the nation's public-housing projects and inner cities.

How have Americans traditionally responded when barbarians have taken over the streets, when lawlessness has run rampant and when, to paraphrase Judge Anderson, normal law-enforcement services are not provided to them? With the lynch rope and the vigilante mob, of course.

As much maligned as the vigilante mob is, an examination of the nation's history shows that vigilantes did bring law and order -- though not necessarily justice -- to the western frontier. (See the report of the National Commission on Violence, ''Violence in America,'' published in 1969.) Compared to lynching and the dubious justice meted out by the vigilante mob, gun sweeps seem a kinder, gentler way of handling the problem.

But the vigilante mob isn't the only example. Sometimes the government suspends constitutional liberties. It's done routinely when martial law is declared during civil disturbances. President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War, as did President Grant to curb Ku Klux Klan terror during the Reconstruction years.

In short, in a crisis or emergency Americans do what is necessary to end the crisis or the emergency. Civil liberties have taken a hike until the crisis or emergency is over.

Judge Anderson, the ACLU and other civil libertarians see no crisis or emergency in the nation's public-housing projects or inner cities. The folks down where the bullets are flying tend to view things a bit more pessimistically. And for good reason. Wire-service stories told of residents buying bullet-proof vests to go to the store; of children having to sleep in the bathtubs and under their beds; of children who wake up screaming at night, and of children who are trained to drop to the ground at the sound of gunfire.

One of the stories said that in one 72-hour period there were over 300 instances of gunfire in a public-housing project. That's better than four per hour. If that doesn't constitute an emergency we've lost all meaning of the word.

We used to boast to other countries about our freedom. Other countries now boast to us about their safety. Our challenge now is to find the delicate balance between freedom and safety.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Sun.

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